Following the Rules
Blogger: Wendy Lawton
I’m currently reading P.D. James’ first Adam Dalgliesh novel. I’m a British mystery/crime aficionado and have been trying to mend the gaping holes in my familiarity with key authors. Earlier I read James’ Austen tie-in novel, Death Comes to Pemberley— loved it. Next I read one of her Cordelia Gray novels because I especially enjoy amateur female detectives. but then I realized I won’t know P.D. James until I dip into Adam Dalgliesh. So I’m currently reading her first, Cover Her Face.
I’ve had to chuckle as I noticed so many broken fiction “rules” as I’m reading. Here are a few:
Point of view— We talk about avoiding “head-hopping” by staying in one viewpoint until an obvious break when it is made very clear we are seeing the story from another character’s viewpoint. It’s a great rule and calls for real strategy in being able to introduce information important to the plot.
Baroness James flagrantly ignores this rule. From paragraph to paragraph we are in different heads. In the same paragraph she has several characters notice things about other characters. In another scene, she moves around the room giving each person’s thoughts in quotes like this: Deborah thought, “I ought to dislike her less now that she’s dead. . ..” Next paragraph begins the same way: Felix Hearne thought, “They can’t be much longer. The thing is. . ..” She goes on until she has let us see each person’s thoughts.
Use of adverbs— the author thinks nothing of adding an adverb to a dialogue tag. He spoke reluctantly. She said shortly.
Elaborate setting descriptions— These days we’re told to avoid spending pages on descriptions of rooms, gardens, towns, unless they are key to the book. We’re told that readers want a quick read and James Michener-esque descriptions will no longer work. P.D. James doesn’t have us enter a cottage or a stable without sketching every detail and every corner for us.
So, does that mean our novelists of today are that much better writers? Or, as many a newish writer will claim, does it mean you are a far better than P. D. James or any of the others who don’t follow the strictures of 21st century fiction writing?
No. Despite noticing these quirky techniques– because I can’t help reading with a critical eye– I’m thoroughly enjoying this book. For the genre, it’s a satisfying read. I’m more than two thirds into the book and I have no idea whodunnit. She’s built the characters with skill and I can see the foibles and strengths of each one. I can sense murder motivation for a number of them. For a mystery fan, it’s exactly what we expect. Plus she’s drawn the village, the manor house, the stables and the town with such skill that we see character clues in each garden, sitting room, tea service and chapel. Those of us who read British mystery expect to be charmed by the setting.
So does that mean that modern-day novelists can break the rules as well? Yes and no.
No, because Cover Her Face was written in 1962– more than a half century ago. Styles change and modern readers do have an expection of a quicker read. Omniscient viewpoint is definitely out of style. We expect a stronger word choice and that rarely includes adverbs. (Remember, if you have to use an adverb chances are you’ve just chosen the wrong verb.)
But yes. You can break the rules if you know what you are doing and have the skill to carry it off. Writers serve the story. If the story can best be told by bending or breaking the rules– go for it. Only the reader will know if you’ve succeeded. The risk is that the first reader to judge whether you pulled it off or not might be the agent or editor reading your submission.
I’m not finished with the book yet but I have to say it’s a delightful read, despite my eye catching the now-quirky techniques. They actually add to the charm of the book.
So what about you? Have you tried to break rules judiciously? Can you name other authors or books that break our sacred rules? Do they do it effectively? Does it bother you when someone criticizes a successful classic author or bestselling author based on current tastes?
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