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Picturing a World

Rules are made to break

One of my hobbyhorses is “rules” for writing fiction, e.g., “Never begin a story with a line of dialogue”—say, what?!? In response to a gorgeous James Gurney post on Sargent’s watercolor technique for alligators, a commenter remarks, “I remember when I started out submitting transparent watercolors to show that there was a rule against using white and mixing in any other media. Eventually I realized it was very limiting for any creative work … ‘Rules’ are detrimental to artists. But learning techniques to help you get the effect you want are very helpful.” True, true, true.

Whenever you run across clear advice on how to achieve a desirable effect in fiction or deduce an approach for yourself, be grateful.

If your goal is simply to get into print or keep turning out product that will sell, then playing it safe by following set plans or conventional advice may be the way to go. It’s never a bad idea, moreover, to review advice now and again. See how much you agree with and what makes you say skeptically, “Hmmmmm.” You might try Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling. Or Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules. A wittier take may make you laugh as well as think, as with Kurt Vonneguts’ 8 rules.

By the way, this goes for readers, too. Please don't judge fiction writers by whether they adhere to some arbitrary set of rules you learned somewhere. Judge whether they move you, make you catch your breath, tickle your imagination, or open world to you—even one with alligators.

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