Breaking the Rules

Okay, I’ve been writing about Writer’s Rules on and off since firing up this blog in 2002. What about when the time comes to break the rules?

Depends on what rules you break. For example, I’m planning a novel in which nobody gets killed. For me that’s a definite leap forward. I’ve got one friend who always razzes me about the body count in my books – but I never try to make it gratuitous. However, the novel will still have a bar scene and a love triangle, both of which can also be found in most of my works.

But I don’t know if that’s so much breaking the rules as a personal pattern. Sort of like if Spielberg made a movie without some sort of running undercurrent of conflict with a father figure.1

I’m talking about breaking the rules of fiction as we know them – showing instead of telling. Breaking the momentum for lectures about one thing or another that the author finds relevant within his or her own little corner of the universe – you know, the kind of thing that Heinlein used to do all of the time. Well, by that time, Heinlein was Heinlein and could get away with that sort of thing.

What about a new author who does that sort of thing. Career death, right? Or at least a hard mash on the pause button while his/er writing style cleans itself up?

Yeah, pretty much. But occasionally you get a first-time author who breaks the rules but manages to pick up four dice and roll boxcars all the way across. Kind of like what happened with a book I just finished reading, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson.

So what did Larsson do that broke the rules?

First of all, he did a lot of telling instead of showing. That’s rule number one in fiction, you show something happening instead of telling. However, I think Larsson had his reasons for telling. There was an enormous amount of information that had to be conveyed in order for the rest of the story to function, and most of it was in the opening chapters. So much so that it made me wonder if he had been in touch with an editor at Baen books.2 It was so prevalent that, as I read the sample of the book on my Kindle, I seriously thought about not picking the book up. Still, there was something about the characters that had me curious – and I figured that at $5.50 for the Kindle edition, I could afford to not finish it if I really hated it.

I think part of this was because of Larsson’s background as a journalist. Telling was his natural storytelling medium, because showing was what his sources, the ones who appeared in the footnotes did. Eventually the telling faded out and the showing began, although it popped up again from time to time in annoying fashion. But by then the characters had their hooks in me.

Second, Larsson also had a few moments where he lapsed totally into journalismese and lectured us on certain aspects of Swedish society. Yeah, it fit what was going on, but it broke the flow of the story. At least when Heinlein lectured, he had one of his characters do it, in character, for the benefit of another character. It’s still annoying, but at least it was shoehorned into the flow of the story.

Note here that some of these complaints could also be attributed to the fact that the novel was written in Swedish, then translated into British English. I have no problem with British English, having lived for a time in Canada and watching a lot of British stuff on PBS and BBC America. So I knew what the word g-a-o-l spelled and some of the other British idioms that no doubt sat in for Swedish idioms. I was actually kind of surprised that there wasn’t an American English version – although maybe this was the case for the domestic hardcover and paperback. I don’t know.

Then there was research. As a journalist, I’m sure Larsson did his homework, but he overlooked one thing that was the most jarring mistake for me – he had a character threaten another with a Glock pistol. Then the character set the safety on the Glock before putting it down. There is no active safety switch on a Glock, unlike probably every other pistol made. And yet I see safeties being set on Glock pistols all over the place in thrillers.

People, go to the local gun shop and ask the friendly helping salesperson about the difference.3

Finally, there was the fact that he was running two mysteries at once, and for me the most interesting one resolved first, leaving a quarter of the book devoted to tying up the other one, which was much more obvious than the first. That and the remaining mystery proved to be a cakewalk, which I think hurt the book’s pacing in the closing section. I’m not sure how I would have handled something like that. I may have to write a book with two parallel mysteries in it just to see how I would.

So what did Larsson do that kept me reading until the end?

There were lots of little things. I liked the way Larsson took the concept of a locked room mystery and twisted it up. There were interesting references to literary characters, and I like the way he paralleled what was happening to two characters in two different places – the same thing happening to each, but with two totally different attitudes and results.

Most of all, the characters were fascinating. Larsson managed to build up a world populated by tragic and broken people, all with their own fascinating strengths and appalling weaknesses. The most fascinating was watching these characters collide and ricochet off of one another and the chain reactions they created. Great stuff.

And how did Larsson get away with this?

I suspect he knew the rules. There are references to mystery authors throughout the book as one of the characters reads thrillers to pass the time. If Larsson knew titles and authors, he no doubt knew the books, too. Which means he knew the genre. Which is the day’s lesson.

If you want to break the rules, you still have to know them. But you also have to have writing power behind you to offset those broken rules. Which means you still have to hone your chops and skills.

Finally, I suspect that as a journalist, Larsson had already written his first million words before he started work on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

How far along in your first million are you?

  1. Although he may have by now – I just don’t follow him that closely.
  2. Baen was the house that wanted me to rewrite A Death of Honor so the entire world was explained in Chapter One. I had a polite conversation via letter with the editor about why I thought this was a bad idea, and in the end we agreed to disagree – and I would later place the book with Del Rey.
  3. Okay, maybe Larsson didn’t have this option open to him because I don’t know what the gun laws are in Sweden. But there is such a thing as the Internet, which is put to good use in Larsson’s novel.
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