Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rules Vs. Ideas

-- Adrienne Miller

When I was a teenager my older sister and I used to go to the movies all the time, and I remember how horrified my mother’s co-worker became when she found out that we had gone to see Thelma and Louise. 
“Don’t you worry that they’ll get Ideas?” she asked. 
My mom, as it turned out, didn’t worry about the Ideas we might have picked up during our two hours in a darkened theater. Chances were we weren’t going to start rebelling against every male authority figure in our lives just because we saw Geena Davis shoot up a gas truck. I was a highly impressionable fourteen when I saw the movie, so I wasn’t completely untouched. I did walk away with a lifelong appreciation of Brad Pitt’s abs.
Ideas seem to be the thing that Rules fear the most. Ideas scare the crap out of Rules. And those of us who have from time to time have gotten one of these Ideas are watched with a sharp eye. 
Ideas shake things up. They mess with the status quo. Ideas are, by their very nature, untested, and there is no guarantee that they’ll be Good Ideas.
The Rules, on the other hand, keep everything safe, everything orderly. And safe and orderly are good things if you’re trying to cross a street or drive on the freeway. But what if you’re writing a book?
Let’s go right for the sacred cows, shall we? How about that Rule that says that adverbs are bad. Adverbs make for bad writing, lazy writing. 
Well, Jane Austen’s Persuasion is one of my favorite books of all time, and it’s so chock-full of adverbs you can’t go more than a couple of lines before tripping over a modified verb. Now, you can’t tell me that Persuasion is a bad or lazy book. You might not be an Austen fan--fair enough--but you can’t deny the importance of her novels or their devoted fan following.
Is it the adverbs that make Persuasion a great book? No. But if you edited them out it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be the book that I love. In taking away that one simple thing you would be draining out the voice of the book and, with it, the charm. 
So, what should we do with this Adverbs Are Bad Rule if good books can be brimming with them? I’m going to throw out an Idea. 
They’re not. They’re just not popular right now. They’re not in vogue. It’s not a Rule. It’s a Fashion. The pendulum will swing back the other way. Hell, if bellbottoms can make a comeback then so can adverbs. Give it another fifty years or so and our characters will begin to sing cheerfully and smile widely again.
I’m not saying that we should all start stuffing our manuscripts with adverbs. That’s the thing about Ideas. They don’t live the same kind of black or white lives that Rules do. Ideas can be both forged from solid logic and make terrible sense at the same time. My opinion--if you want to be a popular fiction writer, then you should write in the popular style. 
So, which pony am I backing in this Rules vs. Ideas race? Both are well and good. Both have their place. There are no easy answers. We all just have to Reason it out for ourselves.


Barbara said...

So you're advocating that we (gasp) think for ourselves? How radical of you. I'll think about it, check the Rules, and see if I can't come up with an Idea.

Adrienne Bell said...

Barbara - I know, crazy, right? It's a habit that's always led to trouble, but I guess I'm too old to go changing now.

Tom Neely said...

Well said my dear, well said.

Juliet Blackwell said...

Yay for adverbs!!! Judiciously applied, obviously. And I'm with you...the world's not black and white, making it awfully tough to stuff into black and white rules. Lovely post!

Unknown said...

I'm terribly afraid of wily adverbs and their ridiculously bad reputation.

Seriously, (oops!), love the reminder that Rules are often for the benefit of those who have something to lose, not for the benefit of the rules-follower. Long live the guideline.

For writing "rules," I insert one of two silent phrases in front:

"unless you write like Austen,"
"Unless you have a good reason to (not to),"

structure + mindlessly applied Rule = formula

genre = structure, not formula. Just sayin'

thank you for reminding me that I can use adverbs (instead of driving myself over a cliff)...

Unknown said...

I wonder why adverbs fell out of fashion. And those rules are made by people too interested in Rules and not enough in Story. :)

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