Guidelines Instead of Rules: A bit of preparation…

First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate’s code to apply and you’re not. And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.

Captain Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean

Tomorrow I’ll begin a series that will last a month of Fridays on some of the most common problems I address with my history classes at the collegiate level in their formal prose.  I’ll then translate that advice into ways we can improve our fiction.

Before I do, I wanted to make an important point:  Many of the “rules” that we must work with in academic prose quickly transform into “guidelines” (or even disappear altogether) when we start talking about fiction.  I do understand this.  In academic work, the goal is to communicate with absolute precision.  Therefore, strict adherence to form, function, and specific meaning are important.  A clear definition always trumps stylish vagaries.  In fiction, we find something much different.  Some of the best, most interesting authors are the ones who “violate” the rules of formal prose in ways that take us by surprise and we therefore find refreshing, enjoyable, or even disconcerting.  So why even bother to relate the one to the other?

The answer is simple and two fold.  First, whether you are talking about academics or fiction, many of the good practices of human communication–organization, clarity, point of view, etc.–are similar and in some cases even identical.  As authors of fiction, we may have need to ignore certain “norms” intentionally from time-to-time to create a mood or set up a plot twist, but there are also other times when those norms are indispensable.  Second, before you can intelligently violate one of the “laws” of formal prose and reap the side effects, you really must understand that the “law”says to begin with.  If not, whether you actually achieve your end or not is left up to blind luck.

So, as we proceed, please keep all this in mind.  It isn’t my intention to try to hem in anyone with rules that don’t apply.  They’re guidelines, and, like Barbossa, you should feel free to ignore them whenever it seems advantageous!

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