Breaking the Law
By Tim Tharp
Sometimes you just have to break the law. At least when it comes to writing novels. See, I just did it by using a sentence fragment. Writing workshops and how-to guides are filled with great advice, but when new novelists treat these rules as unbreakable commandments, they very well could end up with paint-by-numbers products that even they aren’t satisfied with. And that’s okay. When I was starting out, I wrote a whole novel just for practice. But once we know the rules, it’s time to let the desperado out.
Up front let me say that my main interests as a novelist are character, voice, theme, and inner conflict. Not that I don’t plot out my stories, but for me the plot is there to serve those ingredients rather than the other way around. That’s where breaking the law comes in for me.
So let’s start off with a big one—Write what you know.
I get it. Don’t write a novel about space ships if you don’t know about space ships. You don’t want to have your intergalactic space captain shouting orders to throw more wood into the furnace in order to outrun the evil Zorg. Unless you’re writing steampunk. At the same time it’s hard to stay interested in writing something you already know. It’s a lot more fun to be an explorer.
Here, I’m not talking about the workings of space ship engines but the workings of your characters hearts and minds and even your own heart and mind. I’m often asked if my characters are based on real people. Well, no they’re not. I’ll have a physical description in mind, but I discover who the characters are during the planning and drafting process. If this causes me to rework the plot, then I rework the plot.
The same goes for the theme. It’s a mistake to start out with a solid thesis and then make the story fit it. That’s boring for me. I know what the general theme is and then explore it and come out with a better understanding when I’m done. And then I revise to emphasize what I’ve learned. For example, in my novel BADD a girl has to come to grips with the changes in her war veteran brother. BADD is her term for bravery, but I wanted to explore an alternative to the usual guns and fistfights type of courage. I didn’t know what that would be until I got further into the planning and drafting stages and discovered more about the courage of everyday people, especially women. Not only is that a great reward for a writer, but it will keep your book from sounding preachy to readers.
Law #2: Show, don’t tell.
Again, great advice. Using concrete details to evoke emotion is more powerful than telling how the character feels. Why tell that your character is feeling alienated when you can describe the oil pump jack he’s looking at as “a rare animal cut off from its rightful tribe”?
But here are two reasons you may want to break this law. First, you can slow down the pace of your story when necessary by having first person narrators reflect on their pasts. For instance, in my novel The Spectacular Now, Sutter Keely loses his girlfriend in a dramatic breakup. The emotions have been running high, so it’s time to change the pace by having him sum up his past relationships and question why they never work out. Now we have some room to breathe before the next dramatic moment.
Second, giving a first person narrator time to tell opinions, philosophies, or even backstory is a good way to establish personality and voice. Trying to show everything can turn the first-person narrator into a camera instead of human being. Sutter Keely is somewhat of an unreliable narrator, often rationalizing his behavior to himself, so when he takes time out to reflect on his past relationships, readers can understand what his problems are even when he can’t. And he can exercise his voice more fully by waxing on about his troubles. Readers get to know him better. They can hear his personality rather than just seeing what he sees.
Here’s an excerpt:
Now, thinking about my exes is like looking at a flowerbed on the other side of a window. They’re beautiful, but you can’t touch them.
I have no regrets, though, no bitterness. I just wonder what the hell was going on inside their brains, inside their hearts, back in those days when we should’ve been getting closer and closer. Why did they want a different Sutter than the one they started out with? Why is it that now I’m friends with every single one of them and it’s always fun when we run into each other? Why is it that girls like me so much but never love me?
He’s not just explaining his feelings to the reader. He’s trying to explain them to himself, and in doing that, the reader thinks and feels along with him.
Law #3: The protagonist must prevail in the end.
Sure, stories can lift us up when we fight through struggles along with a character and we come out winning. But must all stories end that way? Look at Icarus—he didn’t get a chance to use those wings twice and come out soaring the second time. Romeo and Juliet? Spoiler alert: They die at the end.
Tragedies, large and small, can also be cathartic. We see the consequences of wrong decisions and actions, and although we may hurt along with the characters when they suffer those consequences, that pain is not only instructive but cleansing. Like I always say, sometime you have to journey down to that sweet, sad, beautiful broken heart of the world if you want to get sanctified. Therefore, The Spectacular Now—the book, not the film version—ends like it does. And that’s all I’m going say about that.
Other writing laws include forbidding the use of adverbs and insisting on a clear linear plot, though experimenting with time shifts has been done so often it has lost its experimental edge and become something of a law of its own. But I think you probably get the picture by now. Writers are creative. We resist hard-and-fast rules, but if we absorb them, we can turn them into part of our creative process. And then, when we want, we can go desperado, pull out our six guns, and shoot those laws full of holes. As long as we have a good reason.
About the Author
Tim Tharp lives in Oklahoma where he writes novels and teaches in the Humanities Department at Rose State College. In addition to earning a B.A. from the University of Oklahoma and an M.F.A. from Brown University, Tim Tharp has been a factory hand, construction laborer, psychiatric aid, long-distance hitchhiker, and record store clerk. His first novel, Falling Dark (Milkweed Press), was awarded the Milkweed National Fiction Prize. Knights of the Hill Country (Knopf Books for Young Readers) was his first novel for young adults and was named to the American Library Association’s Best Books of 2007 list. Tim’s YA novel, The Spectacular Now, (Knopf Books, Nov. 2008) was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and has been turned into a film of the same name. His subsequent novel, BADD, examines the relationship of fifteen-year-old Ceejay McDermott and her beloved older brother, a war vet who has trouble fitting into civilian life. His newest novel, the suspenseful Mojo, released in April.
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About the Book
SUTTER KEELY. HE’S the guy you want at your party. He’ll get everyone dancing. He’ll get everyone in your parents’ pool. Okay, so he’s not exactly a shining academic star. He has no plans for college and will probably end up folding men’s shirts for a living. But there are plenty of ladies in town, and with the help of Dean Martin and Seagram’s V.O., life’s pretty fabuloso, actually.
Until the morning he wakes up on a random front lawn, and he meets Aimee. Aimee’s clueless. Aimee is a social disaster. Aimee needs help, and it’s up to the Sutterman to show Aimee a splendiferous time and then let her go forth and prosper. But Aimee’s not like other girls, and before long he’s in way over his head. For the first time in his life, he has the power to make a difference in someone else’s life—or ruin it forever.
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