There’s a line in the movie Donnie Brasco that I like, and I think it speaks to both the writer and the art of writing well. Lefty says to Donnie, “Follow the rules, and who knows, maybe one day when they open the books, you get straightened out.”
Ironic that Lefty is talking about membership in the mafia, an organization dedicated to breaking the law and yet has internal rules around how things are done. Independent of what is between the pages, I see all writers as criminals because we perpetuate a fraud, an illusion on our audience. We incriminate, implicate, and make our readers complicit in acts of imagination. Writers are also members of a guild, and there’s a code of conduct to how we do our thing. Therein is the inherent conflict between membership and individuality, between belonging to the group and personal choice.
A writer who violates certain rules does so at great risk. Readers and writers enter a Faustian pact. Fail to maintain interest, fail to have the reader turn the page to the next line, to the next chapter until the end, and you’re busted.
Rules. Rules are meant to be broken.
Writers, however, need to know them first. Break them well, though, and there’s respect, the kind Lefty wants with a capital R. Let’s visit some rules and learn ways to bend them, commit a crime and beat the rap.
Don’t cross the grammar police
In addition to jamming up Spell Check and infuriating your editor, incorrect grammar is considered unprofessional. However, Jane Austen was guilty of double negatives in Emma, Cormac McCarthy dispenses with punctuation and runs run-on sentences like a bootlegger, and E.L. Doctorow strung comma splices together in Billy Bathgate, proving rules of grammar can be broken if you are a sly writer. Let’s look at one repeat offender: the sentence fragment when it’s chosen as a deliberate strategy.
Grammar Nerd Alert: a fragment is an incomplete sentence or idea. “No comment” is a sentence fragment. Editors tolerate sentence fragments in dialogue because people clip grammar when they talk.
Fragments can carry observations of the physical world and establish a mood. Here is double Lambda Literary Award winner Nicola Griffith’s opener to her suspense novel The Blue Place. Here, she breaks Elmore Leonard’s first rule to “Never open a book with weather.” This is an American city seen through the eyes of her Norwegian protagonist, Aud Torvingen.
An April night in Atlanta between thunderstorms: dark and warm and wet, sidewalks shiny with rain and slick with torn leaves and fallen azalea blossoms. Nearly midnight.
Fragments can also relay emotional and psychological states, as seen in this excerpt from Booker Prize winner and Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace. David Lurie is coming to terms with a brutal attack on his daughter. I italicized the fragments.
It happens every day, every hour, every minute, he tells himself, in every quarter of the country. Count yourself lucky to have escaped with your life. Count yourself lucky not to be a prisoner in the car at this moment, speeding away, or at the bottom of a donga with a bullet in your head. Count Lucy lucky too. Above all Lucy.
A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to this theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad. Cars, shoes; women too. There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them.
Use sentence fragments outside of dialogue judiciously. In lesser hands, sentence fragments can signal poor writing, but the two exhibits above demonstrate even the best writers use them for tactical advantages. Overdo fragments and your prose will look and sound like a Western Union telegram.
Only one witness allowed
Remember Rashomon? Witnesses are notoriously unreliable. Many authors use multiple points of view, but only a select few do it well. Hopping heads within the same chapter waves a red flag. Stick to one chapter and shift POV with alternating chapters the way Gillian Flynn did it in Gone Girl. Unless you are George R. R. Martin writing the next A Song of Ice and Fire, stick to a maximum of two to five characters for readers to follow.
“What’s past is prologue”
You say prologue, I say prelude. Like still water invites mosquitoes and malaria, a prologue harbors the threat of narrative summary or, in shop talk, backstory, which slows down your story. Known aliases for backstory are info dump and flashback.
How the past has shaped a character is important, but decide what and when to tell it. Instead of fenced goods out front, there’s greater impact when it is moved deeper into the story. A good example of this approach is in Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter. After readers observe the adult Dexter in action, they learn what happened to the child Dexter and his mother in a storage container later in the book. That creates sympathy and understanding.
But as Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” There are several ways to connect past and present history for the reader. Lisa Gardner used italics for the first chapter to Find Her. She kept it brief, at less than four pages. Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity uses snippets from newspapers to provide context before readers meet the amnesiac Jason Bourne.
Obey the narrative speed limit
While it’s paramount to keep the con alive and the pages turning, some writers feel compelled to create action scenes and force readers to negotiate twists and turns in their journey. Readers will call you out on pointless plotting that is not tied to character motives.
Okay, I get it. The fear is real, the fire might go out doing the slow burn, but there are other ways to work the accelerator. Dialogue is action if it advances plot or reveals character. Set the scene up right, thread in the smallest amount of exposition, and you create tension. Listen to the game between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling below. It’s all subtext and there’s only one line that isn’t dialogue.
“The significance of the chrysalis is change. Worm into butterfly, or moth. Billy thinks he wants to change. … You’re very close, Clarice, to the way you’re going to catch him, do you realize that?”
“No, Dr. Lecter.”
“Good. Then you won’t mind telling me what happened to you after your father’s death.”
Starling looked at the scarred top of the school desk.
“I don’t imagine the answer’s in your papers, Clarice.”
Still, want to ratchet up tension in your writing? Paragraph frequently, but don’t overdo it, since you’re not writing a script. Eyes are attracted to white space and they move down the page faster. Elmore Leonard used this strategy to great effect.
Off the hook
There’s a lot of chatter around writing a hook, the irresistible opener to lure your audience into your story. While writing is seduction, anyone with experience can smell a contrived pick-up line. Pique interest, yes, but rather than craft a jingle, establish a perimeter around the 5Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why, and sometimes How. The 5Ws are as old as Aristotle. Literally. Use the KISS Method: Keep the premise simple. Reread the first sentence of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and tell me it wouldn’t work in crime fiction.
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
This insistence on writerly originality is symptomatic of poor attention spans, the competition between writers for eyeballs and finding an agent, in my opinion. A writer tells a story and disappears into the background (T.S. Eliot said words to that effect), so rely on your relationship with language to develop what feels natural to you. Every career writer and criminal has a tell, a signature, a style all their own and it’s often unconscious and subliminal, and it takes time.
So the true challenge in breaking the rule for a hook is to create a sustained voice that pulls in the reader and keeps them there until the last page.
Let’s close this case file by returning to Lefty. “Maybe one day when they open the books, you get straightened out.” Wise guys talk in code, and in the circular logic of their mean streets, straightened out means success, that you’ve made it. Keep an eye on the rules, know When, Where, Why, and How to break them, and you too might get straightened out. It’s all good, forget about it.
What rules have you broken? How did that work? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page!
Gabriel Valjan is the author of the Roma Series and the Company Files with Winter Goose Publishing. He is a member of Sisters in Crime, and lives in Boston.