Saturday, February 1, 2014

Breaking the Rules

While waiting at the local CVS for my prescription to be filled, I browsed through a bookrack of current New York Times best-sellers to see how top-flight novelists began their stories. One pattern I noticed: They often broke the rules of fiction writing. Don't believe me? Read this first paragraph from a recent NYT list-topper and imagine what a panel of contest judges would say about it:

Jack Armstrong sat up in the secondhand hospital bed that had been wedged into a corner of the den in his home in Cleveland. A father at nineteen, he and his wife, Lizzie, had conceived their second child when he'd been home on leave from the army. Jack had been in the military for five years when the war in the Middle East started. He'd survived his first tour in Afghanistan and earned a Purple Heart for taking one in the arm. After that he'd weathered several tours of duty in Iraq, one of which included the destruction of his Humvee while he was still inside. That injury had won him his second Purple. And he had a Bronze star on top of that for rescuing three ambushed grunts from his unit and nearly getting killed in the process. After all that, here he was, dying fast in his cheaply paneled den in Ohio's Rust Belt.--David Baldacci, One Summer

I can see the judges' penalty flags flying, can't you? "Don't begin with a flashback." "Too much telling, not showing." "Universal POV doesn't engage the reader." etc. Yet Baldacci's second paragraph hooks us:

His goal was simple: just hang on until Christmas. He sucked greedily on the oxygen coming from the line in his nose. The converter that stayed in the corner of the small room was on maximum production, and Jack knew that one day soon it would be turned off because he'd be dead...
We soon learn that Jack isn't holding on till Christmas just for sentimental reasons, but...well, I'll not spoil the story for you!

My point is, even though Baldacci may have broken some sacrosanct rules for novel beginnings (and you may disagree with me on that point), he drew readers into his story with hints of foreboding in the next few paragraphs. Established best-selling authors may feel more freedom to do this kind of thing, but I believe we newbies need to exercise the same kind of iconoclastic courage if it draws our readers into the world we imagine.



  1. I agree with you on this, but think genre writers are held closer to the rule book than others.

  2. There is only one rule of writing good fiction: there are no rules. Who said that?