Since I’ve become quite serious about writing and publishing my books, I’ve been encountering a lot of people willing to help me craft the best masterpiece ever. At first, I found it easy to ignore them: not because I thought I already mastered the written word perfectly, but because I’ve always thought that you can’t teach creativity. I thought the only way to improve my writing was through practice, and that rules only constrained and prevented creativity.
If writing has its own rules, I thought, how comes there are so many different stories out there? And how can each one of them spark different feelings in each reader? Why are some stories more appreciated than others?
Before I wander off, the point I want to make this time is that writing in some way has many things in common with another passion of mine: jigsaw puzzles. I’ve been fascinated by them since I was a little child, and I remember spending countless hours with my mother trying to fit pieces together, tile after tile. Once we measured each other against a 4000-pieces one, and in the two months it took us to finish it we used to stay up until 3-4 AM, even though I had school in the morning and my mother had to go to work.
The rules for completing a jigsaw puzzle are just a few, and (apparently) simple: the tiles must fit with each other in shape and in color, and the final result must be a humanly understandable figure. There are exceptions to this last rule, but you really have to hate yourself to measure up against something like this. Because yes, despite having just this small bunch of rules, jigsaw puzzles are difficult, and knowing the rules is not a guarantee that you’ll ever finish one of them.
Writing, in a certain sense, is the same. There is a small set of more or less fixed rules about plot, pacing and character, but knowing these rules per se is not a guarantee that you’ll ever finish writing the story or that it will be successful. You definitely should follow them, but you should follow your gut too. It seems impossible to blend the two approaches, but this is what good writers (and good jigsaw puzzle solvers) do.
One of the best pieces of writing advice I heard recently came from the founder of The Write Practice: in one of his classes, he gives his students a fixed method to guide story plot and theme, together with exercise books that the student has to follow as they develop their story. Still, as he was introducing the course, he paused and told us that his workbooks were meant to be a guide, not a prison. Keep in mind the rules, but know that there’s more to it (for the good and for the bad) and that stressing too much on rules can prevent us from finishing the job.
To me, this concept links writing to yet another discipline I’m trying to pursue: photography. In taking a good picture, a photographer has to consider the famous exposure triangle and a few compositions rules (usually about lines and color), but those rules alone are not a guarantee that they’ll ever get a stunning photo. Following them strictly leads to a result that is technically correct, but it might not convey any feeling to the viewer.
Writing is the same: rules about pacing, stakes, character arcs, and plot yield a “technically sound” story, but will it ever become a masterpiece? It’s not guaranteed. This comes as a bummer to someone like me, coming from a mathematical background, because in science there are usually rules and steps that, if followed, yield an expected result.
And so we get back to the original question: what can a writer do to learn to write a compelling story? What’s the point of Creative Writing classes and MFAs out there if they don’t actually guarantee that people who take them will ever become a good writer? To me, there’s still a couple of very good reasons not to overlook them, the first one being: Practice makes perfect.
First of all, measuring ourselves against something usually means that we get better at it, no matter what (as long as we put in the work, of course, but I think we’re all at a point where if we study something, we chose to do it). Even though we might not feel like making any progress, and we feel we might never be able to use them, we’re learning those rules and making them ours. This leads me to the second reason about those rules, which is something I’ve been told about photography but applies very well to writing (unfortunately, not to jigsaw puzzles): Only someone who masters the rules of the discipline can break them and produce something good.
If I don’t know anything about the rule of thirds, or about the weight of the objects in a picture, I can just point my camera at a scene and release the shutter without minding any composition rule, but the result won’t be good. If, on the other hand, I master composition and decide that I have to bend or break one of its principles to “add” something to the picture, I’ll know exactly what to do to avoid screwing up the shot.