The Seven Cardinal Rules of Writing Fiction

Yesterday, I attended a writing workshop with Greg Hollingshead called "Weasel Brain: Writing Stories." To my relief, Greg explained his bizarre title in the opening:

Why did I call it ‘Weasel Brain’? Let’s break this title down into its two, constituent parts. First, you’ve got to remember that your reader is an intelligent and receptive being. Whether or not they are a ‘sophisticated’ reader is debatable — still, your average reader knows more about narrative, more about storytelling than we often give them credit for. As humans, we live in story. We make sense of our lives through narrative. Your reader is like a weasel: intelligent, but with a short attention span. If you’ve ever watched a weasel in their natural habitat, they are acutely aware of their surroundings; they are always moving on, to the next thing. A weasel likes its prey alive, not dead. If it’s dead, it’ll lose interest. The same goes for writing. The only way to keep your reader interested is to keep the story alive. Keep the questions open, and make the reader do the imaginative work.

The workshop was more enlightening than I anticipated. Greg, who is the director of the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre, outlined the seven cardinal rules of writing fiction:

  1. Show, don't tell.
    If poetry is all about metaphor, then fiction is all about metonymy. "Art is indirectness," to quote Joseph Conrad.

  2. Strip it down.
    The pen is not a camera. Every detail ought to have dramatic significance.

  3. Don't moralize.
    The focal point of morality is character. What is moral? Anything that enables the protagonist to get what he or she needs. What is immoral? Anything or anyone that stands in his or her way.

  4. Write ironically.
    To quote the immortal T.S. Eliot, “That is not what I meant at all; that is not it, at all."

  5. In fiction as in life, people don't listen to one another.
    The friction in fiction comes from a conflict of needs.

  6. No unnecessary mystification.
    Don't withhold information unless this provides dramatic effect. Honestly, it's just confusing.

  7. Establish your author-ity.
    The reader wants to trust that you know the rules of writing fiction. Once you've established that you're a reliable narrator, then and only then can you break the rules.

To my chagrin, I realized that I am more of an essayist than a novelist. I asked Greg whether novelists typically have a readership in mind, as literary critics do. He said that it's hard to picture your 'readership' without becoming overly cerebral and self-conscious — that it's best to just write for yourself, and hope someone resonates. This is encouraging, as I suspect writer's block stems from a fear of rejection.

One contention I have is with Greg's assertion that good, literary writing is bound to a finite 'answer' or interpretation. This strikes me as somewhat old-school and prescriptive (picture the professor pointing his finger at the student, saying "no, that is incorrect, it is not about love at all"). In my experience, good literature is all about a multiplicity of interpretations. Count the secondary literature that Shakespeare alone has generated! I suppose that Greg and I would have to hash it out...I'm not about to raise the postmodernist flag, screaming that good literature is about anything. Still, as I watched Romeo & Juliet this past Saturday, the stupidity of the protagonists really struck me. Have I become bitter and cynical about soul mates and true love? No, I've just had life experiences since I last read the play during my first year of university. If readers are part of the artistic process, then life experiences are the basis of all literature. Life has given a whole new dimension to what is arguably one of the greatest literary dramas.