Rule Makers and Rule Breakers

Terry Bisson offers “60 Rules for Short SF (and Fantasy)” on the SFWA Blog. I’m of two minds about the list.

The writer in me recognizes golden nuggets here deserving hours of contemplation.

The fan in me, well, can hardly wait to search for stories that have gained immortality while breaking these very rules.

Since this is a fan blog, can you guess where we’re going next?

4. The more extraordinary the idea, the more ordinary the language. Experimental writing is for quotidian events. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf understood this.

“’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison, won the Hugo and the Nebula. With its pleonasm about jellybeans and an absurd litany of techniques devoted to hunting the Harlequin (“They used Raoul Mitgong, but he didn’t help much”) this story succeeds while ostentatiously violating several rules of writing. In fairness, paraphrasing the well-known line, if it was easy to do successfully, everybody would be doing it. Some of these rules probably exist to spare writers the frustration of trying unsuccessfully.

5. Keep your timeline simple. Flashbacks are out of place in a short story.

Famous exception: “All You Zombies” by Robert Heinlein. I believe there are true flashbacks here, not merely the shuffled chronology that occurs in any time travel story.

6. Never write in present tense. It makes events less, not more, immediate. Past tense IS present tense.

Probably true, notwithstanding the famous first sentence of “Fondly Farenheit” by Alfred Bester which begins, “He doesn’t know which of us I am these days…” The line is so admired that it’s almost overlooked that the rest of the classic story, collected in Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 1, is told in the past tense.

7. No dialect. Jargon is OK but only if doesn’t have to be explained.

Might have to go along with this one. However, I will mention that Poul Anderson wrote in a diction uniquely his own. On top of that, he frequently gave characters from backwaters of one or another empire a mild accent to emphasize the point, but it wasn’t really dialect. Not in the sense that Kipling wrote in dialect.  As a teenager I admired Poul Anderson’s style, tried to imitate it, and ruined myself as a writer ‘til I gave up the experiment.

I was also reminded of “The Mindworm” by Cyril Kornbluth. It’s not written in dialect, but the plot turns on the protagonist repeatedly hearing bits of another language that he fails to comprehend until it’s too late.

24. A short story should cover a day or two at most. A week is stretching it.

The point is well-taken, it is hard to do justice to a breadth of time and still keep a short story moving. Yet there must be lots of successful sf short stories that break this rule. For example, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny spans several months. This story is another SFWA members selected for the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 1.

35. No funny names, please.

Yes, it’s best not to hit sf readers over the head with Dickensian names like Scrooge, Pecksniff and Sweedlepipe.

And a writer can overdo those peculiar collections of syllables presented as names of alien characters – a good example is Aycharaych the Chereionite, a bad example is any name without vowels and the letter Q in the middle.

But what about actually hah-hah funny names? Satirical names? Like Larry Niven’s little in-joke on humanity, naming a Kzin diplomat “Speaker-to-Animals”? 

36. No magic carpets or Once Upon a Times. A fable is not a short story. A joke is not a short story.

“A joke is not a short story?” Perhaps a good piece of advice for many writers, but by no means a governing rule of the sf genre. Otherwise, how can we explain the immortal Ferdinand Feghoot?

I welcome anybody else who wants to play to consult Bisson’s list and point to stories that successfully (famously?) violate them.

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7 thoughts on “Rule Makers and Rule Breakers

  1. Ferdinand Feghoot is neither, but Fredric Brown did many joke/short stories, particularly “Answer,” which survives as the former.

  2. Playing along: A. Bertram Chandler has two MUCH anthologized shorts that are nothing but punnish (bad) jokes: Navel Engagement and Fall of Knight.

    Not playing along: Mike, the challenge is too easy. Science Fiction IS the literature of violation.

  3. #7: possibly, in SF, the most famous major violation is Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where much of the book is told in Loonie dialect. Won a Hugo, many people feel it’s Heinlein’s best book and hence the best SF book ever, etc.

    I do think that the surge of present-tense books lately is because people were told “it’s a rule” that they couldn’t do that. So far, to me, they’ve simply proved that, in fact, you can’t do that.

  4. I, on the other hand, found “Moon is a Harsh Mistress” literally unreadable for that very reason. I know I’m in a minority here.

    Bisson’s rules, like Bob Silverberg’s essays in Asimov’s a few years ago about plot (all stories, he said, are either about a series of attempts to solve a problem, and either a) succeeding or b) failing in an interesting manner, or else they’re pointless and boring – though Silverberg has broken this “rule” many times as both author and editor), should be seen as Useful Guidance for the Beginner, not as absolute canon of quality.

  5. From the sidebar of my blog:

    “Rules exist for good reasons, and in any art form the beginner must learn them and understand what they are for, then follow them for quite a while. A visual artist, pianist, dancer, fiction writer, all beginning artists are in the same boat here: learn the rules, understand them, follow them. It’s called an apprenticeship. A mediocre artist never stops following the rules, slavishly follows guidelines, and seldom rises above mediocrity. An accomplished artist internalizes the rules to the point where they don’t have to be consciously considered. After you’ve put in the time it takes to learn to swim, you never stop to think: now I move my arm, kick, raise my head, breathe. You just do it. The accomplished artist knows what the rules mean, how to use them, dodge them, ignore them altogether, or break them. This may be a wholly unconscious process of assimilation, one never articulated, but it has taken place.”

    — Kate Wilhelm

  6. It should be pointed out that these are “rules” for SHORT SF and/or fantasy and, the last time I looked, “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” is a novel.

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