Famous Australian playwright, Michael Gow, once said in an extraordinary writer’s workshop given at JUTE that “there are no rules, only examples”. I cannot recall if he was saying something brilliantly original, or quoting someone else who is awesome. Yeah. That would be because I don’t read enough examples.
I guess what he meant was that if we look at an example of something that works, then it works. No blanket rules apply to everyone, in every creative medium, in every circumstance. No hard and fast rules apply to writing a play or a novel, as much as we like to think there are rules we can stick to in order to ‘get it right’. The world is full of well-written work attempting to get it right, much of which currently languishes in various socks and undies drawers.
What the advice tells us is that we should look to examples of fine work, work that has been popular or well-received or even venerated. Observe the examples of structures or language or punctuation, character or plot device. Did it work? If it worked then it’s useable and open for adaption by your own fair hands. If it somehow failed to work for you (or indeed for an audience or readership) then how can it be changed to work better?
Knowing good examples means everything. Trust me, Michael Gow knows a LOT of examples. He is a silo filled to the brim with knowledge and the application of writing examples. National bloody treasure, he is. He’d probably hate me saying that.
Ok. let me give you an example of an example which I think works and I may use later. If you’ve ever written a play script you’ll know it has specific layout rules which literary managers and producers and directors like because they need the script to be easy to read. I’m not saying one should ignore those rules. Getting literary managers and producers and directors to read your work is a good thing. But the other day I unearthed a single page of an unknown play, perhaps one that I had been working on in a long-gone workshop. I was just about to throw in the bin when I noticed some unusual punctuation:
Intuitively, you know when you read it what the writer was looking for in terms of rhythm and attitude from both actors. The layout, although unorthodox and certain against the ‘rules’ of laying out a script so that all character names are aligned left, works. It is an effective way of conveying one character’s distraction or lack of empathy or disinterest in what another character is saying.
It’s a small example of how we can be on the look out for examples, rather than rules. It applies to much bigger components of writing as well. That of how to structure a play away from linear expression, how to create multiple scenes, how characters interact, how to piggy-back ideas on movement, nuance and gesture. Excitement!!
So I’ve decided I got to get cracking. I’ve simply got to make a bigger effort in reading new examples and studying the way the craft of writing moves. It’s a slippery beast this writing thing. Every 5 seconds someone somewhere is finding a great way to break the rules.