Knowing the Rules so You Can Break Them

There is a reason why I divided long form Story in business terms in The Autodidact’s Dilemma. A very good reason. And believe it or not, it has more to do with Art than Commerce.

Besides the fact that every writer wants to be read and the best way to learn whether or not your Story is reaching people is to tally the number of people willing to part with their hard-earned cash to experience your work, understanding exactly how and why certain kinds of Stories find an audience much faster than others allows an artist to make informed choices about just what it is he wants to devote years of his life to creating.

Knowledge is power.

That is, wouldn’t it be better knowing up front that your novel about the conquest of an adolescent by a pedophile will in all likelihood fail to reach a wide readership no matter its packaging? I think that knowledge frees the writer from worrying about placating a preconceived audience with cliché or trying to shock them just for the sake of shocking them.

The Professional writer, whether consciously or subconsciously, knows just where his idea sits on the Literary and Commercial bell curve long before he starts to work. And some take on the challenge to prove a commercial “truth” wrong. They succeed or fail based on their Story Craft. Incredibly inventive line by line writing matched with superlative Story form charts new ground. While lackluster line-by-line matched with derivative Story execution fails to do much of anything.

There are innumerable reasons why the premise of Lolita (pedophile pursues adolescent and succeeds) should alienate an audience, but for the great majority of readers, it doesn’t. Vladimir Nabokov probably didn’t literally say to himself “I know this book I’m writing will be impossible to actually sell, but I gotta be me. I’m gonna do it anyway.” But I’m confident he did set out to challenge himself in a way no one else would dare. He knew that writing about a taboo subject, not just writing about it, but writing about it from the point of view of the predator, was a ridiculous business decision.

It was obvious in his day. Even today I don’t see many willing to go down that particular “what if I make a pedophile the protagonist of my novel?” road.

Remember that Nabokov wasn’t writing in our post modern, digital age. There weren’t 300,000 books coming out every year trying to be more weird or controversial than the next. The marketplace was much smaller back then and the business elements much easier to intuit than they are today. There were only gatekeepers, no distribution networks were available for self-publishing.

His chances of getting Lolita published back then pale in comparison to today.

But I suspect Nabokov knew what he was getting into.  And I also suspect that knowledge freed him to think up a way to counter the obvious.  That is, he used the power of Story form to take a seemingly impossible “what if” and make it viable.  He knew that the most irresistible element of a Story is to give his protagonist a mission, a quest, something in the offing that the reader can’t help but want the protagonist to achieve.  Was story form so powerful that it could drive a reader to cheer on a pedophile? Who’d of thought the answer to that would have turned out to be yes? Apparently, Nabokov.

To know the rules of the Story Business and of the Story Craft gives you the freedom to break them. Not knowing the rules is a recipe for disaster. Trust me, Nabokov knew the rules of Story and the rules of publishing. That is why he was able to break them so skillfully.

Lolita is a classic “quest/hero’s journey” story, the one that is so deeply ingrained within our cells that we can’t help but root for even the most despicable protagonist like Humbert Humbert to get what he wants. Nabokov knew that the structure of the Quest story seduces readers. He knew that with a lot of hard work, he could use it to get people to not just sympathize with a monster like Humbert, he’d get them to even perhaps empathize with him. Talk about powerful. The book was so good it was banned.

The point is that you should know what you are getting yourself into before you dive in. Nabokov did. That’s why he used the power of Story form to beat the odds. You should too.

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8 comments on “Knowing the Rules so You Can Break Them

  1. Kent Faver says:

    Thought provoking Shawn. I did not read Silence of the Lambs, but Anthony Hopkins was pretty likable as Hannibal Lecter in the film.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Do yourself a favor. Carve out a weekend. Make a big pot of coffee. Buy the book and begin reading it on a Saturday morning. You will not regret it. The movie was great (it was great because Jonathan Demme knew all he had to do was shoot the book) but reading it and seeing the precision of Harris on the page is a delight.
      All the best,

      1. Mary Doyle says:

        I have to second that recommendation — it’s a powerful story, and Hannibal Lecter is an unforgettable character. Thomas Harris had the courage of his convictions and we were lucky enough to see the end result not only on the page but then beautifully translated on the screen. This doesn’t happen often – Gone With the Wind, Lonesome Dove come to mind.

  2. Jim Woods says:

    It is amazing how the power if story hooks us and makes us cheer for even murdering drug dealers as it did with Breaking Bad or Scarface. In Breaking Bad, the viewer even wants to make excuses and rationalize Walter White’s behavior.

  3. Kris Spero says:

    I agree Jim. I find myself cheering for the despicable Frank Underwood in House of Cards. Now that is writing!

  4. PJ Reece says:

    I must read Lolita…again! I love to examine stories for how the heck the writer does it. But here, Shawn, is something to think about — we don’t so much anticipate the protagonist’s success as their failure. It’s uncommon to see a protagonist simply achieve what they set out to do. Rocky, for example. The hero “dies” to what they wanted in Act I and then “grow up” to another more mature goal which they attain by story’s end. So, in fact, it’s the hero’s failure that we sense at the beginning of the story. As William S. Burroughs says: “Desperation is the raw material of drastic change.” We want our protagonists to get punished to the point of desperation. Conventional Story mechanics don’t dwell on this point, perhaps because it is what I call “sacred mechanics.” What say ye?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      First thanks for chiming in. I’ll speak to your points later on in future posts, when I dive into the world of what I call the INTERNAL GENRES, which are very much a part of conventional story mechanics. My gut is that my INTERNAL GENRES are very similar to what you call SACRED MECHANICS. I’m sure you’re familiar with Norman Friedman’s Forms of the Plot. Journal of General Education. 8: 241-253 from 1955, which concern the internal arcs of traditional protagonists and inform the foundational ideas behind my Internal Genre classifications. And I couldn’t agree more with the Desperation quote… The great stories always reach the All is Lost moment and the point of no return. And there ain’t no better place to witness change than when we pin ourselves in places where we can’t “not change.”
      Glad you’re here!

  5. Anti-heroes always excite me for some reason. You could see the same pattern being applied in almost every TV show we’ve seen in recent years. Walter White/Heisenberg, Dexter Morgan, Tony Soprano, etc…

    What makes us root for these despicable yet likeable characters?

    Your post gives a great answer to that question.

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