The Rules of Art

Recently I came across a style guide for aspiring novelists. ‘Avoid adverbs’, it thundered authoritatively.  ‘Use no more than two every three hundred words,’ it continued dogmatically.

I wince when anyone tries to lay down the law about what makes good and bad art.  I mean, yes, there is good and bad art, but good art is not created simply by adhering to accepted laws or following approved formulas.  Adverbs (you know, the words ending in -ly) can be lame and redundant, but rationing lame redundancies to 0.66% of the text isn’t going to fix the problem.  Better to understand what adverbs do so you can decide when you should use them and the benefits of doing without them.

In all forms of art there are rules.  Once you know what the rules are, you can choose to bend them or break them to achieve a certain effect.  When I wrote the script Synchronicity for the cop show Wire In The Blood I deliberately broke a cardinal rule of narrative, and resolved the story with a coincidence.

Now this in most cases is a mortal sin, for which the original Greek term is Deus Ex Machina.   The lazy or inept playwright, having placed his characters a dramatic dilemma, would resolve it by having a God lowered into the action on a wire (ie by a mechanism, geddit?)  This God would decree an arbitrary ending for the characters.  “Audiences hated that shit two thousand years ago,” screenwriting guru Robert McKee likes to declare*, “and they hate it now!”

I used a coincidence to resolve the story because the theme of Synchronicity was accident and chance.  In a normal episode of Wire In The Blood, a series of murders would occur that appeared random at first, until Tony Hill, our eccentric psychologist hero, would put the clues together, identify a pattern and profile the killer for the detective.  In this episode, encouraged by script editor Claire Hirsch, I tried to tell the story the other way round: the murders appear at first to have a pattern, but in time our hero realises the pattern is an illusion, and the killer is truly operating at random.  Hill comes close to despair until, in a pivotal scene, he sees that there is no such thing as a truly random act, and that no-one has an infinite number of choices.   He identifies six paths the killer might take, and invites the detective to cast a die…

I thought it was clever, myself.  Everyone who read the script seemed to agree it was frightfully clever.  The one person who didn’t, unfortunately, was the director.  He cut that pivotal scene and substituted some garbled, voiced-over moment that made no sense whatsoever in any terms.  He’s not on my Christmas Card list, I’ll tell you that for nowt.

I still believe it was a valid artistic choice, even though it broke the rules of conventional narrative.  I knew what I was doing.  I just failed, I suppose, to convince the director.  I forget what his name was now, and I can’t be arsed to look it up.

As for adverbs… yes, they can often be lame and redundant.

”’Welcome to Buckingham Palace!” the Prince smiled, politely.’

What’s the word ‘politely’ adding there?  If the Prince says “Welcome” and smiles, we can see he’s being polite – we don’t have to be told.

”’Welcome to Buckingham Palace!” the Prince smiled, coldly.’

Now that’s more interesting.  The adverb offers information that wasn’t obvious, and very economically, which is always good.  But this device is like a certain sort of joke – even if you change the punchline it’s still the same joke, and with repetition the humour can soon wear thin.

I suppose that’s why it’s a good idea to ration adverbs: they’re usually telling the reader something he or she can infer from the context – the author is rubbing the reader’s nose in it.  Used ironically the adverb can be effective, but that effect will wear off from overuse.  Best to keep adverbs to a minimum… say, two every three hundred words.

*The Curse Of Robert McKee is worth a blog all to itself.  “Where’s your Act Three Climax?”

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