May 15, 2004

The sixteen first rules of fiction

In an earlier post I confessed that I was "still trying to come up with a convincing account of just what it was about his very first sentence, indeed the very first word, that told me instantly that I was in for a very bad time stylistically" with Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Then today I heard a fiction writer (Eleanor Lipman) talking on an NPR program (The Splendid Table) about how to indicate what characters are like by describing the food they order, and she mentioned the first rule of fiction writing. Suddenly I felt very foolish, because it was very simple, but it said everything that was needed.

The rule was "Show it, don't tell it." That hits it nicely on the head. Look again at the opening line of The Da Vinci Code:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery.

What's so inept about that first noun phrase is that a good fiction writer shouldn't have to tell us that the curator is renowned, and probably shouldn't even have to tell us that this is a museum curator staggering into the Grand Gallery of the Louvre late at night trying to forestall an attempt on his life. It should become clear to us as the action proceeds. In a short newspaper obituary you have to pack in phrases like "renowned curator" and such other details as the age of the deceased, but a competent novelist doesn't do that in an opening action sequence. That's what I should have said, and was struggling to say in the earlier post.

I must say I was surprised, though, when I went to check via Google that this really was the First Rule of Fiction and found, with a search on "first rule of fiction", that in fact there are at least sixteen (16) First Rules of Fiction. In addition to Show, don't tell, which is mentioned on two or three sites, I found these (they are roughly paraphrased; often the rules are only hinted at):

Evidently this fiction-writing business (in which I am not an expert) has more rules than I thought. Perhaps if I limited myself to novels that respected all of the rules it would get me down to such short lists that it would be easy to pick the next novel I should read (I don't know if I dare admit this to you, but I read one novel a year, whether I need it or not; I don't have time for more than that, and occasionally I skip a year — or waste a year the way I wasted 2003 on The Da Vinci Code).

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 15, 2004 05:20 PM