Playing the Game: Rules and Experiment

I can't yet weigh in on the Rake's Progress debate without having read the books in question, but being a fan of some postmodern aspects and a scourge to others, I'd like to weigh once more on rules in my own recent viewing/reading experiences.

“Rules are meant to be broken” appears to be the mantra of Robert Altman. Alice McDermott, in the Oct/Nov 2000 Writer’s Chronicle article “Bend Sinister: A Handbook for Writers,” wrote that no one can tell you how to write, which I took to mean something along the lines of Altman’s rote quote. Yet I wonder: Do they really mean that?

I submit that it is the very rules the give us pleasure. If someone plays a fine game of tennis, we admire his skill. If someone swims in the Olympics, we may appreciate the fine, smooth technique or their power.

While you can bend or break a lot of “rules” in fiction (usually those which weren’t rules to begin with, but artifacts that helped certain kinds of stories achieve a satisfactory “intercourse”), there are probably some rules that are pervasive or overarching (“über”) that, when broken, can only allow at best an interesting experience.

A friend of mine, whose opinion I admire, went to see Gosford Park and hated it. I only recently saw it for myself and discovered why: It was marketed as a murder mystery. As a mystery, it sucks. The strength of the film is not that it breaks the rules of a murder mystery, but that it plays by its own rules: It is essentially a finely detailed fictional documentary of the life of the English upper class and their servants. If people went in expecting those rules, more would have come out appreciating what the filmmakers accomplished. If the film had gone into a little more depth with each character, I might have suggested the film was genius. Unfortunately, most of the stories are necessarily cut short due to time constraints; however, to go into more story would risk--if excessive--pushing it into soap opera, which Altman himself labeled it. In fact, examining the deleted scenes, one finds that most of what they attempted to do in expanding the stories would have slopped over into excess (except the last deleted scene which I thought marvelous).

But are there any über rules that Altman ought not to have broken? Well, as our scientific pals recently discovered, if even intelligent humans are given more than four variables, they don’t follow what’s going on. For literature, I surmise that including more than four story threads will only confuse viewers (which isn’t to limit stories to only four major characters unless you want the reader to follow each character as a separate story). Now some readers love to be dumbfounded by art, but they can’t really talk about art in an intelligible way, so why should we pander to them?

In the commentary track, Altman mentions again that rules are meant to be broken in conjunction with “Never cut on a pan shot.” “That sounds like a stupid rule to begin with” was my first reaction, not knowing why someone would suggest such a rule, but then Altman’s breaking the rule accomplished nothing as far as I could tell. If you break a rule, you should know why it was first suggested as a rule and why you broke it (see McDermott’s quote emphasized below). Altman’s MASH broke rules to good effect: nudity, sex, profanity, medical gore, improvisation away from the script. Why? The film was about Vietnam, so he broke the rules in rebellion to a culture that created those boundaries. MASH made today would still be interesting but soon forgotten. Some of these rules that Altman created with MASH, however, he still carries along into later films to lesser effect. Blessing a jeep is improvisational genius in MASH. The separate threads of conversation in the “upstairs” dining room of Gosford Park, while realistic, are mostly superfluous and, therefore, expendable.

McDermott seems to be aware of the rule/no-rules seeming dichotomy:
In a recent workshop at Sewanee, Ernest Gaines said..., “No one can tell you how to write your stories....” And then a split second later, there passed a shadow of utter dismay.... “Then what the hell are we doing here?”

I think this implies that each writer must come to a sense of personal rules, but these are rules that must be communicable, probably based on older rules. McDermott demonstrates how the rules are “broken” in Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister (Now just because Nabokov gets away with some of this doesn’t mean it was genius or even good but simply he followed what he felt the narrative needed):
A first sentence made up of three phrases joined by semicolons, followed by a single-word sentence.... Blatant alliteration, second person and first person in novel that is to be predominately third person, a detailed description of a puddle--can you do that?... Are you allowed to have the whole first page of the novel go by without indication of who, what, when, where, or why we should keep reading?

But really it doesn’t take long to get at enough of the who, what, when, where, or why to keep reading, so I’m not sure he really broke any rule there. She also points out he uses other supposed taboos (although he’s hardly the first to do any of these--it’s just most beginning writers do it poorly):
the manipulative use of dreams to give background and develop character. Long, delightful, but didactic passages that however briefly put the story on hold to explore the nature of thought, God, Shakespeare, school yard bullies, the futility of translation... [and a] final blatant authorial intrusion

But she does derive rules even from these supposedly broken ones:
[T]ake your reader by the scruff of the neck and make him see the world you are calling forth, remember the appeal of language used well and the necessity of voice, of the human, and in the simplest descriptions, and remember, too, that this is fiction you are writing, where every detail is chosen and every word purposeful and a necessary part not only of the sentence it is contained in but of the entire work as well....

The emphasis is mine, of course, but she emphasizes it, too, by more or less repeating the advice. She goes on to talk about finding telling details of characters as opposed to cataloging them (although that can be done too--if done well, of course).

So rules are here with us. The rules help us appreciate the form. If it’s a mystery, we know we will be examining clues and motives. If it’s science fiction, we know that we will be thrilled by the manipulation of science. And so on. It may be important to remember that (although I plan to point out seeming exceptions) if you break some rules, you are probably not so much “breaking” anything but rather no longer writing within a certain form, writing within another form altogether, or inventing a new one on your own. No crime has been committed. But to break rules, you should both know them and know what you hope to bring about in their breaking. If you want to "break" rules within a form, that requires mending the fiction to otherwise conform to the rules.