Even I don't have an MFA so I don't know the right lingo, most of what I heard was familiar. But I had a genuine Aha! moment when Tara Ison (author of "Rockaway," "The List," and "A Child Out of Alcatraz") wrote a quote on the white board. My memory of it is only approximate, and I can't even remember who said it, but here's the gist:
Plot is about what a character needs and what he's willing to do to get it.
Now for years I've taught that plot (aka story) is about what a character WANTS, and that conflict growing out of characters with competing goals. But somehow changing that "wants" to "needs" and combining it with: and what he's willing to do to get it, set lights flashing in my head.
So a character may WANT to win a contest, get the guy, find the treasure, destroy the broomstick on the wicked witch... but driving the want is a need. And if that character is going to risk life and limb, then the need has to be profound and personal.
After hours over glasses of wine, we talked about various 'rules' that are useful but should not be taken as gospel. Like don't start a novel with a dream or weather. Because lots of terrific novels start with nightmares and storms. (A Wrinkle in Time begins with "It was a dark and stormy night," just for instance.)
But this idea that story has to be driven by what a character needs does not seem to be to be one that can be ignored.
So have you found any rules that are sacrosanct (or at useful to follow); and are there others happily you break with impunity?
RHYS BOWEN: It depends on the rules. There are some that are sacrosanct to me like playing fair with the reader, not switching point of view within a scene. Showing not telling. Not bombarding the reader with backstory or information. Not having two characters with similar names. Not introducing us to too many characters at once.
But there are many supposed rules for mystery novels that I break all the time. I don't mind starting a book with weather, with a dream, with conversation if I feel they are needed. I don't always have a body for a hundred pages or more.
I never manipulate character to fit the plot.
It comes down to whatever works for me.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I'm looking out the window, staring at the sailboats on the Charles, and wondering if there's a "rule" I would never break.
Huh, okay. I would never change point of view in the midst of a scene. I often start a scene with one line of dialogue, but rarely two, because I am always careful to make sure the reader knows where the scene is taking place.
I would never have a stupid secret, like missing twin, or sex change operation.
I won't have a phone call where someone says: I can't tell you on the phone, but meet me later. (You KNOW what's about to happen then, right?) (Although it's fine, and pretty funny, if the meeting goes as planned.)
I guess--I always ask myself: Is this believable, original and interesting? Do I care? And if I can say yes, I pretty much do whatever works.
Oh, that's what Rhys just said.
LUCY BURDETTE: Okay, just thinking off the top of my head, without any wine...I really really try not to insert a plot twist or clue just because I love the idea. If it doesn't work with the story and even more importantly, the characters, I try to deep-six that little bit of brilliance.
Second, also hard, is try not to have the heroine trot into dangerous situations without a damn good reason. Hayley Snow is a food critic not a police officer, so I try to keep that in mind.
Oh and one more little thing--try to make sure SOMETHING HAPPENS in each scene, that it advances the plot or shows something critical about the characters.
My hub asked me yesterday: "So what's happening with your plot?"
Me: "They're eating bad Japanese food. That's it." Sigh, back to work...
DEBORAH CROMBIE: What Rhys, Hank, and Lucy said:-)
Interesting that we are all obsessive about changing viewpoint within a scene. I HATE that!! It will make me put down a book.
And I am VERY big on Play Fair in crime novels. I don't like unreliable narrators, and I think the readers must be given all the information available to the sleuths, be they amateur or professional.
Like Rhys, I've started books with weather, and with dreams, and often there isn't a murder until a good way into the book. So who makes up these silly rules, anyway???
I guess (without a glass of wine or two) that my big unbreakable rule is Everything Must Advance the Plot. And sometimes that mean throwing out things I really like. And not putting in things (and characters) I really like.
HALLIE: And there you have it! The Reds have spoken. But really, every writer has his or her own rules that they write by and rules they ignore.
So what "rule" might a writer break that will make you put down a book?