Reader Friday: Are There Rules for Good Books?

Reader Friday: Are There Rules for Good Books?

Reader Friday

Photo: Ansel Adams with Camera from Wikimedia Commons

My photographer son had an informal holiday party (virtual, of course), and trivia games were played, including quotes from famous photographers. One that caught my interest was this quote from Ansel Adams.

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

Do you think this this applies to books, too?

**I’ve been vaccinated, my waiting period is up, and am finally going to see my mom for the first time in over a year. She had COVID, got the antibody infusion, and her doctor said it’s safe to get together. I’m on the road (and in the air) today, so I won’t be around to reply to comments. Don’t let that stop you from leaving them!

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28 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Are There Rules for Good Books?

  1. That is a terrific question, Terry. I have to go with the “no rules” rule.

    Enjoy your visit with your mom! Safe journeys!

  2. Yes, there are rules for good books: conform the text to the page (left to right for English, maybe up to down in another language), use quotation marks for dialogue, and let the reader know the names of the characters. But there are authors who know when to break the rules. Danielewski’s text is all over the place (even upside down!) in his House of Leaves. Rooney never uses quotation marks in Normal People. In McCarthy’s The Road we don’t learn the father and son’s names.

    I suspect the only real rule is there must be conflict to have a story. And yet, there’s Baker’s The Mezzanine which is just a long string of thoughts, the main character’s observations about his corporate life. So, rules? What rules?!

  3. There are rules, but that doesn’t mean they don’t change in different circumstances. The opposite of rules is chaos, and books are not chaos. Some philosophy for your Friday morning.

  4. Good question. I think there are rules but they vary by individual in some respects. I know I have particular standards for what makes a book ‘good’ that other people don’t share and vice versa. How many times have I heard people sing the praises of some novel only to go pick it up myself and be bored out of my skull and asking “What’s the big deal?”

    And Douglas makes a good point in his comment above–sometimes you can read a book that starts glacially slow but turns out to be a great read. Love it when that happens!

  5. If we define “good books” as those that have engaged readers and have sold successfully, I would say “no rules.”

    But…that doesn’t change the rule for writers, that we must investigate those books to learn from them. What techniques did the author use and why did it work?

  6. Sadly, I think this is the main drawback to commercial fiction: there are rules. Tropes. Beats. Archetypes. Manuscript-lengths. Chapter lengths. Titles. Names. Thousands of rules and nearly as many books teaching writers these rules. But, alas, we love genre fiction and want to find many readers.

    On the other hand, literary fiction has absolutely no rules. If you can imagine it, you can write it. Literary authors are like power hitters, they can lead the majors in both homeruns and strikeouts and a success. When it’s good, it’s great. When it’s bad, it’s a snooze fest.

    How many times have you read a classic and thought, I’d never get away with that? Yet someone did and it’s awesome.

  7. Very interesting. I think you need to engage the reader. Maybe that’s the fist, second, and third rule of Book Club.

    I’ve tried many times to support other indie authors and I have said no to reading their works 90% of the time. Mostly because there’s no hook in the synopsis or lack of disturbance on the first page. Also no death stakes—the protagonist had no risk or nothing to lose.

    I think James Scott Bell is living inside my brain. (Me—shaking my fist.)

  8. Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

  9. I vote for no rules. However, for those of us who are relatively new, learning the guidelines from books on the craft of writing helps us keep JSB’s rule: “Don’t bore the reader.”

    Terry, Have a safe trip and a wonderful visit with your mom.

  10. There are “rules” (guidelines might be a better word), but some can be broken if you do it with purpose. Have fun with your mom, Terry! That’s so great to hear.

    • I’ll never forget the lines in the first Pirates of the Caribbean where Elizabeth Swann says to Captain Barbossa, “According to the rules in the Pirate’s Code-.” and he goes, “Those aren’t really rules. They’re more like a… guideline.”

  11. A fiction writing mentor of mine liked to say, “there’s only one rule of fiction: you must affect the reader emotionally. The rest are guidelines.” I agree with that (and Sue, above). I’m with JSB, too, “Don’t bore the reader.”

    I’m so glad you have been vaccinated! Enjoy your visit with your mom!

  12. To a point, a book has rules, grammar. A great story can’t be enjoyed if it is unreadable. But after that, we are back to A. Adams. There are books that I enjoy that would be considered trash in some circles. I have tried to read, “important books of our time” and been bored to tears in understandable slop. S. Rushdie comes to mind.

    For sure, “Don’t bore the reader”. Rushdie doesn’t know that one.

  13. “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”
    Hector Barbossa – Pirates of the Caribbean

  14. I taught writing for over 30 years and was professionally trained to take apart fiction, so, hell yeah, there are rules. We mainly talk about craft here, but there are all kinds of rules, otherwise. We can break them if we know what they are, and we do it for a very good reason, but we know we are breaking them.

    Adams was an instinctive creator where he just knew what to do with a camera when he clicked that button. He was also being disingenuous because back in those pre-digital days, he had to understand shutter speed, etc., and he also had to do the chemical wash bit to develop the pics. So, yeah, rules.

    Congrats on being able to see and physically touch your mom. That’s awesome. I got my first shot, yesterday.

  15. No one has asked, but the one rule to rule all rules is make it matter. If you get that and viewpoint right, you will have a readable if not craft-perfect book.

    What is “it?” Each scene you write, every important character, and the book itself.

    How do you make each scene, character, and the book itself matter to the reader?

    The reader must care. I’m talking not just interest in what is happening but an emotional investment.

    That murder being solved might be an interesting puzzle, but if it doesn’t have an emotional component for the reader and the main character, most readers won’t care.

    I’ve put down three different mysteries in the last month because the victim was such a pile of scum that I wanted to give the murderer a medal, and the sleuth had no emotional investment in solving the crime. I didn’t care about any of it so I stopped reading.

    In a romance, the love story should be life changing for the two characters and emotionally fulfilling for the reader. Two people shacking up forever for great sex isn’t emotionally fulfilling. Two people having a true meeting of the minds and hearts is.

    No quest in the world of fantasy will matter much if the reader doesn’t care about the characters, and the goal of the quest is selfish.

    So, check every scene, the important characters, and finally, the book itself to make sure that you made it matter.

  16. If you think about it hard enough, there are rules to everything, aren’t there? Breathing requires a clear airway. Walking upright requires certain levels of muscle tone and balance. Writing requires a knowledge of language and a certain facility for spelling and punctuation. Photography (both then and today) requires knowledge of how light, aperture and exposure times affect the composition of the shot.

    But to my mind, those are less to be classified as “rules” than as instincts and knowledge. Just as we don’t give a thought to our autonomous nervous system until it falters, we don’t (I don’t, anyway) spend a lot of time thinking about the basic tools in our writing kit.

    When it comes down to the actual writing of stories, I do not believe there are rules. There is only what works and what doesn’t, and that varies from one writer to the next–one reader to the next, for that matter. As long as the writer always maintains focus on the reader’s experience, making sure that when everything’s done, the ride will have been worth the effort, nothing else matters.

  17. I’ve always thought this quote by Adams was interesting and somewhat in conflict with his behavior. He wrote three books: The Camera, The Negative, and The Print. All three are chucked full of rules. And before anyone asks, yes I’ve read them.

    Of course there are rules and they aren’t guidelines. The are more like Traffic Signs. Read any First Page Critique on this sight and the traffic signs are there.

  18. Well, we can always fall back on the tautological. If people don’t realize that it’s a book, it probably isn’t a good one. If no one beside the author and the author’s mother can manage to read it, same thing. A book has to have a reasonable amount of bookness before it can a good book.

    Operationally, it has to function like a Skinner box of the imagination, with the reader continuing to turn the page instead of pressing a lever. And, to be even an adequate book, upon reaching the end, the reader needs to neither regret nor forget the experience, at least not immediately. Probably the degree to which a reasonable number of readers fail to regret or forget the experience is the measure of goodness. But anyway of achieving it is fine, so that’s not a rule.

  19. Not sure there are “rules” as much as there are “conventions” and the reader’s expectation: entertain me.

    According to me, most best-selling authors write within the conventions in order to entertain – a tiny minority challenge SOME of those conventions for more artful purposes, but still manage to entertain. Cormac McCarthy and Carson McCullers comes to mind.

    Also according to me, the most successful authors of both camps are masters of their craft, are well-aware of the conventions, and understand their audience. They write with purpose.

  20. Circulating around the world of fanfiction … I think there are actually less rules than professional authors think there are. These readers read hundreds and hundreds of stories _every month_. They beg for new fandoms to try out, and they don’t care if they’re not familiar with the source material. They rarely complain if something is badly written. They just want the particular feels they’re after, be it romance, slice of life, mystery, horror, smut, or whatever. It’s remarkable. I guess the only rule here is: decide what feel you’re trying to deliver, and deliver it in spades.

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