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  • What are the real rules of writing?
    by alexhazel at 21:26 on 18 June 2015
    I'm prompted to pose this question as a result of recently re-reading my favourite novel of all time - Jean M. Auel's "Clan of the Cave Bear". It's a novel that I can't put down once I start reading it, and which seems to compel me to re-read the other 5 novels in the series.

    What's interesting about this is that, from a technical perspective, the novel seems to break many of the often-quoted "rules" of how you're supposed to write stories. In fact, it occasionally breaks the rules of good grammar, syntax and even punctuation. Here are some examples of the rules that it breaks:

    • Paragraph breaks in the wrong places, or else no paragraph break when there should be.

    • Separate sentences joined by commas, instead of being separate sentences.

    • Changes of point of view within the same paragraph - sometimes more than once.

    • Lots of "tell" instead of "show".

    • Brain dumps of the author's research notes as padding (more obvious in later books than in Clan of the Cave Bear).

    So why do I find it such a compelling novel? Well, put simply, Auel spins a really good yarn. The characters are very vivid and distinct, they are mostly sympathetic, or at least believable (despite most of them being a different species to us - Neanderthals). There is also a lot of action, mixed in with the dialogue, so the story keeps moving forwards.

    Having thought about this during my recent read-through of these novels, I came to the conclusion that they demonstrate a simple fact: the only "rule" is to tell a compelling story, and tell it well.

  • Re: What are the real rules of writing?
    by Anna Reynolds at 17:15 on 20 June 2015
    added the rest of your subject there...
    I have never heard of this book, but now want to read it to see all these examples above...I am constantly reading books these days that break major so called writing rules, and it fascinates me. Particularly things such as characters being able to observe themselves when it is supposed to be their own POV, things like that, or POV switching rapidly in middle of sentences/paragraphs. I guess if you notice this, you are either extremely pedantic (me) or not truly compelled by the story, or maybe we need to kick these writing rules into touch and as you say, tell a really great story really well?
  • Re: What are the real rules of writing?
    by alexhazel at 18:08 on 20 June 2015
    As far as I know, Jean M. Auel has only ever written this one series of books, and they are (in chronological order):

    The Clan of the Cave Bear
    The Valley of Horses
    The Mammoth Hunters
    The Plains of Passage
    The Shelters of Stone
    The Land of Painted Caves

    All are set about 30,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, at a time when "our" species of humans - Cro-Magnons, or "Anatomically Modern Humans" - lived alongside Neanderthals. That aspect, alone, makes them compelling stories, just because it's the closest anyone will ever come to imagining how people might have lived all that time ago (or, indeed, what Neanderthals were really like).

    As an aside, I've recently read a (non-fiction) book called "Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans", by Brian Fagan. Before reading this, I knew Jean M. Auel had done some research to inform the stories, but I hadn't realised quite how faithfully her stories reflect how we think people lived back then. There's considerably less artistic license than Hollywood employs in, for example, films about Space.
  • Re: What are the real rules of writing?
    by alexhazel at 18:16 on 20 June 2015

    I guess if you notice this, you are either extremely pedantic (me) or not truly compelled by the story,

    Or else you've read the story enough times that you're starting to notice the nails and joints, as it were. I hadn't really spotted the frequent POV switches until my most recent read-through of the novels, nor had I noticed the extent of the "tells".

    The writing technique improves a little, as we move through the series, but it still breaks lots of rules even by the last novel. Unfortunately, the quality of the story-telling is starting to suffer, by then, as well, so the faults become more noticeable.
  • Re: What are the real rules of writing?
    by FelixBenson at 20:07 on 22 June 2015
    I read the first three of these books a long time ago, maybe 1988 or 89. The first book in the series especially really has stayed with me, and I agree with you - it's a real page turner. But although Jean M Auel does tell a good story, I think the for me the topic and setting were quite unique too, or they felt so to me at the time. It was intriguing - speculating about the 'missing link' - which is probably something that I was (and am) really interested in. I think the way Auel showed the neanderthal and the next-generation humans crossing over and existing side by side (as separate tribes) is intriguing and tragic. It was this idea of the evolutionary failure of neanderthals that fascinated - how close did we get to dying out, being in the wrong line? That tragedy is underneath the story as the main character's physical and mental capabilities outshine the tribe she's adopted by.

    Though it's quite soapy, I've read lots of soapy page turners over the years - big, chunky books by good storytellers, but I don't often remember the details. But I remembered Ayla, Broud, Jondalar and Creb really well. It's hard to tell looking back (as I haven't re-read these books), whether these characters were really well rounded or just that there was some alignment between idea, plotting and story which meant that everything came together in a memorable way. I wonder if it's a combination of the writer's ability to tell a good yarn and a really good idea that feels new that is behind the success of these books? 
  • Re: What are the real rules of writing?
    by alexhazel at 20:21 on 22 June 2015
    Yes, I think the setting helped sell the story for me. That, together with Ayla's character. I always find strong female characters compelling, especially when their strength comes from something other than fighting ability (which always feels like a lazy and cliched way of making a female character seem strong).

    Ancient history (or, rather, pre-history) fascinates me. It's a time we can never hope to understand much about, and the time setting of these stories is a pivotal era during the evolution of our species. Neanderthals went extinct around 30,000 years ago, so around the time when these stories are set. Personally, I think we probably saw them off, as we have done with many other species.
    I just read the following article on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-33226416

    Edited by alexhazel at 21:09:00 on 22 June 2015
  • Re: What are the real rules of writing?
    by Anna Reynolds at 11:39 on 30 June 2015
    Just musing over this again and thinking of writers who ignore/break rules about punctuation and more. This made me remember the joy and liberation of reading James Kelman, Faulkner (for starting many sentences with a conjunction, amongst other things), Dickens particularly for his run-on sentences...