Monday Motivation: You must obey the rules of writing, unless you don’t

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

Writing has rules, yes? Rules of punctuation. Rules of grammar. Rules regarding cause before effect (the first should come before the second). Rules regarding point of view. Rules regarding structure. Rules regarding sentence length…

So many rules.

And then you come across writers who ignore or flaunt the rules.

Cormac McCarthy, who doesn’t use punctuation to demarcate dialogue.

Jennifer Egan, who wrote an entire section of A Visit from the Goon Squad as a PowerPoint presentation.

James Joyce, who flouted almost every rule there is in Finnegans Wake. (Even the title was a violation of the rule that a possessive noun should take an apostrophe.) He drew on eleven languages in the composition of his opus incredibili and mangled them all in the process.

One of the sets of “rules” we spend some time exploring on our courses concerns point of view. In any given scene, we say, unless you’re writing in the omniscient third person, it’s best to stick to a single perspective. If you mix perspectives, we point out sagely, you risk confusing your reader.

In other words, every scene needs to be written from the moral and perceptual perspective of a given character. Often, the entire book is written from this perspective. Other narratives share out the perspective between two or more of the characters. Notably, George RR Martin, in his novel sequence, A Song of Ice and Fire (more popularly known as Game of Thrones), wrote from the perspective of more characters than you can shake a stick at. And he did it wonderfully…

But actually to mix perspectives, well, that’s another matter altogether.

Or is it?

I have just read the most remarkable book of the year, or it could be the decade. It is called Lost Children Archive. It’s by a woman called Valeria Luiselli. It concerns a road trip that a woman, her husband and their two children make from New York to the southwest border of the US with Mexico – and the plight of an army of children making their way north to the border through Mexico.

For much of the novel, the perspective is that of the narrator, the mother of one of the children. Then a second narrative strand is introduced: extracts from a book about a small band of children trekking through Central America on their way to join relatives in the States. This thread is narrated as an omniscient account of their travails. But then a third perspective is woven into the narrative, that of the ten-year-old son of the couple on the road trip.

All well and good. But then, as the novel rises in emotional and narrative intensity, as children are lost and found, so Luiselli interweaves these three voices – mother, omniscient narrator, and child – in an extraordinary climactic section, mixing from one perspective and point of view to the other, in a rolling unending sentence that surges through page after page after page.

And not once did I feel confused about this mélange of voices, about these mixed points of view, about these radically different perspectives. Indeed, the effect was somehow to amplify the voice of the novel, and to sharpen the urgency of the children on whose behalf, in a sense, this utterly moving story was written.

So rules are there to keep an eye on – but when the drama or the inspiration demands, writers ride roughshod and triumphant over them.

Happy writing,


Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Details are your magic carpet

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