Being a Better Writer: You Can’t Make Up Rules When the Reader Knows What They Are

Welcome back readers! It’s JUNE!

Right, I know. Hunter/Hunted isn’t out yet. But I’d plan on it this month. Editing is … well, it’s a process. Both it and Jungle are inching closer toward release … But that’s all that needs to be said there. Right now?

Right now, we’re going to talk about some small rules of writing. Small but vital, and which fall under that mouthful of a title up above.

Now some of you might have guessed, and correctly, that today’s title falls under a rule I’ve talked about more than once on this site: Always do the research. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, from hydraulics to genetics, you need to do the research.

But today just isn’t quite about that. It falls under the same umbrella, absolutely, but there’s a bit more to it. While “always do the research,” whenever I’ve said it, has almost always been about the big things … today is more about the small things, and less about the science of something works and more the methodology.

Don’t get me wrong. If you’re going to write about a character studying genetics at a college somewhere in the US, you should work to get the genetic information right. But what about the order in which they study about genetics. What about their classes, or the way their teachers present information? The way their labs are set up?

See, while you may be able to make up material that can fill all those gaps, and get the science right, you can also run into a problem of someone else who’s been through that experience or adjacent to it might be able to look right at it and say ‘Wait a minute, those two things are correct, yes … but they’re also out of order.’

This topic came to mind, in fact, while I was reading a book a few months ago (during  my wrist injury recovery, if memory serves). There was a small scene—a single paragraph, really—about something really simple and almost innocuous to the story. Something like bringing a boat in to a dock, or something like that. However, it was something that I have personal experience with. A lot of personal experience with. And while the author had gotten most of the detail right … all of it was out of order.

Now, admittedly it was a small thing … but it was a small thing that yanked me out of the book completely, because no one who’s actually docked a boat would do what the book did in that order. It caused me to comment to my friend ‘You can’t make up a set of rules when your reader already knows what those rules are.’

The what was correct … but the order it was presented in and how it was carried out was all wrong. The research had been done … but in a manner that was too literal, or lacking the right order to the steps. Sort of like a set of instructions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that says to put peanut butter and jelly on the bread, then put the slices together … but doesn’t clarify that the peanut butter and jelly need to face inward, so the resultant sandwich has one in the middle of the two slices, and one on top of the sandwich.

And then it’s eaten with a spoon. That kind of incongruity.

In other words, it’s not enough to simply know the data of what you’re writing about. You need to know the methodology. If you’re going to write a hardcore police-detective serial, don’t just make sure that the characters in question are using the right methods or tools, make sure that they use them in the right way. The right order.

Now, before we get into how this changes for a Science-Fiction or Fantasy setting, let’s talk for a second about how you can find this stuff out. If you’re worried about unwritten rules or methodology, specific orders in which things are done, etc … How do you find out?

Well, the age-old classic is “talk to someone who has the hands-on experience.” But you can make use of the internet in some surprising ways too. Wondering what a large ship would do when a storm is heading its way at sea? There’s a youtube video on that. And, I would expect, probably a written midshipman’s guide on the web as well.

With the internet at your fingertips, not only can you look up what a ship will do to be ready for a big storm, but you can also look up the order that they do it in (some things must be done first). You can find manuals on army operations. You can find cooks discussing how they run their kitchens that’s slightly out of the ordinary but makes a couple specific dishes easier.

Because these tools are available to us, we need to use them. To give an example of something I recently worked on, the Halo pitch I’ve put together has a protagonist who was a member of the Military Police. During the writing of the character, there were two documents I had open at all times in my web browser: The Halopedia wiki on all things Halo, with a bunch of articles on how UNSC military structure differs from modern military structure, and the US Army Manual on Military Police Operations. I wanted to make sure that what I did offer as far as who the protagonist had reported to, what rank they likely would have reached, etc, all was accurate in not just name but in practice in the story. That way, if it does make it to print, there won’t be a reader out there that’s an MP going “Wait, that’s the other way around!”

Now, I understand that writing in something like the Science-Fiction and Fantasy genres this can get a bit nebulous. In either of those worlds, what someone knows as the “normal” can be  … well, quite a bit different (which is usually the point). And I’m not saying that you need to go inject a good solid dose of reality into you Fantasy or Sci-Fi to the degree that either one of them stops being those things. The rules are different there.

But that means more work for you, not less. If your police procedural fantasy staring a rough-and-tumble dwarf in a 1930s-esque world is going to have magic involved in both the crimes and the investigation of the criminal scene, then you, as the author, need to both know the rules of reality, know the rules of the magic setting you’ve created, and explain the differences to the reader. Sure, your character may not need to do something that was common on 1930s-era police work … but your reader should know why when that comes up.

Again, this comes back to ‘You can’t make up the rules when I know what those rules are.’ In the case of a lot of Fantasy and Sci-Fi, the latter part of that sentence is going to be extremely important. You have a reader who knows more about a subject than you do look at the book, say ‘Wait you  can’t … oh, I guess you can. Okay, that makes sense.” because they’ve just encountered a part of the story where what they know is shown to them, followed by the changes they’re not familiar with.

The reader doesn’t know what your rules are the first time they pick up your book. They don’t know why in your universe, some rules are followed differently. And they don’t know why. Part of your job when setting up this universe is to explain to the reader what’s different from what they might know. Or give them the clues and pieces they need to put it together themselves.

Sound hard? Well, yes. You don’t want to run into maid-and-butler dialogue. Or drop the anvil of “As you know …” But if there are differences to the rules the reader knows, then you need to find some way of getting those across to them.

Okay, we’ve talked about knowing the methodology and rules in addition to just knowing how things worked. And we’ve talked then about how those can be different in your setting and how your job is to make sure those differences are presented to the reader in a way that either explains it to them or lets them piece it together. But that leaves us with one last thing to discuss on this topic for today.

Keeping this stuff straight. With huge, massive details on which the plot hinges … not so hard. You’re going to be thinking about them a lot. But what about those background bits that only show up say … twice?

Oh yeah, you’d better keep track of them. I bring this up specifically because yes, I have read books where authors have goofed, where there’s a background element (one of these moments of the reader knowing what the rules of the job are) where the author has done it twice … and each time is different.

Sands, I’ve made this goof myself. In Colony, during the pre-Alpha, I had to go back and change a minor background element that was presented in two places  but in two ways that differed from one another. By the time I wrote the second one, I’d forgotten that the first even existed, and so I wrote out a modified version of the element again … not realizing that it was the second time, or that I’d said something slightly different the first time.

Now. I was lucky and caught it in the pre-Alpha. But I’ve read published works where that didn’t happen. And you end up with strange incongruities where the author themselves suddenly appears to have forgotten how their universe works.

This, readers, is why I have so many notepads on my desk now. Small background detail that may come up later? It’s getting a little bullet point so that the next time I realize I may have to explain/show a slight tweak in the rules as the reader knows them, I can check the list, see if I’ve brought it up already, and then if needed jump back to the original moment it was discussed to see if I need to add any more to it.

That’s my method, but I’m sure other authors have their own tricks for it (I’ve heard talk of what sounded like a few). You may have to experiment a bit to find the one that works best for you.

But the important part? At the end of the day, the reader needs to know what the rules are. If they already know them, then you need to know them as well so that you can, if necessary, explain or present what differences there are. Or at the very least, make sure you’re carrying out the steps and bullet points in the right order for the right reasons.

Sound tough? Well, it’s a lot easier than it used to be the way the world is connected these days. So make use of those connections. Get the rules right.

Good luck. Now get writing.


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