Tuesday, September 03, 2019

The Budrys Rule: Three Writerly Sins, One of them Cardinal

By Dario Ciriello

Part of The How They Do It Series 

JH: Dario Ciriello returns to the lecture hall today with three "rules" writers should never break. And for once, these rules are ones writers really should live by.

As an editor/copyeditor who reads a lot of manuscripts, I see many potentially fine, well-written novels with believable characters, rollicking plots, and crisp dialogue fail because they fell short of what I call The Budrys Rule.

The late Algis Budrys was a famous science fiction author, editor, teacher, and critic. He taught for many years at the Clarion Writers Workshop, and worked as a book editor for Playboy magazine. In his fine little 1994 craft manual, Writing to the Point, Budrys gives one of the clearest and best pieces of advice to authors I’ve ever read, and does it so succinctly it works as a simple mnemonic.

The “rule” simply states that there are three reactions the writer should try never to elicit in a reader, since any one of them is likely to result in the reader putting the book down, possibly for good. They are:


Oh yeah?

So what?

The meaning of the huh? reaction is obvious

The reader is confused or doesn’t get what’s going on. The error here is almost always one of information management, and the fix is usually obvious… a good critique group or beta reader should eliminate all of these. Oh, there’ll always be the occasional inattentive or forgetful reader, but mostly this is an easy problem to avoid. 

(Here's more on Get What's in Your Head Onto the Page)

Oh yeah? means the reader doesn’t buy it. 

They don’t believe you. This could apply to the premise of the story, any of a constellation of plot devices, an improbable, James-Bondish ending, character motivations, you name it. This may involve significant work to fix, but generally shouldn’t be too difficult. It’s our business as writers to make readers buy the fictional dream. 

(Here's more on Nope, Not Buying It: How Do We Maintain Believability in Our Writing?)

The So what? response is, in my opinion, by far the worst. 

Simply put, it means the reader doesn’t care. And I confess it’s my own most common reaction to many novels, films, and TV series… and I’m talking about published, often traditionally published, novels, not client manuscripts.

Contrary to much of the nonsense talked about writing, making the reader care about your protagonist, their plight, and the outcome, isn’t rocket science: it’s very, very easy.

I’ll let you in on a secret: by virtue of opening the book (and probably paying for the privilege), the reader is already predisposed to care. They want to care, to like your character, your story, and your world. And if your character appears to be even a half-decent human being, with a relatable conflict and goal, the reader will just settle in for the ride and want the best for them. 

(Here's more on So What? Making Readers Care About Your Story)

If it’s so easy, then, why doesn’t every novel, every movie, every TV show succeed in this?

I believe the answer lies in one or both of two things. Either the author or screenwriter(s) is overly concerned with diving headlong into plot action, usually under the misapprehension that if a life is threatened or there’s raw conflict, the audience will care enough and be involved. Wrong: nobody (except perhaps some adolescent males) gives a fig about what happens to a faceless, fictional character who’s done nothing to encourage reader alignment, no matter how much action or melodrama blossoms.

The second, and to me more troubling, reason the reader doesn’t care about a character or what happens to them (or indeed in the entire story) is because the author is writing from an emotionally neutral or cold, unempathetic place, and not imbuing their protagonist or the work with enough common humanity to strike a chord in the reader. This is sadly very common, especially in the dozens of otherwise fine new drama series on the subscription streaming services.

The best way to avoid the So what? reaction, then, is to present the reader with a character or protagonist who is from the outset a relatable (and hopefully interesting) human being. Write with empathy, present the reader with a character who feels like a living, breathing person rather than a made-up puppet, and simply give us a reason to care about the outcome.

Speaking for myself, this is harder not to do than to actually do. Because at its core, this is what storytelling is, a record of the events which happen to a living character. If you give a damn, the reader will. The writer who allows heart to work with mind in the writing will do just fine.

Have you fallen foul of the Budrys rule in your writing? Do you often experience the So What? reaction as a reader?

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and freelance editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing.

Dario’s fiction includes Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic; Black Easter, a supernatural suspense novel which pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island; and Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short science fiction work.

Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Sk√≥pelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. The Fiction Writing Handbook: The Professional Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing, copyediting, and mentoring services to indie authors.

Website | Facebook | Goodreads | Panverse Publishing

About The Fiction Writing Handbook

A Unique Approach to the Craft of Writing Fiction

The Fiction Writing Handbook*
 is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems. Similarly, the importance of both character and narrative voice, as well as tone, cannot be overstated.

Drawing on twenty years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. The Fiction Writing Handbook gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Other topics covered in The Fiction Writing Handbook include external and internal dialog, writers' block, traditional vs. indie publishing, PoV (point of view), creating suspense, and much more.

Whether your interest lies in short stories, novels or screenwriting, The Fiction Writing Handbook shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing novel plotting formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

*Originally published in 2017 under the title, "Drown the Cat"

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo | Panverse

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