Breaking the Rules

Last week, I spent time researching and putting together a writers’ workshop designed to help authors write the dreaded synopsis. It’s a crucial tool in getting published but often neglected on courses and in writers’ groups. There are plenty of rules to follow, if you want it to be effective.

Coincidentally, I finished reading A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale yesterday. I can’t imagine what his synopsis for this book would look like, as it breaks all the rules of story structure. Each chapter explores a different character at different times over a span of 60+ years, leaping backwards and forwards from the inciting event. Seven characters are looked at in depth with others important to the story included under their umbrellas.

It put me in mind of a book I read a few years ago called Olive Kitteridge. It was a novel but also a collection of short stories, each about a different character. The reader grew to understand the central character, Olive, and her story through the lives and observations of these others.

Writers are told to avoid having too many important characters and that you need a beginning, middle and end. Despite breaking these rules both books worked. The authors were so skilled; their characters came alive in my imagination. For all their flaws, I cared about them. Reading both books felt like doing a puzzle. Each chapter revealed another random piece until, gradually, the whole was revealed. Neither has the drive and pace of a thriller or crime novel but they are quietly compulsive.

Novels are what I read most and prefer to write but I’ve also written short stories, poems, plays and articles, submitting some for publication and/or competitions. This, I’m told, is good practice because it’s challenging and improves a writer’s skills. I once entered a short story competition with a piece inspired by my mother-in-law. Although told it wasn’t really a short story in the traditional sense, it won first prize and has since gone on to be included in the soon to be launched Forget-Me-Not memory book to raise money for Alzheimer’s Research UK.

I think my story worked because it was written from love and personal experience so people could relate to it. Like any art form, you need to understand the rules before you can break them and be skilled enough to pull it off.

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