Mentats of Dune & Breaking the Rules of Writing

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This series of books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson is intriguing to me because of all the writerly ‘rules’ it violates, yet still makes for an engaging story.

One common rule that writers hear frequently is SHOW, DON’T TELL. Mentats of Dune, like the other books of this series, spends a lot of time with ruminating characters, who tell the readers the background story via their thoughts–and there is an immense amount of background. Also, there are so many characters that the characters will ruminate again on some of the same background and events as they have in previous chapter, but this kind of works because you’ll probably have forgotten some of the material by the time you get to that character again.

I think what makes this rumination technique, which is suspiciously close to an information dump, work, is that the characters are often plotting against each other, so it is interesting for the reader to see their devious machinations as they develop. The thoughts of most characters, excepting the robot Erasmus, whose chapters can be tedious, are able to keep me interested.

Another writer’s rule that these books frequently break is that writer’s should keep the action immediate and AVOID PASSIVE WORDS like “had”. Herbert and Anderson frequently drop into the past and tell US the character “had” done this or “had” done that instead of keeping it more immediate. For some reason this rule violation doesn’t seem to deter from the story.

In noticing a couple of these broken writer rules I started to think about writer’s rules that I frequently violate.

  1. ONLY USE THE WORD “SAID” FOR ATTRIBUTIONS. This is something I hear all the time, and I think it’s baloney. Yes, I use lots of “said”s, but I like to vary the attributions to keep them from being too dull. I’ll also use “asked”, “questioned”, “screamed”, “called”, “shouted”, “cried” or anything else I deem appropriate. However, I do try to avoid the overuse of adverbs in attributions (though I am certainly not entirely opposed to them), and I also try to avoid the too-clever Swiftian attributions (as in Tom Swift) that might seem silly, like ‘”You find it Very Large?said Mr. Podsnap, spaciously’ or ‘”Be careful with that chainsaw,” Tom said off-handedly or “Your canine is marvelous,” he said doggedly. And though I do enjoy annomination and a good pundigrion, these sort of attributions, which contain a pun of some sort, might be appropriate in a comedic piece, but probably detract from a reader’s willing suspension of disbelief in most stories.
  2. KEEP SENTENCES SHORT AND SIMPLE. Short sentences have their uses, however the constant rhythm of unvaryingly brief sentences grates on me. I like sentences with texture and intricacy. Are they harder to write and appropriately punctuate? Yes, but they are infinitely more interesting.
  3. LIMIT THE USE OF ADJECTIVES. I never understood this rule. Did I mention I like texture in sentences? Adjectives add both color and texture. My sentences are full of adjectives and evocative verbs. Once I received an email from a reviewer who kindly declined to read my book because the sample he read contained “dense and descriptive prose” and he preferred lean and concise prose. Fair enough; he knows what he likes. I know what I like, as well, and I find too many lean and concise sentences dry and boring. My opinion is not a popular one.

My point is that though writers need to understand the rules, not every rule is sacrosanct, and slavishly following every rule is unlikely to make for better or more interesting literature.

-Joel Jenkins
Author of Weird Action & Adventure Fiction

 

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