(1) George Saunders, in his essay The United States of Huck uses the metaphor of a people mover (those horizontal escalators in airports for example). The writer stands on one side of the escalator with a big pile of dirt. Said dirt is “The Thing This Writer Loves To Do, And Does Naturally”, the reasons why the writer started writing in the first place. Maybe the writer is funny, or great at describing things or whatever. But the readership will not come to the Dirt on their on. “Three hundred pages of descriptions of rich people’s houses will not cut it: the writer must connect the dots of dirt with something else, something narrative, something that imitates forward motion.” And thus we get to the idea that what keeps the People Mover moving is The Apparent Narrative Rationale. The APR “is what the writer and the reader have tacitly agreed the book is `about’.” Which is another way of saying the story “The reader understands that he is waiting to learn if Scrooge will repent, if Romeo will marry Juliet… While the reader waits for that answer, the writer gets a chance to create the Three Christmas Ghosts and compose the Balcony Speech, and in the end, the reader finds that this—the Dirt—is what he or she wanted all along.” Another way of looking at the APR is to think of it as the writer’s answer to the question “What exactly is it that I am doing here?”
(2) Rules are valuable and important to storytelling. They are part of the bargain between storyteller and audience, a piece of art with no rules is somewhat akin to a person with no boundaries, crazy, unstable, violent. This isn’t to say that a storyteller need accept anyone else’s rules. Even really transgressive works of art that “break all the rules” tend to have their own internal rules and logic. And those rules can change within the work of art. But rules are still important. I recently gave up on reading Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles because it became clear to me that the work I was reading was arbitrary. Anything could happen, and when anything can happen at any given moment, there are no stakes. While it is sometimes impressive to watch Morrison show off his (considerable) chops as a writer and thinker, there’s nothing connecting the dots. Another way of putting this—when anything can happen, nothing matters.
(3) Let us posit a well-produced Shakespeare play, a Thing of Quality. You go to see it. For a little bit, you feel terrified. Something is bugging you. For a scene, maybe for a scene or two. What is terrifying you is that the actors appear to be speaking English, but it might as well be Japanese. Then all of a sudden, like the Babel Fish was shoved in your ear, it starts working. You relax a little bit and start listening to this crazy story of a woman dressed as a man and the man she’s serving but in love with at the same time and the tension between order and chaos that affects every scene. What’s happened is that you as a viewer have adjusted to the rules of the world, namely that people will be speaking in Elizabethan verse. Your brain has adjusted and now you can watch.
(4) At times it’s much easier to just adopt some preexisting rules so that you can go about your business of getting to all that Dirt. These preexisting rules are better known as conventions. There is nothing wrong with conventions (although I love doing work that breaks convention). Conventions are perfectly satisfying things, and they can even help enrich the experience of a story. At the same time, when a work of art exists purely to fulfill a checklist of moments, it becomes conventional and then all we pay attention to is the checklist.