Learning the System vs. Learning to Hack it

Cory Doctorow wrote a an article called “Rules for Writers” which I keep coming back to. Here’s the link at Locus magazine:

Cory’s article talks about his experience of two texts:

  1. One of the best books of rules for science fiction writers called the Turkey City Lexicon by Bruce Sterling
  2. Another book by Bruce Sterling called The Hacker Crackdown

Cory places these works by the same author in tension with one another. The first is a rule system, the second is a non-fiction book about hackers, who must learn the mechanics of rule systems in order to infiltrate and circumvent them.

Cory details his years of championing the lexicon, the rules for writers, especially as a young up-and-coming science fiction author. However, the more he wrote and published, the more he thought about “hacking” the rules, or understanding the rules so completely that you can manipulate them.

The Play’s the Thing

His essay makes me think of Hamlet. The turning point in the play is where Hamlet writes a play to perform for his uncle the king. This is called the play within a play scene. Hamlet labors over his script and discusses the problems of writing.

Normally this would break one of the “rules” of writing. A character should not draw attention to the structure of the story. If a character says something like “wow, that was anticlimactic” the reader gets a hint of how the author feels. The curtain is drawn back and the character comments on the story itself. This undermines the sense of reality in the story and hints that the character might somehow take the place of the author and manipulate the story to benefit themselves.

This has a lot of forms in practice. You might be familiar with the term “plot armor,” which means a character is oddly invincible since they are important to the plot. This term always makes me think of action movies in the 80’s and 90’s which always seem to reach their climax with the hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger, walking boldly through an open warehouse gunning down drug dealers. It seems like  there are hundreds of people shooting machine guns at the hero and yet he stands confidently out in the open and mows them down. Arnold has access to the author, and can control the plot of the movie based on his own actions.

Real and Unreal

When Shakespeare breaks the rules and lets Hamlet write part of his own play, somehow it doesn’t break the reality of Hamlet’s world, instead the world seems more real. When Hamlet’s play is being performed, he looks out into the audience to see how they react. There is an audience onstage which Hamlet surveys, but he also looks out into the real audience watching the real play. Shakespeare’s expert writing gives Hamlet an irrefutable emotional reality, so when Hamlet breaks the rules of writing and looks at the real audience it is a little scary.

Hamlet can see us watching him. He knows he’s in a play. He can control the plot. Instead of the story becoming less real, it becomes more real. Like a succubus, Hamlet seems to draw our reality into his own fiction to solidify it. Shakespeare has hacked the rules and stolen blocks of reality to create his fiction. Arnold’s action movie plot armor has only destroyed his story.

As Doctorow points out in his essay, knowing the rules matters, but obeying rules isn’t a demonstration of understanding. Hacking the rules shows that you understand them at a deep, structural level.  Ultimately, writing according to rules won’t make you better, but understanding the reasons for rules and learning how to write rules that suit you and support your art will.

Every writer needs their own ruleset,  one that is unique and applies only to their work.