Sherlock Holmes: I Never Make Exceptions

Once again I’m getting inspiration for a blog post from the quotes on my Sherlock Holmes mug (available via the Philosopher’s Guild).

Holmes states in The Sign of Four that “I never make exceptions. An exception disproves the rule.” Once again, I think there’s useful advice for writers in that (but also some bad advice).

Most obviously, whatever rules you set up for your fantasy world, you need to follow them. If cold iron cancels magic or kills fae, it has to do so consistently. If your hero lives by an oath of nonviolence or non-killing, he has to stick to it (Superman writers in the Silver Age keep forgetting he doesn’t kill and having him blow up enemy spaceships or the like). If you do make an exception you’d better explain it logically. And you have to make readers care: I have a hard time worrying that someone’s violating rules the writer made up, no matter how impossible the characters say it is.

The same principle applies to mainstream fiction. I read a thriller back in the 1990s which went to great lengths to provide realistic detail on bombs,, their effects and how to disarm them. So at the climax having the protagonist caught when the bomb blows off but turn out to be standing just far enough away it simply lifts her off the grounds and drops her unharmed with tousled hair … it didn’t fit.

Similarly, He’s Just Not That Into You annoyed me by setting up a rule — guy doesn’t chase a girl relentlessly, he’s not interested — but then it breaks its own premise in the various romances.

In marketing, I take the quote two ways, one valid for writing and one not. As countless how-to articles have observed, never assume that your manuscript is so awesome that an editor will ignore that it’s the wrong length/genre/style. Even though some people do break the rules, it’s wise not to assume we can get away with the same.

The not-valid is the insistence I also see in how-to articles that whatever genre you’re writing for, you should mimick what everyone else is writing. As I discuss at the link, that’s not always the best idea and sometimes a bad one.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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Filed under Sherlock Holmes, Writing

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