Hi, and wow!! I am enormously honored that your professor linked you here. Thanks for coming in!
I briefly discuss the quote here in an inspirational sense: http://writeinspiration.tumblr.com/post/47549252841/learn-the-rules-like-a-pro-so-you-can-break-them
But to get into the nitty-gritty of what it means:
I learned a version of this quote back when I was in undergrad. The more you know about the rules of writing, the more you can use them and break them.
For example, sentence fragments are generally frowned upon in writing, right?
“Samantha was supposed to go to the store. But didn’t.”
That just looks awkward, right? “But didn’t” doesn’t have a subject, so it is a sentence fragment.
“Samantha needed to go to her father’s funeral.
It looks a little weird here because Tumblr has its limitations, but let me explain. Samantha not going to the store when she was supposed to–that’s a pretty mundane situation. There’s no real need to emphasize that she didn’t, unless there’s a major reason for this to be an issue. “But didn’t” on its own creates emphasis where it is unnecessary. It brings significance to something that doesn’t have any.
Samantha not going to her father’s funeral, on the other hand, is a much bigger deal. If you write that she needed to go to her father’s funeral, you can feel the tension. You can almost hear the “but” coming. Dramatic pause. New paragraph: “But didn’t.”
If you’re making sentence fragments because you don’t know anything about writing, it’s going to look stilted and uncomfortable. It’s so much easier to write “Samantha was supposed to go to the store, but she didn’t,” and it makes more sense that way. It looks like a rookie mistake to go for the sentence fragment since it doesn’t serve any artistic purpose.
Think about the last movie you watched where you were at the edge of your seat. What about the last episode of television you watched? You remember those cliffhangers that keep you coming back for more?
That is purposeful. These techniques of making you wait nudge you as a viewer to keep going because you HAVE to know what happened. It controls what you can and cannot see–and when you can finally see it, if at all.
You can almost hear the narrator stopping and taking a breath. “Samantha needed to go to her father’s funeral. (long pause) But didn’t.”
Now look at a movie where there was unnecessary suspense. Did they take 10 seconds to open a refrigerator when it could have been done in 3 seconds? You just feel antsy when that happens, and there’s no payoff.
This is denying the viewer their expected catharsis. “Catharsis” is an ancient concept that essentially refers to the release of stress at the end of an intense scene. Have you ever watched a serious battle scene and felt yourself finally breathing again, and you didn’t even notice that you were leaning forward the whole time? That’s catharsis.
The story creates a stressor (a term popularly used in the field of psychology), something that makes you feel tense. Then, it solves the problem. And you release. You take a breath. You lean back in your seat. The movie continues.
Taking a million years (hyperbole) to open a fridge isn’t artistic–it doesn’t provide any payoff for the viewer, unless the fridge being opened is something that has been led up to since the beginning. It creates a stressor without the catharsis. You don’t benefit from the door being opened.
And that’s the difference between creating tension as an artist and creating tension as an amateur.
If you unnecessarily cause your reader tension, it’s jarring and unpleasant for no reason. It pulls them out of the story.
Creating tension because you have a payoff? That’s how stories have worked for thousands of years.
Look at the old concept of having fiction in the newspaper. They give you a couple hundred words and leave you with a cliffhanger. You won’t get to see if everything’s okay until tomorrow or maybe even next week. And you feel better as soon as you know that your favorite character is okay. There’s your payoff.
If you learn the ins and outs of the English language (because that’s my focus), then you can find ways to break each of the rules uniquely to create specific feelings in your reader. Breaking the rules on accident looks sloppy. Breaking the rules because you are bending the reader to your will–that’s much cooler.
To tie this into your class, let’s look at music. Music used to be very predictable. Now, the chorus of a song could sound nothing like the rest of the song, and it’s considered normal. I would attribute this change to the jazz movement. When the black community began to play off the music sheets and make sweet music with their saxophones, it was an instant hit. It to some degree has its roots in African culture, but it is easily distinguishable as a unique movement by black people in America (I phrase it this way, because not everyone who is black is from Africa–can you imagine going to Jamaica and calling one of their citizens an African-American? Not a good idea).
The jazz movement showcased the best of spontaneity and passion. It wasn’t just randomly hitting buttons on the saxophone; it was about using each individual note that the instrument could produce. It was about expressing your feelings. Think about blues music. It started off as almost nothing, but it came from the heart. It was about making the kind of music that showcases that you are sad, and it brings the audience into that world of sadness.
They didn’t need sheet music to express how they felt. They just knew their instrument very well and found a way to evoke emotions in the listener through letting their instincts take over.
But if you sit down at a piano and start butchering “Chopsticks,” it will make you sound like an amateur, like you didn’t practice at all.
There’s an old saying about needing to spend 10,000 hours in order to master a craft. I certainly think that it holds an important truth. The more you get to know your instrument, the more you can let your hands go on auto-pilot. But you need to know your scales and what notes evoke what feelings in listeners.
That’s why you gotta know the rules. [And that previous sentence breaks rules, but it’s done for the sake of creating a comfortable vernacular that is generally associated with a conversational tone. <– That sentence technically only breaks one rule (starting with “and”), but it may seem too long and complicated–too many big words, even though you know what most of them mean on their own.]
Understanding how people talk to each other is just part of knowing how to write for an audience that mostly speaks conversational English, which is by no means grammatically correct. You have to know when to draw the lines and when you can step over them.
But that takes many hours of understanding the ins and outs of each rule. If you break them like an artist, you can evoke any type of tone you please.
So, about me! My name is Stephanie Tillman, and I have a Master’s degree (M.A.) in English, from Western Kentucky University.
I don’t really use my Internships account, but it has an accurate/current resume if there’s anything you need to know that could back up my credibility. 🙂 Link: http://www.internships.com/student/show/Stephanie-T-N181759
I hope this helps! Let me know if you need anything else. 🙂