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Monkey Rules

Not long ago I read a story that goes something like this:

Researchers set up a room with a bunch of bananas suspended from the ceiling. Underneath the bananas, they placed a stepladder. Then they turned loose five monkeys.

Of course, one of the monkeys headed up the ladder to grab a banana. Before he could reach it, though, the researchers sprayed ALL the monkeys with cold water. In a bit another monkey made for the bunch of yellow fruit, again resulting in cold showers for the whole lot. Rinse, repeat.

Soon, the folks running the show didn’t need to hose the monkeys down. When one of the troup made for the ladder, the others beat it up to prevent the group from being soaked again. The bananas went uneaten.

“What would happen if we put in a different monkey?” the scientists asked. They traded a new monkey for an old one, with a predictable result. The new guy went straight for the good stuff and promptly received a beating.

A second monkey, then a third replaced a member of the old guard until no monkeys remained from the original group. Yet each time one tried to grab a prize, the rest roughed him up. They all knew the rule, but what they didn’t know was why.

I hear a common refrain among new writers. “Why do we have to follow these rules?” they ask. Why can’t we say “was?” Why can’t we start a scene with a page of description? Why do we always have to show the story? Why can’t we just tell sometimes?

The usual answer is, “You need to know what the rules are before you break them.” That’s true, I guess. But I want to know the “why” of the rule.

Several months ago I read, for the first time, Of Mice and Men. Honest. Steinbeck set up just about every scene with an extended description of a stream or a sunbeam lighting up dust motes before he ever mentioned a character. What about the rule? That was the rule then. People liked to read that style of writing, but now they get bored if you don’t go right to the action. The rule changed. And that brings me back to furry little creatures.

With a treat just out of reach, the new monkeys might have missed out because of blind adherence to the rules. Maybe the rules didn’t even apply any more. The guys in the lab coats could have long ago stored away the water hose. “Go ahead, have a banana,” they might have told their diminutive cousins. But the monkeys never questioned, never tried to sneak up that ladder after feeling the stinging rebuke of the community. They just behaved in “the way we’ve always done it.”

So, yes know the rules. They exist for a reason. But understand also the “why.” There is order in adherence to rules, and there is art in knowing how to break them.

Categories: writing Tags: , , ,
  1. June 26, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    I agree that some rules are made to be broken. My problem is that so many people don’t even know there are rules. Worse yet, they believe that spelling and punctuation don’t matter. My God! I sound like my sixth grade English teacher.
    But let’s look at it this way, if those monkeys in your story could write–the original bunch could have left a story behind about what the rule was about in the first place. 🙂

  2. Prissy Vanover
    June 26, 2008 at 1:54 pm


    I remember, years ago, telling my two sons, “Some rules are made to be broken.” Of course, I explained my thoughts on the subject and taught them to take responsibility for their actions and to be prepared to pay the consequences if they broke the rules.

    You definitely made your point and in such an interesting way! Thanks.

  3. Joy
    June 27, 2008 at 10:51 pm

    Some rules are made to be broken, it’s HOW you break them that makes the difference. Like the monkey story, just goes to show how some follow blindly with out questioning why.


  4. July 2, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    Nice analogy. I do no think we’ve met though I saw you at FiW. Congrats on the wins and welcome to the blogworld. I’ve been blogging for a while now and it has started to pay dividends in my writing.

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