Monday, August 29, 2011

14 Breaking the Writing Rules Can Lead to Failure or Possibly to Magic

Is the Universe Hitting You Over the Head?

photo via Arwen879

You know those times when you hear something, over and over, until you just know the universe is trying to tell you something? We'll I'm having one of those months. Everywhere I turn around, I run into the concept of rules that writers should live by, and someone (okay, mostly me) questioning whether or not it's okay to break them.

Committing Suicide. Or Magic.
First, I do believe we have to know the rules, get intimate with them, and think about why they are "the rules."

Next, before we decide to break one of those "rules," I think we need to consider it in context with our own work and see if we have a truly valid reason/inspiration for breaking it.

Finally, I am certain that if we break "the rules," we are risking failure. But we also risk committing art. And magic. And a piece of truth that will reach out from our hearts straight into the hearts of our readers.

photo from tellmeyoufeelthisfire
Ultimately, the decision to follow a "rule" or break it must be yours. Do you follow and play it safe? Or walk the gangplank, stare into the eyes of the shark, and risk making a great big bellyflop into infested waters? You might die. Or you might have the most adrenaline-charged swim of your life, with an amazing story at the end of it.

Not the Regularly Scheduled Program
I was going to start us off on a discussion of one of the books we chose on Thursday, but I'm taking a risk. I want to know what book you have read recently that broke a rule and gave you chills as a result. What rule did it break? Why did the author choose to break that rule, and how did she manage to pull it off? Or can you think of a book that broke the rules and did a face plant?

Are You Taking A Risk?
Are you taking risks in your writing? What rule are you breaking? Thinking of breaking? Are you comfortable with your decision and how's it working for you?

Leave a Comment by 8/31 for a Chance to Win Crescendo
Give us a thoughtful answer and I'll put you in the running to win Crescendo (Hush, Hush book 2). (Winner will be selected Wednesday night and announced on Thursday. U.S. or Canada entries only.) I might pick some surprise additional winners too, depending on how many great answers we have.

So tell me, what do you think of rule-breaking?

Happy writing,



  1. I think very similar to you, Martina. As a writer, I should know and understand the rules, but be willing to break them when doing so makes my story better. Rules, they are more like guidelines, but really only in the hands of someone who is deliberately breaking them to suit their story and not just stumbling along unaware.

  2. Exactly, Susan! But knowing you are making the deliberate decision to do something different is dangerous too. It can lull you into taking things for granted in your ms. An excellent editor just reminded me yesterday that you have to look at EVERY INSTANCE where you break the rule and make sure the decision is valid not just in the grand scheme of things, but also in that particular moment.

    Take deciding when to show and when to tell, for example. I did a whole post on it a while ago, and I know the rules. I know where I've made deliberate decisions about telling in one particular ms I've been working on. I thought I was comfortable with it, but when the editor pointed out some instances and I questioned them for perhaps the hundredth time, I realized that even within my decision to "tell" in those instances, I could "show" more.

    Reexamination. Reevaluation. Reenvisioning. Rewriting. Revising. If you follow the rules, you need less of all these 'R's -- but that doesn't mean that following the rules is always the right decision.


  3. Great post. Breaking rules is not something that comes easily to me (rampant rule follower from an early age!), but I'm getting better and more confident at it. My writing voice uses a lot of non-sentences - short, choppy thoughts & phrases. I used to edit them out - but I also edited out the voice. I'm not doing that any more :)

  4. This post is so timely for me. Normally a rule follower, I've recently broken a 'supposed' rule, while writing my synopsis. But honestly, writing the piece the way I have reflects the novel much more clearly. I am comfortable with my decision. :)

  5. I recently read BLINDNESS by Jose Saramago (in translation). There was head-hopping, occasional breaks into second person, very remote narration, but oh my, what a powerful book. With my current WIP, I'm struggling with a protagonist who is not initially very likeable. She is resisting all efforts to soften her up.

  6. When I was in music school a professor told the class, "You come here always playing an F sharp in a C scale when it should be an F natural. When you leave you will know it's supposed to be an F natural. Then you can play the F sharp." In other words, if you know the rules and break them with a good, conscious reason, then it becomes almost ok. So, if your reason's good, go for it!

  7. Oh, thanks for a timely reminder. I agree that you have to know the rules before you can break them, and that even then, you should be very mindful why you've chosen to do so. But I also love that sign you posted: "The biggest mistake you could ever make is being afraid to make one." Thanks for that insight.

  8. How did the rules become the rules in the first place? Who says? And what if it's time for a change? Sorry, perpetual rule breaker speaking. I wholeheartedly agree with Laura B above (and your post) that by knowing the rules (and the reasons behind them) you have the power to know when it's OK to break them. But seriously, did you have to use sharks in your analogy??? Shudder.

  9. Divergent starts with a first person POV character seeing herself in the mirror. This is supposed to be a classic no-no - a cheap way to slip in a description of a character speaking in the I voice. But in Divergent, I thought it was done cleverly. The character is part of a societal faction called Abnegation that is puritanical. They are not allowed to look in mirrors other than on rare occasions. Therefore, a chance to look in the mirror for the character presented a legitmate reason to ruminate on her appearance. There were both character and plot related justifications for the description. It was well done, albeit not the strongest start possible for the novel. Because of that, I almost didn't read the novel! I started an online sample offered by the publisher, saw the seeing-myself-in-the-mirror trope and thought, "Oh, that's against the rules." I almost quit reading right there because the "rules" had conditioned me to expect something subpar from that. I'm so glad I kept going, because I ultimately really enjoyed Divergent!

    Because of that, this is neither the most successful nor the worst example of a rule-break. It wasn't magic, but it also wasn't the downfall of the novel.

  10. Love this! And I agree that we first have to know the rules and be conscious about breaking them when we do so. I usually am rather rule-adhering in general, although I probably have way too many metaphors and similes for my own good. And fragments. And I love inventing words...I guess we're not "supposed" to do that? To me, it's part of being creative, and it's exciting. That's why I write sci-fi and fantasy, so I can invent things. Magical!

    SAVVY by Ingrid Law is still a great example of Telling--and on the first page, yet--and getting away with it. Backflashing and Telling both, bam, right off the bat! But it works as a folksy and chatty voice.

    Oh yes, reading the above comment reminded me of ENTWINED--a slight twist in that she sees herself in the reflection of a teapot. I think DIVERGENT's worked more successfully than in ENTWINED, because it was part of the plot and societal rules.

  11. I think of not only breaking rules but experimenting and writing out of comfort zone. Trying to write without thinking of the market and of agents and just letting my creativity go. I'll worry about revising later.

  12. So sorry not to respond sooner! Crazy week, what can I say?

    Jemi, I struggle with the same thing. I especially love conjunctions at the start of a sentence where they improve the flow, and I am constantly fighting the Oscar Wilde syndrome of putting them in in the morning and taking them out in the afternoon. There's that little rule-genie sitting on my shoulder saying 'no' all the time.

    Sheri, welcome back! Hope you had a great break!!! Voice in a synopsis is important, so I don't blame you. I wonder if you ended up doing it in first person. That's supposed to be one of the unbreakable rules, but I recently read an example where someone hooked an agent that way. If that's what your gut says, you'll always wonder 'what if' if you don't try, right?

    Heather, I haven't read that one. Will have to add it to my list. (I'm about to hit triple digits though, I swear.) Unlikeable characters are SO hard. I fought that and fought that in one of my ms, and ultimately had to put in more of the backstory sooner to give the reader some insight (and hopefully sympathy) about why she was the way she was. It's funny though, I was talking to my nephew about Hunger Games yesterday. He's twelve and very smart, and he said he didn't like Katniss at all. (Though he loved the books.) I asked him why, and he said she was too sad and mad all the time. When I pinned him down and asked him what she should have felt, given the situation, he thought about it and ended up saying she needed to be sad and mad. It's so hard, isn't it?

    Laura, I LOVE that example! Thanks for sharing it.

    Elizabeth, that was more a reminder to myself than anything else. And you are so right, remembering that even after I made the overall decision to break a rule and felt I had a valid reason, I had to remember to still go back and examine every instance where I implemented the "violation" to see if I was handling it in the best way at that specific point in the story. Question everything, then trust your gut, I guess. :D

    Diana, lol! Yes, I had to use sharks because they scare me almost as much as failing. #notasharkweeklover

    Anonymeet, great point. That Divergent example illustrates something else--skill can overcome the cliche in the "rule." Maybe if we think of the rules as training wheels?

    And Carol, your point (and Anonymeets) is really important. With Divergent, it works within a larger, more important context and there are multiple reasons why the reflection works. Against that, you have only the trope. I will confess that I use a reflection too in the same ms we are talking about--in several different places. In my case, I use it in pieces of shattered glass to illustrate the broken, distored way a character sees herself and to contrast that with additional reflections when she begins to see herself more clearly. At the same time, broken glass is an important plot point later all on its own. This doesn't happen to be the rule that I was talking about, but it is definitely another one that I thought long and hard about--and my CPs have, very correctly, called me on it and asked me to make sure my reasons were valid.

    That's the bottom line. Know the rule, know the reasons you want to break it. Oddly, as I think about the "rule breaking," I usually either find a way around it or find a way to strengthen the need to break the rule and make the pay off bigger. Giving it that extra thought is never wasted effort.

  13. Oh goodness this post is so helpful I like to write stories and I'm to scared to take a risk and break any rules. Now that I've read this I can see that breaking the rules with your writing could be a great thing. All you have to do is let loose and go with the flow.

  14. if its worth it and you can take the conciequnces then yes if its not and its stupid then nope


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