Throw the rules out the window


Our world is governed by rules.  Ever since we were little tots, rules have been hammered into our heads, telling us what we should or shouldn’t do.  Here’s a small sampling of society’s guidelines, and if we break them, we could get in BIG TROUBLE.

In life:  Don’t steal.  Don’t murder.  Don’t speed.  Don’t cheat, either on your taxes or with your significant other.  Don’t lie.  Look both ways before you cross the street.

At school:  Do your homework.  Raise your hand for permission to speak.  No running in the halls.  No drugs.  No swearing.

At home:  Do your chores, and there’s always a time when we should do them.  Wash your hands before eating.  No elbows on the table, and take your hat off.  There are check-in times and curfews when a son or daughter is at their friends.

Is it any wonder that when we learn the rules for writing, we follow them religiously?  Because to not do so means we could get in BIG TROUBLE.  After all, rules are there for a reason, right?  Deviate and disaster could explode all over your manuscript.

Well, yes and no.

Yes, because you have to learn the rules first.  If you don’t, you’re in danger of creating an incoherent mess as you break this rule or that one without any clear idea of why you’re doing it.  This is akin to detonating a nuclear bomb all over your story, turning it into a hot radioactive mess.  People will stay away from your book because to linger too long will sicken them.  They might not understand what is wrong with your writing; they will just sense something is amiss.  This will affect any future sales.

If the Cleveland Cavaliers are in the finals, you might feel the need to support them, even going so far as to wear your Cleveland Cavaliers hat to the dinner table.  Hey, this might not go over well with Aunt Gertrude, but at least you’ll have a reason.  And you can’t develop reasons for breaking the rules if you don’t know what those rules are in the first place.

Learn the rules first, kiddies.

But when you finally do learn them, that’s when the fun starts.  That’s when you can start playing around with concepts and structures, as long as they make sense.  That’s important.  If it doesn’t make sense or if you can’t explain why you wrote a certain passage that way, then you’re a blowhard and just throwing meaningless words on a page impulsively, like a painter flinging paint splatters onto canvas and calling it art.  No good.  Anyone can do that, right?

But if you can explain why this passage is written the way it is, and it makes sense, you’re an artistic visionary.

For example, most books have chapters, right?  Cujo by Stephen King, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and To the White Sea by James Dickey have no chapters.  If real life has no chapters, then no-chapter books, by extension, are a reflection of that.  They force you to read through the books non-stop because sometimes life is unrelenting.  The structure is brilliant.

We have been taught in our English classes never to start sentences with conjunctions.  But fiction writers do it all the time.  Why?  Because fiction is all about the flow and the sound of the words and starting sentences with conjunctions can add to that effect.

Don’t head hop in a single scene.  It’s disorienting to the reader.  That’s another rule we learn.  But yet (what’s that pesky conjunction doing at the beginning of my sentence?), some professional authors do it well, like Nora Roberts.  I wouldn’t recommend this approach for novice writers, however.

Something I have heard is to limit your viewpoints to only two or three main characters.  And yet Tom Clancy wrote very successfully using more than three viewpoint characters.  Can I let you in on a secret?  I’m having a blast writing my newest book from the viewpoints of many characters.  To me, it’s something I’ve never done before, but more importantly, the book feels more complete this way.

Learn the rules, and then feel free to break them.  In fact, the only rule I advise you to not break is to not bore your readers.  I hope I will not bore my readers with my newest book, and I hope I won’t get in BIG TROUBLE for my unconventional structuring.  Only time will tell whether I’m a buffoon or a visionary.  I’m hoping for the latter.


7 thoughts on “Throw the rules out the window

  1. Yes, but the rules change! I’m reading some of Dickens (aloud) and I sometimes have trouble breathing; his sentences can easily be half a page long with multiple adverbial phrases, innumerable flowery adjectives, 17 subordinate clauses and two interspersed intermezzos introduced with m-dashes. Try getting that sort of prose past an editor these days! And yet his writing is incomparable IMHO.

    1. And the reason why a lot of people have trouble with Dickens today is probably our lower standards of learning. I love the works of Dickens. Tolkien and Austen as well. I have no problem reading them, but then I grew up in a time when these were the standards. Today’s editors try to please the majority of readers today. Yes, the rules have changed, but did they change for the better? That’s a matter of opinion. Not that mine counts for much.

  2. Dickens writing is incomparable. There’s two things I want to say about this: First, Dickens was writing in the 1800’s. Conventions have changed. Second, if someone can get away with that nowadays and make the writing legible and second to none, then I say all the more power to them. I could never write like that! 🙂

  3. Well thought out article, Patrick. Thank you. I agree with everything, except maybe the head hopping. I did that with my first three novels, and now when I go back and look them over (in the process of rewriting my first), I can see why readers would get confused. I’ll stick to one head per scene from here on out. I still read books written in the omniscient style and enjoy the stories, but to be honest, I prefer being in one head at a time until the scene changes.

    1. Oh, I agree, Sharon. I would never head hop, either. In fact, I usually critique that when I see that in other people’s writing. My only point was that there are successful authors who do head hop and make a decent living at it. I think it’s sloppy, unfocused writing, but their readers, their fans, don’t seem to care. Thanks for the reply!

  4. Jackson Pollock flung paint on a canvas, that rule breaker!

    I prefer if the entire chapter is from one perspective. Make it obvious when that changes.

    Robert Asprin, author of the Myth Series (funny stuff, highly recommended) wrote most of those books from the same characters’ perspective. A few of the books switch character perspectives often. I find I don’t like those books as much.

    1. Then you probably won’t like my newest book as much. 🙂 Convergence was written from one person’s perspective. My new book has multiple viewpoint characters, though I do limit one viewpoint character to just one scene. Thanks for the comment, Chris!

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