Should You Really Be Breaking the Rules?

stopstart
photo by ba1969 via freeimages.com.

Do it! Don’t do it!

I see this thing that happens in the writing world. Someone poses a question about writing and there are two responses. There are the ones who say, “Well, you shouldn’t do…” or “Agents don’t like it when…” and present some kind of “rule.” Then there are the ones who jump all over those comments and say, “Don’t listen to that! Write your story how you want to! Break the rules!”

I think maybe both sides of the argument are missing something.

Rules are made to be broken, so the saying goes. You know what, though? It’s a pretty dumb saying, I think. I mean, really. It’s a rule that you stop at a stop sign. Sure, if no one’s around, you may coast a bit, but is it a good idea to break that rule if cars are cruising through the intersection?

Rules are there for a reason. I like to follow the rules. Bad stuff happens when you break the rules. (Believe me. Been there, done that about almost everything in my messy teenage years and twenties.)

But the bigger problem with this whole break-the-writing-rules sentiment actually goes deeper. First of all, they’re not “rules” at all. When I was thinking about the actual rules for writing, I could only come up with one: You have to tell a story. Whether it’s Hemingway’s famous six-word novel, “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” or a novel of 600,000 words, whether it’s a graphic novel or a picture book, there has to be a story.

Everything else is just advice. Show, don’t tell. Don’t start by describing weather. Don’t overuse adverbs. None of these are rules. And that’s where the real problem comes in. Our rebellious, be-unique, tell-the-story-my-way spirit rises up and gets more excited over not doing what we’re “supposed” to do according to the rules and makes us miss the point. This is advice. And advice is given for a reason.

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I hear it said around the MFA circles that you have to understand a rule before you can break it. I like this sentiment, but I take it a step further. I say, don’t see them as rules at all. See them as what they are—advice. Then, learn why.

Here’s an example. A question came up recently about starting a story with a dream and whether the writer should let the reader know it’s a dream. Of course, if you Google it, lots of people will tell you not to do it. But, it’s never a good idea to just do something (or don’t do something) without fully understanding why.

Like the stop sign, if you lived in an area where maybe you never saw another car at the intersection where the only stop sign in your town was, you might think stop signs are pointless, extra, and not really needed. After all, you’ve never seen a car there. Plenty of people cruise right through without fully stopping. But what happens when you visit a big city for the first time and stop signs and traffic are everywhere. Very suddenly, you realize the value of the signs and the reason for their existence. Hopefully, you realized this before you crashed.

This is true of writing advice. It’s not enough to know that you shouldn’t start with a dream sequence. You have to understand WHY people say not to. In this example, the reason commonly given is that the reader feels cheated in most cases. You read some awesome, epic scene that’s a little strange and you think this is the book, this is the story. Then the hero wakes up and goes about his day and the rest of the book is nothing like the beginning. Not a good feeling. Or maybe it’s a convenient way to get out info or have your hero find out something they wouldn’t have. There are all sorts of things dreams can do, but if the story starts after your hero learns he must save the world after a dream, it might seem a little false and feel poorly contrived. Readers usually don’t like that and they might put the book down or call you names on Twitter.

dreaming

On the other hand, there are probably lots of stories that start with dream sequences that do them well. That don’t cheat the reader or make the story feel forced. And that’s why people argue. They’ve seen it work. But back to the stop sign again. There are plenty of times you can cruise through without a full stop. But if a cop is nearby or other cars are coming, you better fully understand the reason that sign is there and know when to stop and when to go, or you’ll pay for it.

It’s worth it to research these things, to read all the advice. Not all advice is going to apply all the time. But the reasons behind the advice, will. You won’t get a ticket if you start with a dream sequence and that’s why it’s not really a rule. It can be made to work. But you still need to understand why it’s a potential problem so that if you choose to do something lots of people say don’t do, you can do it well. And you only learn the “whys” by reading up on craft, talking to other writers, trying it the wrong way, and following all the advice.

Don’t worry about breaking the rules. It’s not school, and you won’t get bonus points for looking cool to your friends. It’s advice, but the advice is there for a reason. Understand why the thing is said and you just might send your story cruising off into the sunset to live happily ever after.

Have you ever heard writing advice that didn’t make any sense?

8 thoughts on “Should You Really Be Breaking the Rules?

  1. This is such great advice. My writing mentor always tells me the thing about knowing the rules and know when to break them, but I think I like your way of putting it better. We need to know WHY! I think this is something I’ve struggled with regarding one of my crit partners. It wasn’t until she understood “why” I would point out adverbs or overuse of the word “was” that she started to improve. Another great post, Denise!

    1. Thanks! We have a saying at work that goes, “Without the reason the cost is too high,” and I think that applies to our thought process as writers, too. The cost of following any “rule” can seem high, unless you know the reasoning behind it. I always try to put a little “why” in my critiques, at least until I know they know why I’m saying cut this or that.

  2. Aloha Denise,
    After our talk on Twitter yesterday, I discovered your Youtube Channel and I can tell you that you’re doing a good job because your videos are surprisingly amazing!
    Best regards

    Houda

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