Art has to bear up under the strange dichotomy of both following set patterns and breaking those patterns. Writing is certainly no different.
The so-called Rules of writing are what make stories work. And, probably more importantly, they’re what get authors published. Readers and publishers alike expect stories to follow certain parameters. Authors are supposed to maintain consistent POVs, follow traditional story arcs, and play fair with foreshadowing and revelation. When authors violate these (and myriad other) “rules,” they risk angering the two most important people in their professional lives—the publisher who pays them and the reading public who ensure that they continue to be paid.
Authors who blow off the recognized standards of fiction aren’t likely to make it very far in the business. Or are they?
Although the likes of Aristotle have been writing fiction how-to for centuries, the current glut of instructional manuals and workshops are a relatively new innovation. Every age in history has recognized certain (sometimes varying) “good forms” of writing, but the would-be writer of yore certainly wasn’t able to stroll down to the corner and buy himself the latest copy of Ye Olde Writer’s Digeste.
I find it very intriguing to note that some of the greatest literary minds of all time thrived in this period before our current inundation and even obsession with THE RULES. The likes of Dickens, Cervantes, the Brontës, and even more modern literary giants such as Conrad and Conan Doyle, were certainly great students of their art, but they were not slaves to the recognized institutions and time-honored guidelines of that art. Even more interesting is the fact that the greatest writers of our own times are often better at innovating than they are at following the old paths.
Now please don’t think I am encouraging literary anarchy. Writing without rules would be chaos indeed. From the tiniest dictum about comma placement to the broadest expectation regarding plot use—rules are not only important, they are necessary. If someone was paying me to read every book in which I’ve stumbled across a glaring, irritating, confusing, or farcical gaffe, I’d probably be able to afford my own private mountain by now.
The bare fact of the matter remains that authors need Rules. Writing fiction—especially novel-length fiction—is a precarious and heady experience, and we need all the guidance we can get. It is a tremendous blessing that information about writing is so readily available these days. I’ll never forget the first writing how-to book I read. I was in the process of writing my fourth novel, and up to that point, I’d written mostly on sheer instinct. The fact that I’ve always read voraciously meant that I’d already been instilled with some pretty good habits. But not until I began learning about the framework beneath a story’s trappings—about all the little gears and cogs that make a story work—did the old light bulb finally flash.
Once I understood the rules—once I understood the basics of POV, dialogue, setting, character, plot, theme, etc.—suddenly, I not only had a gut feeling about what made a story work, I knew. Gut feelings are awesome. I truly believe that no one can succeed as a writer without them. But without knowledge to back up those gut feelings, a writer is essentially groping around in the dark.
That said, the rules can only take you so far. In fact, the whole idea that these rules are even Rules at all is a mistaken notion. Writing, as a form of art, is all about experimentation, innovation, and expansion. Within the confines of standard expecations, you can only expand so much. In truth, there is only one rule of writing: All rules are made to be broken.
Now before you get all excited and start running around the room screaming “Révolution!”, let me tap on the brakes. The rules are most definitely made to be broken (just ask James Joyce), but they aren’t made to broken often and certainly not by just anyone. To just throw up your hands and ignore the rules indiscriminately is stupid. Why would anyone—publisher or reader—want to stumble through the ramblings of a beginning author who didn’t even have the discipline to learn the bare bones of his craft?
Before you can go around smashing (or even poking at) the esteemed foundations of literature, you first have to understand those foundations. To break a rule without knowing you’ve broken it is ignorance. To break a rule intentionally—that’s innovation.
But, be wary. Innovation is a risky and oft-misunderstood venture. Just because you break a rule on purpose doesn’t mean your readers are going to appreciate it. So proceed with caution. Even veteran authors don’t cast caution to the wind very often.
I can’t think off-hand of even one rule I’ve ever had the need to intentionally break. But, in the back of my mind, I know that I have earned (and, in some cases, am still earning) the right to break a rule should I ever need to.
Story by K.M. Weiland