How Do You Know Which Writing Rules to Break?

Writers are no exception to the “artists are rebels” stereotype. We’re rogues and rule breakers—and proud of it, thank you, ma’am. The only teensy little problem we have is that we’re not always certain which writing rules to break. Tongue in cheek, I often say writing has only one rule, and that’s “break all the rules.” That’s great fun, as far as it goes. But taken at face value, it won’t get us published or read.

The rules of writing are really more conventions than rules: long-held traditions that have become popular and effective ways of communicating our stories to our readers. There are no Writing Police (gatekeepers aside) who will slap you into cuffs for bucking those traditions, anymore than there’s a guarantee you’ll be published if you obediently follow all the rules. Writing isn’t a dot-to-dot puzzle that must be constructed formulaically. The best of art is all about experimentation and growth. That’s why we get to be wild and break a few rules.

Which rules should you break?

Popular advice says writers should “learn the rules, follow most of them, and break a few.” But which few? Are there certain rules that are concrete and others that aren’t? Are there certain rules that should be broken? It’s all so doggone confusing. We want to be breakout writers. We want to follow enough rules to get past the gatekeepers. But we also want to break the right rules to make our art unique and, yes, we admit it, think-outside-the-box brilliant.

So when the writing gurus tell you to be brave and break some rules, for crying out loud, which rules are they talking about? Because heaven forbid we choose the wrong rule to break and end up in the writer’s equivalent of solitary confinement.

This is where I tell you the million dollar secret. I am about to reveal the answer to this much pondered question. I’m going to unveil the veiled, unmask the masked, and just generally give it to you straight.

The right rules to break

The “right” rules to break depend entirely upon you as a reader.

Think about your own reading experiences. As a highly trained author, you no doubt read with one eye on the plot and the other on the craft. When an author strays from the beaten path and starts taking a baseball bat to the rules/conventions/traditions of the elders, which cracks of that bat make you cringe and which surprise and delight you?

Listen to your gut

Trust yourself as a reader—especially if you’ve educated yourself enough to read like a writer. When your gut tells you something works, even if your internal editor starts carping, pay attention.

Likely, the reason whatever author you’re reading is able to break this particular rule is because he’s doing it purposefully and skillfully—and brilliantly. Just because he’s pulling it off doesn’t mean you’ll be able to run over to your keyboard and be equally rebellious and brilliant. But if you understand and like what he’s doing, don’t be afraid to give it a little experimental whirl.

On the other hand, if your broken rule! broken rule! klaxon starts screaming in the middle of a good book and, instead of invoking an awed How’d he do that?, your gag reflex starts hopping, don’t you dare try to break that same rule in your own writing. Listen to the gut. It’s a better writer than the head. It knows which rules need to be broken to further a story—and which rules, if broken, will only nauseate your readers.

Tell me your opinion: What “rules” have you deliberately broken – and which are you adamant about keeping?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Maybe this isn’t a rule per se, but advice that I’ve heard and broken is having a specific writing space and writing at the same time every day. I just can’t follow this rule! I like to write in different places and at different times of day. This one just doesn’t work for me.

  2. I’m someone who works best on with a set routine and writing time. Staying in the groove is easier for me if I *have* a groove. But this definitely doesn’t work for everyone. Find what works best for you and stick with it – even if it means changing things up every day.

  3. I love to ruthlessly split infinitives

  4. I admit I do too. That’s one of those rules that I break with impunity whenever I feel doing so sounds better.

Trackbacks

  1. […] If you want your story to have a happy ending, but you’re afraid it’ll be labeled “chick lit,” don’t be. There is no wrong way to write a story. Forget about plot point one, climax and denouement. Don’t try to make your story fit a structure, if it so clearly doesn’t. Not sure which writing rules to break? Read this article from K.M.Weiland. […]

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