writing rules we dont need no stinkin rules

Writing Rules? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rules!

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 Writing Rules  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?

Why You Should Blow Off Writing Rules

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 intriguing 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,  and the Brontës (and even comparatively 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.

Why You Shouldn’t Blow Off the Writing Rules

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 had paud 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. 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.

Finding the Balance Between Blind Faith and Literary Anarchy

That said, the writing 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 expectations, 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 William Faulkner), but they aren’t made to broken often and certainly not by just anyone. To throw up your hands and ignore the rules indiscriminately is stupid. Why would anyone—publisher or reader—want to stumble through the ramblings of an 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. Proceed with caution. Even veteran authors don’t cast caution to the wind very often. Off-hand, I can’t think 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.

Révolution, anyone?

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever intentionally broken a writing rule? Did it work out?

Writing Rules? We Don't Need No Stinking Writing Rules!

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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. Linda Yezak says

    Am I a rule-breaker with Cat Lady? I’ve seen first-to-third person switches in James Patterson’s work, so I know I’m not being innovative. I’m just having fun! 😀

  2. I know some people who’d probably think you were breaking the rules. (Makes you feel deliciously rebellious, doesn’t it? ) But you’re doing what your story demands – and it’s more than obvious that you’re having a blast doing it!

  3. Yes! It’s all about being aware that there’s a choice, and being aware of what you’re doing when you make that choice.

    I was the production manager of a small newspaper years ago on which I was assigned an assistant who wanted to superimpose graphics over our back page of calendar listings. I explained patiently, “We can’t do that. People won’t be able to read the listings,” and she said piously, “Rules are made to be broken.”

    Of course, it was Flannery O’Connor who said, “You can do anything in fiction that you can get away with. Unfortunately, nobody’s ever gotten away with much.”

    best,
    Victoria

  4. I would posit that there’s only one rule in fiction: You have to know all the rules before you can break them!

  5. I wonder what happens if, like me, you’ve no idea what the rules actually are?

    • I was checking o to see if I was the only one unaware of all these rules. Glad to see, I’m not. 🙂

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        The writing life is a journey of learning. None of us ever learn them all. That’s what makes each new day as a writer exciting!

  6. Breaking the rules on purpose as a calculated risk is one thing. Breaking them out of ignorance, however, is never good. Fortunately, there’s an easy answer. All you gotta do is learn the rules! Studying writing craft books, blogs, and magazines and reading widely and deeply of good fiction is the best way to learn how to write. Attending workshops and hiring an editor are good steps as well.

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  8. Have you ever read the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind? In it, his main character Richard is a mage, but if he learns the fundamental principles of how to use his magic he can’t use it at all. He uses his magic instinctively. I like in (I think) the second book, it told how he could shoot an arrow and his the target every time without thinking about it, but if presented with too many facts, like the wind speed and the angle and such, he just couldn’t hit the target. I read this and realized that this is exactly how I write. I read all these ‘how to write books’ and learn the grammar and such, but the more I read about that, the less I can write. However, take away all the jumble of rules and just let me write and I can write a pretty wonderful story. I am not saying everyone is like that, but it may be the reason why in actually editing my books, I get lost, and my arrow misses the mark every time.

  9. There’s a lot of truth to that. For all that I (obviously) believe in the importance of how-to books and blogs, there are times when we just need to shut off the chatter and WRITE. Everybody has their own take, and while we can learn a little something from everybody, the most important thing is finding what works for *us.* Sometimes the only way to do that is just to stop reading and start experimenting.

  10. I find talk of “rules” to be a bit of a straw man. It’s what those of the “free me!” school of writing use to set up a phony argument and justify their writing when it doesn’t sell.

    I prefer the term “fundamentals.” They are there for a reason. The great John Wooden, who I got to study under, won all his championships because his teams were trained in the fundamentals. Then they could “riff” when necessary.

    But fundamentals can seem boring and too much like “work.” Um, yeah. Writing success is not going to come from running through a forest shouting “Revolution!” at the top of your lungs. I fear that writers hearing this will run along after the shouters because it seems to relieve them of the burden of learning a craft. There is going to be a pile of bodies at the bottom of gorge.

    There is also a false idea out there in some quarters that learning the craft somehow shuts down all creativity and originality. In fact, craft is what enables the real story you’re writing to connect with readers.

    It is quite true, Katie, that when one is writing, the fire needs to flow. It’s here that fundamentals kick in. The whole point with basketball was that your body knew what to do, via muscle memory. You didn’t have to think it through at the moment you needed it.

    The same with writing, the more you know and practice, the more you can let it flow when writing, and then–then!–you can also know what to do to fix things.

    Fundamentals work, that’s why they’re called fundamentals.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree with this 100%. Organization makes everything easier, and “the rules” are, above all, about organization. So while it’s fun to shout “revolution!” now and then, that’s not really what I’m promoting here at all. I like the term “fundamentals” much better than “rules” as well. Really, it’s the term “rules” that *is* the problem. Its very connotation presents confinement, instead of the liberation that comes with a solid understanding of story principles, why they work, and why, on those very rare occasions, we might want to bend them.

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