Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On Rule Breaking

I spend a lot of time studying writing craft. I devour non-fic books on the topic. I analyze novels-- what works, what doesn't, what is brilliant, what is crap. And I think about craft a lot, writing in notebooks and filling pages with my thoughts on all different aspects.

Like, what makes a good twist? How do I put tension behind every piece of dialogue? How can I use any single mention of a character to further develop them? What elements am I using to hook readers from the start? (In my current wip, I'm using imagery to pull the reader right into my world, and tension to make them wanna stay.) How should I end the first book in a series? (Actually just wrote a long musing email to Jade about this one. Verdict: End the book in a way that doesn't affect reader expectations too much. Yeah it's A LOT easier said than done.)

Anyway, lately I've been thinking a lot about writing rules, and breaking them. You always hear, "Learn the rules, master the rules, and then-- and only then-- can you break them."

And my reaction was basically:

Psh, whatever, I do what I want. I'm a REBEL.

At first.

But the more books I read, the more I started to realize... There are a lot of good books that break the rules, but they do it WITH PURPOSE, and that's what makes it good.

This means: THINK about every decision you make, and give every broken rule a PURPOSE. Actively choose to break the rule, instead of just letting happen, and know why you made that choice. It's not about breaking the rules because you know the rules and that gives you a free pass to break them.

For example, don't have your character talk constantly in run-on sentences just because you want them too, or just because you think it's FRESH and QUIRKY. And don't use a cop out excuse like, "That's just their voice" or "That's just the way they talk."

WHY do they talk that way? Are you trying to capture the stream of consciousness in first person present tense? Or maybe the character talks that way because when they get excited they forget how to switch off their mouth. Or maybe you're using a long run-on sentence to PURPOSEFULLY make the reader feel a little breathless or rushed.

In my current wip, my main character had just received some bad news, and her head was spinning. So I CHOSE to use a run-on sentence here because I wanted the reader to grasp that she wasn't really thinking clearly. That her mind was wandering and she was going off in this tangent and was so intent on NOT ending the thought because then she knows she'll be brought back to the present, where the bad news is right in her face.

In fact, in revisions I added about twenty words to this already very long sentence to make it more of a run-on. And immediately after this very long sentence, I used a couple of very short sentence fragments, to bring her back to the present. Which is cold. And hard. And painful.

Of course this isn't just about run on sentences or fragments. Creative punctuation usage, intentional lack of punctuation, big blocks of text, lots of white space, super short chapters, exceptionally long chapters, and any other rules you can think of.

Go on. Break the rules. Break them all, if you like. Just know WHY you're breaking them, and let that reason add power to your writing.


  1. Excellent post! I've been thinking a lot about this, too. You definitely have to have a reason to break the rules, and you definitely need to know what they are first.

    By the way, excellent rule breaking in your post : P

  2. You make a great point. Breaking the rules is fine if you know what you're doing and you're doing it with intent. :)

    And thanks for visiting A Nudge!

  3. This is a very insightful post! Too many times I see writers breaking the rules, just to be different. But standing out in a crowd isn't just about being different. Excellent points made here! :)

  4. I liked the title of this post immediately. But I liked it even more after I read your first sentence. Rules were made to be broken, especially writing rules. But you can't break them if you don't know them - otherwise it's not rebellion, it's just ignorance.