Most of us have been there: after handing over the draft we’ve worked so hard on, an editor, critique partner, agent, or even a friend says, “You can’t do that!”
What we think of as the rules of Writing 101 aren’t necessarily set in stone, but a collection of pitfalls to avoid lazy writing, prose that annoys or lulls your readers, and clichés and tropes seen over and over.
But sometimes, we need to break the rules. To do so, I encourage writers in my classes to do three things:
Know the rules you’re breaking.
During a recent class on Breaking the Rules, someone asked, “Hey, where are these rules, anyway?”
Though there is no one place where the rules are written – indeed you can find countless sites offering advice ranging from utilitarian to listacles of a blogger’s pet peeves – however, here are a few of my favorite sites that cover much of the publishing industry’s expectations.
- From Elmore Leonard, he both sets out common rules and explains them.
- Another good pulse on today’s clichés and tropes.
- This one is written as half satire, but William Safire lists the rules while breaking them to show how it’s done.
Know the tradeoffs you’ll make when you break the rules.
Using the occasional adverb is not going to lose you many readers, but starting a book with the weather or using a mirror to describe your protagonist’s appearance just might be enough to give a reader the wrong impression. However, if these things are essential to your story, it’s important to stay true to your vision and commit to breaking the rule with intention (more on that in a minute).
Other decisions, writing in epistolary format or from the second person or from present tense, make readers work harder. In some cases, you’ll lose readers who don’t want to make that effort. That’s okay: Very few of us (dare I say none) write books that can please every reader. Write the best book for your readers, and those broken rules will not only make sense to them, but likely not even register.
Break rules with purpose and intention!
Reusing an example from above, if you have to begin your book with the weather, make sure the piece can’t start any other way. Instead of simply reporting the weather, ensure it’s a character in and of its own right. Our lead sentences should hook the reader and so if the weather must do this, surprise the reader, delight them – perhaps make them laugh.
Rule breaking in writing is not unlike the concept of suspension of disbelief. When we commit to the concept, our readers will come along for the ride.
Finally, to read more about the ins and outs of craft, you might check out:
- Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass
- Stein on Writing, Sol Stein
- Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Dave King & Renni Browne
Other writing books that I enjoy that are more about the life of writing than structure:
- Bird by Bird, Ann Lamott
- On Writing, Stephen King
- Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
- Wonderbook, Jeff Vandermeer
- Snowflake Method, Randy Ingermanson
Happy Writing! And if you want to talk about rules you’ve broken, just leave us a comment below!