Friday, May 25, 2012

The Rules of Writing (And Why I Break Them)


Some things are set in stone, such as the Ten Commandments, taxes, and most statues. There are laws for most everything, laws that make things "work". The law of gravity keeps us on the ground.

As in everything, there are rules in fiction writing. Maybe you've heard of them. Here's some of the more important and (in)famous ones:

- Show, Don't Tell

- No mid-scene POV transitions

- Stay away from information dumps

- Stick to "said"

- Have conflict in every scene

- Don't bore yourself

They sound familiar, don't they? Those are some of the general rules that define "good writing". Good writing sticks to the rules, most of the time.

But as I'm continuing to write, I'm realizing something.

Rules can be broken.

I'm doing One Year Adventure Novel for the second time, as you already know, but this time, I'm breaking the rules. Instead of one POV, first person, and twelve chapters, I'm doing multiple POVs, third person, and twenty-four chapters.

Why am I allowed to do this? Because I've already followed the rules. I've mastered them, so to speak. That doesn't mean I've perfected them, of course, but I've proven that I can follow the rules and follow them well with my first OYAN novel, which was The War Horn.

Here's another general rule in writing: if you've mastered a rule, you can probably break it.

But only if you've mastered it. The reason we have rules is so we can write well. But once we're writing well, we can break the rules so we can write better.

Does that make sense? Let me break it down for you.

The purpose of Show, Don't Tell is to make us write better. Telling slows down our fiction, bores the reader, and shows the writer's voice, when the writer is to be invisible. Besides, showing a conflict about a man's old drinking habits is much preferable to "telling" the reader that the man used to have drinking habits.

BUT—if you can "tell" without doing those things, does that invalidate the rule? (There's a long and complicated discussion behind that question, so for the sake of brevity I won't go into it.)

Andrew Peterson breaks the "stay in POV" rule quite often in his Wingfeather Saga, for instance. Sometimes, at the end of his chapters, he puts things like, "If Janner hadn't been so worried, however, he might have noticed the Fang nearby" or some such. Completely not-allowed, of course, if you're strictly following the POV rule. But this actually helps the story, because it adds tension and suspense and doesn't slow down the story at all. Since the story is a saga written as if it were being told 'round a fire, that usage of POV is okay.

The Lord of the Rings is a fantastic epic, but it has all sorts of "bad writing" in it, according to our rules. Yet, if it hadn't broken our "rules" then it wouldn't be the epic it is today.

Another example would be adverbs. OYAN tells you to avoid adverbs, and for a good reason. But once I learned how to avoid adverbs, I started using adverbs again, because now I have learned how to use them correctly.

So what am I telling you? Well, I'm not telling you to go out and break the rules of writing. In most cases, the rules of writing apply. But there are exceptions.

At some point, however, you have to decide whether to follow a rule or break it. Once you've mastered the rule, however, you should have the wisdom to decide whether following a rule will help your writing or hurt it.

But even when you decide to stop blindly following all the rules simply because they're rules, don't throw them out. They're valuable, created by people with decades more experience than you (assuming that you're a fairly young writer), and their wisdom is much greater than yours.

However, if you're still a fairly new writer that struggles with writing "quality" prose, stick to the rules. They'll build you up and help you write good stuff. Wait 'til you have more experience to start making and breaking your own rules.

Jeff Gerke puts it simply: "Be teachable [about writing], except when you stop. And even when you stop being teachable, stay teachable."

So what do you think? What are some writing rules that can be broken in certain circumstances? Do you even agree that the rules of writing can be broken?

Let's talk.


5 comments:

Hannah Joy said...

Yay! You mentioned two of my favorite series--The Wingfeather Saga and LOTR! :-)

But really good post. I think that rules and schools are tools for fools, in the words of Constance Contraire. ;-) I mean, sometimes, yes, you should follow the rules. But I think you're right--rules, once mastered, can be broken. Good post.

Eruantien Nenharma said...

Bravo! This was a well-written post, and very true! Great job, Jake. : )

Anonymous said...

Good stuff.

Miss Jack Lewis Baillot said...

This makes me feel better. I've been learning the rules over time, but I never really completely did them. When I stick to certain things my writing is better, but if I break certain things it improves. I use things other then said because it annoys me, personally. I sometimes tell, because showing just isn't an option in that part of the story.

Well, basically, I never did any kind of writing class and taught myself, so I've only recently been discovering my own style and what works and doesn't work, so forth. now I don't know if I'm a rule breaker, keeper, or in between-er. (D, all of the above).

Very good post, got me thinking.

Ninja Tim said...

That was a refreshing post to read. =)

Thank you for so clearly laying out the value of rules, but also the enormous value of masterfully breaking rules as well. Probably all the greatest masters in art throughout history have broken the rules or made up their own at some point; it hasn't always resulted in masterpieces, but it does go to show that rules aren't the ultimate standard.