Breaking the Rules

Just yesterday, an Internet friend asked me to read his short story and offer him a little editorial advice. Sometimes I get nervous when friends ask me to read their writing, but I’d shared enough of a conversation with him to expect he’d know his way around words. I was right. Even though it was a first draft, the observational story (non-fiction, but with the textures of a great fiction piece) had plenty of bite and surprising depth.

One of the things that struck me about his story was the manner in which he introduced dialogue for the various characters. He didn’t separate it from the rest of the first-person narrative with expected paragraphs and punctuation. Writing rules would tell you this was a mistake, something to fix in the second draft. But after reading through the story multiple times, I was convinced it needed to stay exactly as written and told him so. To write the dialogue using a more traditional format would have weakened the story, stripped it of both intimacy and menace.

Now I’m fully aware that the short story often plays by different rules than a typical novel, but the rationale behind what makes a “broken rule” work in his story and what makes them work in novels is very much the same.

Anyone who reads (and/or writes) science fiction or fantasy knows the importance of consistent and believable “laws” for their created worlds. Nothing pulls a reader out of a story faster than a character who suddenly discovers a new ability that goes against the rules of the imagined universe. Suspension of disbelief evaporates the moment Sir. Junket of Swarthy swings his sword in the Arthurian tale and laser beams fly out of it to kill the minotaur. (Unless, of course, the story has been developed in such a way that all three elements play nice with each other. Then it would be just fine.)

The same is true for the writing craft in general. Take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for example. I’ll admit it took me a few pages to get used to McCarthy’s creative use of non-punctuation and sentence fragments. But the more I read, the more it made perfect sense for the story. The novel broke a ton of rules, but it did so with such consistency and believability and purpose, many thousands of readers (and those fine Pulitzer folks) didn’t mind one bit.

I’ve heard lots of writers complain about the “constricting nature of writing rules,” but more often than not, when I run into those broken rules in practice (head-hopping, sentence fragments, odd punctuation, etc.), they betray poor plotting or lazy writing rather than purpose. The best writing advice – to “just write” – is still and always the best approach to take when starting a new work. Don’t worry too much about the rules while writing the first draft. But once you start working on revisions, it’s critically important to carefully evaluate if what’s on the page draws the reader into the story or pulls them out of it. Can you really justify the head-hopping? Are the sentence fragments distracting or do they fit the rhythm and voice of the narrative?

Broken rules that truly serve the story are invisible to the reader.

One final note: If the novel you’re shopping has broken tons of writing rules, you might have a harder time selling it to an agent or publisher. Publishers are hesitant to take a chance on something that falls outside of familiar boundaries – especially if they have lots proposals for good books that fall within them.

But don’t stress too much about this. If what you’ve written is brilliant, you won’t go unnoticed.

Contest reminder: Look for this blog’s first writing contest to be announced on Friday. I’m not going to say any more about it until then. But between now and then, tell all your friends about noveldoctor.com. The greater the number of visitors to the blog this week, the bigger (and cooler) the contest prize.

2 thoughts on “Breaking the Rules

  1. For me, it seems when a writer is unfamiliar with “the rules” and breaks them, it always shows up in distraction. But a good writer who breaks them on purpose with full knowledge of his rebellion generally accomplishes his goal.
    (Never start a sentence with “and” or “but” unless it’s the beginning of a phrase to be separated by a comma, you know?)

  2. I believe you’re right on target with this. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go collect my copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. I think it’s being used to prop up a table leg.

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