Breaking the Rules

Breaking the Rules

Read enough advice about how to write fiction, and you will be deluged with rules. Show don’t tell.  Stop with all the exposition and give the reader action. No passive voice. Be concise. Purple prose confuses the reader. Don’t include unimportant details. Stop with all the adverbs. Reduce the use of -ing words. Cut out the filters words, they remove the reader an extra step from the point of view. Throw away words such as – just, only, thing, like, actually and don’t even think about using – suddenly. Vary your sentences. Don’t start every one of them with he, she, or proper name. Stick with “said” as a dialogue tag everything else is dross. This person doesn’t connect with first person stories, or heaven forbid, present tense first person.

Suddenly, every time I pick up a book for enjoyment I’m struck by how many of these rules are broken. I’m not referring to unknown authors either. For every rule, you can find a bestseller that ignored it. Massively popular books are riddled with examples of how to do it wrong according to the rules. Currently, I’m re-reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Millions of his books have sold. There are plenty of areas in the story for critics to complain about. The section I read through last night was filled with page after page of exposition. Backstory. Details, where any teacher would tell him it should be changed to a “show” experience. I get upset if I have more than two paragraphs without something happening in my story. I’ve read the entire series probably six times and only after having other people complain about “tell” in my work did I notice it in his novel. Of course, now that I’m focusing on how to make my writing better, all of this rule breaking sends up flashing neon signs to me. It makes it tough to read for entertainment.

I’ve seen people argue they don’t care about the rules and refuse to bother with them because they screw with the creative process. That might work few some writers, but I doubt it’s a good idea for the majority. If you don’t know the rules, you won’t know when it’s appropriate to break them. But keep in mind, if everyone followed all the rules every time with perfect grammar, it would be difficult for an author to display their particular style. However, not all styles work. I’m trying to stick with the mantra – All things in moderation.

I include lots of little observations in my current WIP. Small unimportant details about the world. They have nothing to do with the plot, but they do serve a purpose. Most of them are there to remind the reader the world they are experiencing is not the same as the one we live in. There’s probably a fancy term for this, but I call it – World building through random comments. I could’ve included in chapter one a detailed description of how people of this world are walking around with animal traits grafted onto their bodies. That would have taken a few paragraphs of what I would consider boring exposition. Instead, when MC walks into a restaurant he’s greeted by the hostess nervously playing with her tail. That’s it. No sideline paragraphs of exposition on why she would bother to have a tail put on her body. There’s also mention of skin dyed unnatural colors, animal prints covering the body, antlers, extra breasts, and even an offhanded mention of an extra penis.

So go ahead, break some rules, party on, have fun. Just try not break the same ones over and over again in a single story. The rules have come into existence for a reason. Show vs tell is there because without something actually happening in the story, your readers will become bored. The average reader might not even be able to define why they think the story bored them. Passive voice is frowned on because it confuses the object of the sentence. However, English is a screwed up language, and people regularly use passive voice. Side tracking into small details can be seen as a writer looking for filler material because there isn’t a lot to the story. Dangle a participle. End a sentence with a preposition just because it feels good. Toss in the occasional – She breathlessly uttered, “blah blah.” instead of using a – said. Do something insanely cliche’. Variety is the spice of life.

If you didn’t notice, I intentionally broke most of the rules while writing this. Fuck ‘em.

In my endless pursuit of more feedback, I’ve been attempting to gather a few people to form a new critique group. The basic format of the group will be to exchange chapters through email giving everyone time to go over the material and make notes, suggestions, point out places where something is unclear or breaks a rule for whatever the universe the story is working inside. After a few days or maybe a full week, we can get together using Skype or other app and discuss what we’ve found and email back to the originating author our notes. I would prefer to find people working on a novel (any genre). The material should be self-edited to the point where SPAG issues are gone, along with typos, and anything else a careful proofread would pick up. We’re looking to critique the material, not become editors. Send me an email, tweet or just comment on here, if you’re interested.

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8 thoughts on “Breaking the Rules

  1. You’ve got to know the rules to break the rules. Usually at the end I’ll read through the book slowly, making sure my brain registers each word–I’ll even read it aloud–because half these rules just stem from the breaking of them easily resulting in what sounds awkward.
    I would might be interested in a critique group, but I’m likely to start being really busy for pretty much the rest of the year within the next month so I probably wouldn’t have time.

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  2. Stephen King said the same thing about knowing the rules so you know how to break them, and I think that’s great advice. I recently read “Mistborn” again and noticed “felt,” telling instead of showing, plenty of “-ly” words, and three paragraphs in a row all starting with the same proper name. It’s a bestseller and I freaking love it. Rules schmules.
    I’d be very interested in being part of your critique group, partly in the hope that I’ll get to read that WIP you’re working on. I’m a novelist working primarily and fantasy/supernatural. If that sounds good, you can email me at fencingwithink@gmail.com.

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  3. I’ve noticed that most of the writers who get most angry about “The Rules” are new or inexperienced writers. They’ve suddenly realised that if they want a publisher to spend money on producing their book, or readers to spend money buying their book, they have to give publishers and readers what they want. This angers them because they want to be able to write whatever THEY want but a publisher to take on all the cost and risk. I find it a bizarre attitude.

    More advanced writers tend to echo this blog – what’s irritating about the rules is people (usually the angry ones I just wrote about) taking them as absolutes; “You will NEVER be published if you write a prologue!” (or whatever). Anybody who looks at it critically can see that’s BS.

    I think yours is the only sensible stance to take. Certainly be aware of the rules, the clichés, the tropes. Break them with purpose, not just because of some misplaced anger at people dictating your “art”. Break them well. And stop telling people there are absolute rules.

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  4. I’m so glad I wrote my book before I knew anything about the “rules” of writing. Now, it’s almost impossible to write bc I critique my structure before I ever even get the story down on the page. I’m too distracted by the details to be carried away with the characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I detest all those rules and avoid any fiction following them. Consequently, I will not be deterred from writing orgulously and incessantly fiction in my “tell, don’t show” mode.

    Liked by 1 person

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