When I was in school (you know back before computers, DVDs, whiteboards, felt tip pens, cars, fire. Okay maybe not that long ago, but you get the idea) I was often accused of thinking that the rules everyone else had to follow didn’t apply to me. I talked in class without being called on. I stared out the window and daydreamed. I had swordfights with dull scissors. I left school grounds to look for fossils during recess. I wrote on my desk. I taped up a sign that said class had been canceled due to a heating failure.
This didn’t help my grades (or my mother’s health) most of the time. My teachers constantly told me how much better I would be doing if I just paid attention and followed the rules. Interestingly enough, many of the things that got me in trouble in class have helped me in my writing. Having a vivid imagination, envisioning epic battles, having way too much to say, and a desire to explore unknown territory are great ways to come up with creative story ideas.
Not coloring inside the lines can be great for an author. But just as it was a detriment in school, believing that the rules don’t apply to you as an author can have disastrous results.
It might sound like I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth (an expression I’ve never completely understood since speaking out of only one side of your mouth makes you seem odd at the least, and highly suspicious of some nefarious activity at the worst.) How can not following the rules be both good and bad?
Thinking differently is a good way to find a new perspective. When I was imaging Demon Spawn, I started with the basic assumption most people have that angels are good and demons are bad—with humans falling somewhere in between. But what if you saw the world through the eyes of the demons? Might angels be bad? How would demons view Hell—their home—and the humans damned to spend eternity there? Not sticking with the usual rules helped me see things if a different light.
But one thing I see a lot as I teach writing classes and attend conferences is people who believe the things they are being taught don’t apply to them. Prologues don’t usually work? Mine does. Beginning your story with a dream sequence is a bad idea? Mine doesn’t count. Head-hopping within the same chapter or section is generally a bad idea? But look at this great author or that one who got away with it.
We agree with the rules that we followed in our books, but the ones we broke are really more like suggestions. It’s okay for us to break them, because they don’t apply to us.
Here’s the thing. Every rule has been broken by a good author who knows what they are doing. I recently read, “You,” which is written in present tense, second person. “You see this. You do that.” See what your creative writing teacher thinks of that idea. I’ve read books by famous authors that start with flashbacks, dreams, flowery descriptions. I’ve read books where absolutely nothing happens for the first hundred pages. If you want to disagree with a writing rule, you can find an example of pretty much anything.
Sports are the same way. There are amazing basketball shooters who launch the ball off balance, from one side of their body, while falling away. There are batters who stick their elbow out, or bounce their arm up and down while the pitcher is throwing the ball. There are quarterbacks that throw sidearm. Superstars break all the rules and get away with it. Does that mean coaches should teach young athletes to imitate those styles?
Those athletes get away with these flaws because they are so incredible. They succeed despite the fact that they are “doing it wrong.” They’ve managed to teach themselves to hit the ball or make the shot, while compensating for the errors that you or I could not get away with. If we tried to imitate them, we’d fail miserably.
Can you break a rule and still write a great book? Of course. Does that mean you should ignore the rules? Definitely not. If you fill a chapter with back story and infodumps, 99.9 times out of a hundred you are wrong. Can you make it work? Maybe, but the odds are hugely stacked against you. The rules are there for a reason. Before you break them, ask yourself if there is any way you can avoid it. Do you really need that flashback on page two? Even if it will probably get your novel rejected? Is your story really strong enough to survive a protagonist that doesn’t learn and grow during the story?
Breaking rules is inevitable, and sometimes it is the right thing to do. But the rules are there because the vast majority of the time, breaking them will make your story worse, not better. Every time you are tempted to break the rules, do three things.
1) Make sure you understand what the rule is and why it is there in the first place.
2) Examine your story and see if there is a way to accomplish what you want without breaking the rule.
3) Try writing your prose while keeping the rule and see which version your beta readers like better.
If after all that, you still want to break the rule, go ahead and swing away. Just make sure you hit the ball.