Today, I came across a blog post over at Hunter’s Writings that contained a very handy infographic on writing rules. Of course, all writers know that the “rules” are made to be broken. The thing to remember, though, is that some rules are more breakable than others, and even the more breakable rules are there for a reason.
The Infographic : The Writer’s Rule Book or Writing Maxims
The things to remember before you break the “rules”:
1) You need to know the rules and why they are there before you break them.
I’m sorry. I know it’s tedious and boring and that we all want to do things in our own way. No one want’s their work to look cookie-cutter or like anyone else’s. We each want our work to be unique. The thing is, my way of showing rather than telling or of using active rather than passive voice will look nothing like your way of doing those things. The rules are there because they have been proven over time to work, but there are as many different ways of following the rules as there are unique author voices in the world.
2) you need to know why you are breaking the rules and what the outcome is likely to be or what effect the rule-breaking is likely to have on your work (or at least what you hope the outcome or effect will be).
It isn’t always possible to know what the outcome or effect is going to be, and I am all for experimentation and trying new things. Just do it with a critical eye. Ask yourself every so often, “Is this working? Why/why not? Can I tweak something to make it work better?” and most importantly, “Is it helping or hurting the telling of my story?” and “Is it distracting?”
Get good beta readers you can trust to tell you when something is or isn’t working. Point out your wanton rule-breaking and ask them what they think of it. There is no shame in admitting that something doesn’t work the way you hoped it would. Sometimes it works better! Sometimes you can tweak it and make it work. And sometimes you have to go back and change things. That’s why it’s called the creative process.
Some people break the rules without those two things, and it works out. Erin Morgenstern did it brilliantly in The Night Circus, and I recall reading something she said about not knowing that writing in present tense was (at the time) considered “against the rules.” That rule has, of course, changed since then, and writing in the present tense has become fairly common. I would point out, however, that it is not always done well (it is frequently done very badly), and should, therefore, be done carefully. I would place, “Don’t write in the present tense,” in that Level 3 section of the infographic.
So I’ll add a third thing to remember about breaking the rules:
The “rules” can and do change.
For the record, I don’t agree with all of the rules presented in the infographic. I know how to break every single one of them in Level 3. But I also know how, when, and why it is or is not a good idea in my own work or writing process. I flat out disagree with the one that says, “If you want to sell, write to current trends” (if you do that, you’ll always be behind). And of course, it’s impossible to put all the “rules” on one infographic. There are whole books dedicated to the topic.
The trick is to break the rules in the best way possible to enhance your work. Be flexible in both following and breaking the rules. The goal is to always to tell your story as effectively as possible.