How To Break The Rules

Like every other endeavor, creative or not, fiction has rules. And it has more rules than I could possibly list here, in all sorts if categories, from character (we have to care about your character) to plot (you have to have a climax) to basic writing mechanics (you have to have consistent sentence structure).

And every single one of these rules can be, and has been, successfully broken.

Now the problem with this is that a lot of beginning writers, frustrated with the rules they are accused of breaking, latch on to the above sentence and pick an example of great, rule-breaking fiction, let’s say, Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” and say, “See! It’s a great story told in mostly exposition with no characters. I can do whatever I want, WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” and then write awful dreck and start screaming and crying that Teh Eeevul Establishments (Patriarchy/Left Wing Gatekeepers/Cishet Scum) Does Nawt Rekunnize Muh GEENyus.

This is dumb. This is very dumb.  This is like my nine year-old son who keeps wanting to make movies based loosely off Star Wars and games based loosely off Minecraft only with all the tension taken out. Except he has an excuse: he’s nine. Actual writers have to be adults.

So, here is what I have learned about how breaking the rules really works. I’ll give an example from my own story, “Requiem With Interruptions,” which was my second published story, sold to a pro magazine. In it, I broke three rules:

1) Never have more than one viewpoint character in a story.
2) Never have more than one type of POV (point-of-view)  in a story.
3) Never switch tense in a story.

So, how did I break these rules and still have a saleable story? Well, let’s look at why these rules exist in the first place. The rules — most rules in fiction, in fact — exist so that you do not confuse the reader. Readers do not like being confused. They like being puzzled to a certain degree, but that is not the same thing. Leading the reader into a mystery while making them wonder what is going on is a purposefully-crafted technique. Confusion is just an accident. The challenge, therefore, was how to create the effect I wanted, which was to puzzle and intrigue the reader, without confusing them.

So first, I came up with my own rules, governing how the story would be presented:
1) There would be a 1st person, 2nd person, and 3rd person-limited POV.
2) 1st person and 3rd person would always be in past tense. 2nd person would always be in present tense.
3) The order these POVs would be presented in would be strictly cyclical: From 2nd to 1st to 3rd, and then repeating.

By doing this, I was presenting chaos in order. The reader never had to figure out where we were. The rhythm was clear. Which leads me to my first induction: The more you break some rules, the more strictly you must adhere to the other rules. I did not mess around with plot structure. I did not mess around with things like antiheroes. I did not (much) mess around with weird sentence structure. Every rule broken served a purpose. Which leads to my second induction: You break rules for clearly understood reasons.
Nonconformity for its own sake isn’t cool. At best, it’s showing off. At worst, it looks like the arrogance of ignorance, and Dunning-Kruger isn’t a famous author. And this leads to a corollary: The more you like breaking the rules, the better you have to know them.

Okay, I hope this helps anyone out there who is still on an earlier stage of writing than me. Go learn and break rules in good health.

3 thoughts on “How To Break The Rules

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