Being a writer can often feel like a synonym for being a “rule-follower,” at least if you want to be read by the masses. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books that praise the “rules,” and usually, I’m a staunch supporter.
But today I’m going to turn the tables and indulge in the authors who broke the rules and were rewarded with high acclaim and lots and lots of sales! Will that be your destiny if you choose to walk the forewarned path? Probably not. But it’s nice to know it’s been done.
For the sake of relevancy, the authors I’ve chosen are still alive in all their rule-breaking glory. While I’d love to mention Mark Twain and his bravery with regional dialects, publishing and reading standards simply aren’t the same today as they were in the days of yore.
1. Rule: Keep your PoV consistent
In the Martian, Andy Weir goes on an untraditional route by altering between first person and third person points of view. This is typically frowned upon, but in Weir’s case it works. Why? One, because he originally self-published his book and did what he wanted *snaps fingers* and two, because it demonstrates a unique perspective where we, the readers, are stuck on Mars with Watney and get to glimpse what’s happening on Earth. The more distanced third person point of view for Earth’s scenes are effective at giving the reader the feeling of being trapped on Mars, without being confused as to what’s actually going on.
I’m sure this rule has been broken a lot, but a good example is Hunger Games. Katniss wakes up in her bed with her sister missing. The rule exists because it can be a boring start to a story, and is far overdone. But it works in Hunger Games because the tone of the story is immediately set, foreshadowing the loss Katniss will have to endure.
3. Rule: Don’t begin a story with dialogue
Of all the rules, I believe this one can be most easily broken. There’s really nothing wrong with starting with dialogue verses starting with action. The argument is that if you start with dialogue, it plops the reader into a white room and leaves them confused with information they don’t know what to do with yet. But I say that it’s “how” you start the story that matters, and it can be done poorly no matter which route you take. Back to the point, Orson Scott Card has taught writing classes and sometimes his students are baffled when they see that his own books break the very rules he told them to follow. Well, that’s precisely the point. Rules are meant to be broken when you know what you’re doing. Ender’s Game is praised for its first line:
“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.”
It is said that the appeal of this line is because Card creates a number of questions for the reader. It doesn’t aim to provide information, but immediately forces the reader to begin asking interesting questions. According to literary agent Paula Munier, this would be known as narrative thrust, an essential hook in literature. As long as those questions move the plot forward and don’t leave the reader confused, but rather wanting more, it can be a powerful tool.
This one seems pretty important, and I would never recommend you do anything less than your best to polish prose, but if you put on your proofreader hat and take a look at Twilight, you’ll see that Stephenie Meyer doesn’t have the best writing technique. Her punctuation is all over the place, there are random commas and debatable placement of semicolons, along with a fair share of repeated words (which are supposed to be edited out) and improper tense agreements during Bella’s narration. Many writing-enthusiasts have been disgruntled by Meyer’s writing and have ranted on their blogs about this topic.
While there isn’t really an excuse for poor prose, since that’s one of the few writing skills that can either be learned or paid for, it turns out it didn’t matter in Twilight’s case. Even I couldn’t put these books down when they came out–and that was because I was exactly Meyer’s target audience at the time: a teenage girl interested in boys and the trendy setting of werewolves and vampires. This book can be argued to have been poorly written, but it plucks at the heartstrings of teenage girls everywhere and hit a trend at the perfect time. Sometimes breaking the rules means putting your focus and energy on what matters, and that’s speaking to your audience and what they want.
5. Rule: Don’t use exhaustive descriptions
The idea of this rule is to avoid boring the reader with anything that would remotely resemble the dreaded info-dump. Sometimes, info-dumps can work, but they have a specific time and place. I’d strongly recommend eliminating anything that smells like a dump (pun intended)–unless you seriously know what you’re doing.
In Daughter of Smoke and Bone, one of my personal favorites, Laini Taylor smashes this rule to smithereens with her dazzling lyrical prose. She has one of the most fascinating writing styles and she makes exhaustive descriptions work. They’re also very helpful when many of the main characters in this series tend to be Chimera, creatures whose DNA comes from multiple beasts. Trying to imagine a bat+deer+human could be challenging without a little extra help.
Breaking the rules can be exciting (we all want to be bad sometimes). But, just to be the annoying voice in your ear, make sure you understand the rules before you break them. That takes work, time, and perseverance, but that’s also what makes great writing. Happy rule-breaking!