Rules abound in the writing world (I’d say the “literary” one, but publishing these days has precious little to do with anything actually literary). Rules, however, govern the craft, to the chagrin of novice writers. “I just want to write,” and, “The rules take away my creativity,” or, “But so and so book author does this all the time!” And on and on. Writers give as many reasons for not learning writing’s rules, as there are rules to begin with.
But they exist for a reason. And that reason is truly not to satisfy grammar and composition teachers, but to help the writer get the most from her word buck, and to give the reader the very best reading experience possible—a clear and clean and well-written book allows him to zip through the action segments, heart pounding, puzzle over the mysteries, mind clicking, and ponder those parts that the author intended. In short, writing is all about communication, whether we’re talking fiction or non. You, as the author, are trying to convey something to your reader. This runs the gamut from how to make a better guacamole dip to solving the perfect murder to contemplating/understanding the secrets of the Universe (or just one slice of it). And the way in which you write your book, the rules you use, the ones you break, all add up to whether the whole package works. I.e., getting your intent across in the manner that best facilities this book.
And that’s the point, no? The rules are there for your benefit, as the author, to use at your discretion to fashion the best possible read for your audience. Period. And conversely, the ones you break can make your book.
First off, however, you must know the rules. So, you study and learn, understand and use them. Once you’re familiar with them inside and out, then and only then can you begin to break rules effectively. And then, only for specific reasons. In other words, you must be able to justify to me (or another novel editor or agent) exactly why you broke this or that one, and what you sought to accomplish through it. Most manuscripts I see where the rules are broken, the writer doesn’t know he’s doing so. Plus, that excuse of: “Well, that famous author did this in his last book,” begs the question: did it work? Did the author achieve a special effect by doing so, and can you tell me what that was? Or was it just sloppy writing?
As an example, viewpoint shifts are rampant in new writers’ works. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these writers don’t understand viewpoint in the first place, and must learn to work in Point of View correctly, which takes a lot of study (and often a lot of screaming to boot!). And then I’ll recommend a book that breaks the rules effectively (and extremely) to give a broader understanding. Carlos Fuentes’ Gringo Viejo shifts viewpoints not only during scenes, not even just in paragraphs, but often within a single sentence. Told in stream-of-consciousness, the read is quite difficult. But it fits the subject matter perfectly—which too, is very ethereal and obtuse. On the outside, the story is action/adventure, which one would think should lend itself to straightforward telling. In actuality, however, the themes are much deeper, much more complex, and speak to the human psyche—which is, in itself, a rather difficult read. Rest assured, however, Fuentes, a master at novel development, knew he was breaking the rules, why he was doing so, and I’d wager was quite happy with his results.
So, the point here is that as a storyteller, your job is to use what works. That’s the bottom line, and the only thing that truly matters. In order to use what works, however, you must thoroughly understand why one is correct and what it brings to your story, why another is an infraction and what it takes away from your book, and then come to fully grasp the nuances underlying each. Only then do broken rules work.
How do you know if to break or not break a rule is effective? You know. That’s the paradox of this sort of creation. Once you’ve put in the blood, sweat, and tears to really learn your craft, that other side of the brain kicks in and you “feel” your path, having an internal sense of the right one. Esoteric, yes. But then, this is a creative endeavor, no?
Writing well is a long, long process. There is so incredibly much to learn. As I say all the time: Writing really IS rocket science.