There are pretty much rules for everything, no? And even in inherently creative endeavors, which writing stories of course is, rules abound.
So, so often writers tell me they don’t want to mar their creative process by studying rules on writing. That those rules hamper the magic. Or destroy that elusive writer’s voice.
Can this possibly be true?
Yes. It absolutely can. But only in the very beginning, and only if you study all the rules about structure and characterization and pacing and yes, voice, before you write that fabulous story.
That’ll stop you quicker than Blue Bell ice cream got pulled from Texas stores last summer.
Because although we do have to learn all of the above in order to craft great fiction, doing so too soon—before creating—will send that muse flying off to Brazil for the season.
I’m fond of entrepreneur Richard Branson’s saying: “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”
Absolutely true when learning to write fiction.
In the beginning, write, write, write. Read the fiction of great authors. Then write, write, write. Rinse and repeat.
It takes quite a long time of massaging that muse to watch her start to grow wings. And, to find your own voice in the first place.
But once you’ve done all that, ah, now the rules come into play.
And the reason for that is simple. It’s not to hamper your creativity. Not to shove your round self into a square box. Not to make your work read like everybody else’s.
Not at all.
Rules of writing are there to help you. I promise.
They didn’t just come out of thin air.
Rather, they came from all the time and effort and blood, sweat, and tears of all of those scribes who came before you.
If you went on a mission to climb Mt. Everest, you wouldn’t hike out on your own up an uncharted path, would you? Wouldn’t you instead hire the right climbing team, the Sherpas who’ve been up that precarious path many times before, assuring you had all the right equipment, helping you with every icy treacherous step of the way.
Writing great fiction can be every bit as precarious, as all the successful authors I know say often. They know—they’ve fallen in the deep dark holes.
We all have.
But by learning the rules of structure, timing, pacing, and how to successfully effect all of those things, of how the characters influence the plot and how the plot changes the characters, of the enormous litany of things that go into all of this, well, you’ve just saved yourself years of trial and effort.
As I begin most of my talks at writer’s conferences with: Writing well really IS rocket science.
And I don’t know about you, but folks spend a decade in post-graduate studies learning how rocket ships work.
Writing well is no different.
Then we circle back to the beginning. I.e., once you’ve written and written and written, learned the rules, revised accordingly, have found your sea legs and confidently steer your ship, then—and only then—you can break any stinkin’ rule in the book.
Because rules were made to be broken.
That’s not just an old cliché. Okay, well, it is an old cliché! But in our case, it fits perfectly.
A litmus test exists for if breaking a rule will prove effective: Does it add more than it takes away.
For example, I’m a huge stickler on viewpoint, and all the various issues surrounding it. I won’t go into the whys of that here as we’d be in for another 10,000 words! But I’ve written about viewpoint extensively.
Sometimes, however, in a third-person-narrative story, I’ll let a subtle omniscient shift remain. Something that adds enormous punch. Or a poignancy that cracks open the reader’s heart just enough that it gets to stay.
Any time you break a rule, you’re going to lose something (for all the reasons the rules exists).
But do you gain more than you lose?
Simple question, with not always a simple answer.
That answer, however, is there. Find it. Be able to justify it—and not just in order to be right!
Your baby’s at stake here. So tread that tightrope carefully.
And then if the answer is yes, go joyfully break the rules you’ve so intensively studied to learn.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.”
Experience is a beautiful thing 🙂