After we’ve been writing for a while, we’ve heard our share of writing rules. Sometimes we’re taught to avoid certain techniques, like prologues. Or we might be told that some storytelling approaches are too risky, such as using second-person point of view.
We might struggle with the balance between following the rules and stifling our voice. Or we might fear we can’t write the story we want to write because it doesn’t “fit” what’s expected.
However, for every rule, we can probably think of an exception that managed to break the rule—successfully. So what “lesson” should we really take away about writing rules?
Should We Ignore the Exceptions or Try to Learn from Them?
For many writers and editors, the lesson has usually been to ignore the exceptions: “Just because so-and-so got away with it, doesn’t mean anyone else can.” We might assume they succeeded just because they’re a big-name author or they caught a bit of lucky lightning in a bottle.
But if we look closer, we can often learn from the exceptions:
- Yes, grammar rules are important, but if we know the rules well enough, we’ll know how and when to break them on purpose for voice, style, character, dialect, etc.
- Yes, good writing is important, but good storytelling—an often nebulous concept that includes voice/style, pacing/narrative drive, premise, character goals, conflict, etc.—can overcome the weaknesses of bad writing.
- Yes, a strong plot is important, but an engaging voice can keep readers entertained enough to turn pages, even when not much is happening in the story.
- Yes, readers’ emotional experience is important, often focusing on a reader’s connection to a character, but other story aspects—the premise, situations, messages, etc.—can create an emotional experience for readers as well.
Exceptions Can Be Exceptional
I’m currently reading The Fifth Season, a Hugo Award-winning dystopian/apocalyptic fantasy by N. K. Jemisin. This story is amazing despite—or possibly because of—how many “rules” she breaks with her writing. (Read the prologue and first chapter with Amazon’s Look Inside feature.)
For a few examples, The Fifth Season starts with not only a prologue, but a long prologue—with seven scenes/snippets in several different settings and POVs—much of which isn’t in media res, such as these lines:
Here is a land.
It is ordinary, as lands go. Mountains and plateaus and canyons and river deltas, the usual.
The author even emphasizes how much readers aren’t meant to connect to the characters yet, saying the specifics, including this character’s appearance and emotional state, are irrelevant:
None of these places or people matter, by the way. I simply point them out for context.
But here is a man who will matter a great deal.
You can imagine how he looks, for now. You may also imagine what he’s thinking.
Then the first chapter’s opening line takes another character from the prologue and flips their POV for the rest of the book from third person to second person:
You are she. She is you.
However, the other characters’ chapters remain in third person, so readers need to adjust to second-person POV and back every chapter. The technique shouldn’t work. It should be too jarring, too disruptive to the reader’s experience.
None of these choices should work, given the “rules” we know. And yet, considering this story’s well-deserved awards, they do.
How Do Exceptions Successfully Break the Rules?
Rather than focus on the rules a story breaks, we can instead pay attention to what makes the exceptions work. What do they get right—so right that they overcome the usual problems?
Many point to Twilight’s storytelling strengths as the reason it succeeded despite the weakness of the writing itself. In the case of The Fifth Season, I’d point to the voice, premise, worldbuilding, and overall writing quality as reasons why it succeeds “despite.”
The very first line:
Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.
More interesting than the end of the world? What could that possibly be? We’re hooked.
The last lines of the prologue similarly grab readers’ attention:
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.
For the last time? *shivers*
In other words, the main lesson we might take away from exceptions—and how they get away with breaking the rules when we can’t—is this: Our writing must have more strengths than weaknesses.
If our writing is strong enough, we can break the rules. If we can’t successfully break the rules that make sense for our story to break, maybe the problem isn’t the rule. Maybe we just haven’t yet strengthened our writing enough to make the rule-breaking work, and we need to try again. *smile*
Do you have any questions or insights about writing rules—or breaking them?
Jami Gold, after muttering writing advice in tongues, decided to become a writer and put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential as well, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.