Rules? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rules

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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?

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After muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat. Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.
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This entry was posted in Pacing, Plotting, Point of View, Uncategorized, Voice, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Rules? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rules

  1. Sieran says:

    Hey Jami,

    I really appreciated this post! Yeah I also think we shouldn’t say yes to all rules, or no to all rules, but rather, we should look carefully at each individual case.

    As a personal quirk, I seem to care most about clarity. I would rather break grammatical rules than to make my sentences hard to read, lol. An example is where I would insert a comma when I don’t need one, just so the sentence will be easier for the mind to process.

    In fact, I would rather be repetitive than to be confusing. So I might repeat a character’s name too many times, rather than to use a pronoun when the reader would be confused which character the pronoun is referring to. If I were to write a nonbinary character who uses “they/them” pronouns, I would probably use their name even more often, because there are so many times when the reader would misunderstand and think I’m using “they” in the plural rather than in the singular to refer to the nonbinary character. The ideal is to write sentences in a way that is both varied and clear. But sometimes I have to make a choice between the two.

    Don’t remember if I told you about this, but there was a famous Chinese novel that committed a grievous “writing crime”: one of the central premises doesn’t make logical sense!! However, the characters were interesting and likable, and the plot was exciting and engaging. The themes and morals in the story were great too. And so, most readers forgave the author, and as a result, not only has this become a famous piece of Chinese literature, it has also been made into multiple TV series and movies. 😂

    Yeah I find that readers can forgive a lot of things if you please them in many other ways.

    For this same author, one thing I don’t like, is that the narrator and often some of the male characters, would make tons of misogynistic remarks. It’s cringeworthy. However, I enjoy the general humor of the books and I love the murder mysteries. A Chinese friend of mine, however, rejects this author’s books altogether, because she couldn’t stand the misogyny. So different readers feel differently too.

    Oh, speaking of cringeworthy things in books… One of my favorite series ever, has a super compelling protagonist, great, interesting characters, fascinating love interest, lots of humor, tons of delicious moral dilemmas, a tense plot filled with mystery and suspense, witty and beautiful language… However, the main villain in the book is a gay man. Hmm… The only other gay person in the book, is the villain’s lover/servant, who is also portrayed in a negative light. Yikes. But I was able to forgive the book for this, because of all the other strengths in the story.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Sieran,

      Great examples! Yes, confusing readers with lack of clarity in who’s saying what or what a sentence means is one of the worst things we can do from a writing-craft perspective. That’s just plain “bad” writing, so I completely agree with you about prioritizing clarity. 🙂

      And I can think of several stories about the false idea that we use only 10% of our brain and unlocking the other part, yet they keep making stories based off that false premise. LOL! So I know what you mean about forgiving the nonsensical or illogical if the rest of the story is good. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Mark says:

    Hi Jami,
    I’m back with another thought that seals the deal for me. Your article has really gotten me thinking!
    I know movies are different from novels, but it occurs to me that although I haven’t seen them all, every single Marvel movie starts with a prologue. The first Captain America movie opened in present day with the rediscovery of his body. The first Ant Man movie flashbacked (a prologue and flashback!) to 1989 with a young Michael Douglas resigning in anger.
    Thanks again for writing a needed column.

  3. Botanist says:

    Wonderful article, and it makes such a powerful point.

    Firstly, I could feel exactly why The Fifth Season works, despite the rules, in just those first lines you quote. The writer has voice and attitude! I could immediately see myself spending time with that author.

    The overall message about rules, IMO, can be summed up very simply. To me, the only inviolable rule in writing is: do what works. All else follows.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Botanist,

      I’m so glad her voice and humor come out in those short examples. 🙂 And yes, a confident attitude is a huge part in getting readers to trust that we’re telling the story the way it needs to be told. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Talia says:

    I love breaking writing rules!! And I love seeing other authors do it (Lemony Snicket immediately comes to mind). I still don’t think I’ve had quite enough experience to do it well, though. Most of my books break traditional plot structure in some way, and I never (except once) even do it on purpose (gotta work on that, lol).
    Speaking of plot structure… do you think that’s an okay rule to break? In my story in question, the character arc steps don’t actually align with the plot steps the way I’ve always been told they should.
    Thanks for the post!!

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Talia,

      Yes, experience can definitely help us get to the point where our writing is strong enough to get away with more major rule breaking. 🙂

      As for your question, plot and character arc are usually a cause-and-effect loop. Plot events cause new goals or epiphanies, which in turn lead the characters to make different decisions and take actions that cause future plot events. As long as the cause and effect are there, those events don’t need to be aligned, such as being in the same scene.

      In fact, a plot event would often lead to character arc steps a scene or two later, as they react to the plot, with deeper changes taking longer than shallow reactions. At the same time, character arc events would often lead to plot events several scenes later, as it might take a while for the character to reach their goal, etc.

      Does that answer your question? Make sense? Help? 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  5. JOHN T. SHEA says:

    Thanks to Jami Gold and all commenters. This article again reminds me of how I react differently as a reader compared to as a writer. Rules rarely bother me as a reader of other writers’ work.

    N. K. Jemisin enlists the reader as a confidante, inviting us into the story by an usual route. Mark asks good questions about ‘gatekeepers’ and fashions. Certainly gatekeepers vary, shepherding plenty of prologues and flashbacks to publication.

    Like Jami, I also refer back to prologues and flashbacks and asides to check something or refresh my memory. Paradoxically, longer flashbacks are easier to find and consult! Perhaps the only real rule is do whatever you want but make it interesting.

    This piece makes a refreshing break from the notion that rule-breaking is a privilege of bestsellers, a vice they are permitted because of their success, rather than possibly one of the reasons for that success in the first place.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi John,

      Yes, as writers we can find that rule-breaking bothers us far more than as readers. (In fact, that’s one of my measures for a “keeper book”–does it get me to turn off my writer/editor brain and just enjoy the story? LOL!) Glad this post resonated with you! 🙂

  6. I’m a rebel by nature, so I tend to break rules just to see what happens. Sometimes, in writing, that has gotten messy (headhopping…bad idea) and sometimes it has worked great (I love prologues).

    You have so eloquently spelled out how/why rule-breaking can work and when it probably won’t. Thank you!

    My main issue with the “rules” is that they can stifle a new author’s voice before they have even found it. I much prefer “guidelines” that help new writers avoid pitfalls but still encourage creativity.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Kass,

      Yes, exactly! Learn the “rules,” but then treat them as guidelines. 🙂

      Like you, I worry about stifling new writers voices with too much emphasis on this stuff. In my early days, I remember critiquing one scene where the sentences were super convoluted, and I couldn’t figure out why. Turns out the writer had twisted themselves in knots trying to avoid “was”–in any context (even as a linking verb and not a passive verb). *sigh*

  7. Gifford MacShane says:

    Jami, your article aligns exactly with my pet peeve. Too often style choices are presented as “writing rules”. Things like “no adverbs”, “no dialogue tags”, “no passive writing”, even “no more than one comma per sentence” — all of these have been presented to me as RULES by various people, and some of them have their origins in very successful, popular authors. But I think if everyone followed all the same rules, creativity would be stifled. Every book would sound the same.

    I find that voice is what draws me to a work, and for me, it’s more important than any individual rule, even grammar rules (and as a grammar nerd, it actually hurts me to say that).

    It really doesn’t matter if you break the rules, as long as what you’re doing fits the situation.

    • Mark says:

      So glad you posted comment, couldn’t agree more. Hokey smokes, if I hear once more about passive voice…sometimes, the cadence just works for what one is trying to convery.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Gifford,

      Ugh, yes! Those *absolutes* are the worst kind of writing “rules,” as they can affect our voice so much.

      (*psst* My copy editor guest posted on my blog about how to break grammar rules with style. 😉 https://jamigold.com/2016/06/4-steps-to-break-grammar-rules-with-style-guest-julie-glover/)

      As long as our voice breaks rules for reasons — such as for clarity, character development, or to create a certain impression on readers — I think our voice trumps most of those types of rules. And yes, like you, I’m a grammar nerd (I find diagramming sentences…fun? LOL!), but a stifled voice is a bigger “sin.” 😉

  8. Mark says:

    Thanks for this article. It’s great and needed by me as I revise the second of my three manuscripts. The other two are straightforward but this second is breaking some “rules.” The first chapter is set 22 years ago and is a prologue. One “gatekeeper” expressed concern about that, yet another one and all my beta readers thought it perfectly set a strong explanation for main character’s anger that ran through course of book.
    Two gatekeepers have expressed concern about the use of flashbacks sprinkled through the first half. Except none of eight beta-reader have been bothered by it. Two REALLY loved them. What to do??? The flashbacks are not expositions dumps, they don’t dilute energy away from the present-day conflict. They’re used to contrast how the past was happy for these people and today is not.
    I don’t want characters drinking tea, talking about how they used to be happy. Rather than tell, I’m placing a fast one-page flashback showing the better times in their own plot and rhythm that immediately bumps into the present. I want a manuscript that is “right” but I can’t help but feel this way is working.
    On one hand, some writing rules seem to be what’s simply in style these days, (you can’t wear white after labor day, who does that?) but I don’t want to fight an uphill battle to come aboard with the gatekeepers either. I admit to being stymied.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Mark,

      I hear you. My first story (which is currently under a metaphorical bed) has a prologue that it absolutely needs, so I’m certainly not one who’s anti-prologue. 🙂

      I guess I’d wonder if you can tell whether those who didn’t like the “rules” you broke pointed to any specifics about why they thought it didn’t work. Did they think it slowed the pacing? Did it dilute their interest? Did it take away from tension or dread or spell things out too much? Etc.

      If they didn’t point to specifics, maybe they’re just not right for the story. Some people just hate prologues, no matter how good they are. *shrug*

      But don’t settle for the easy answer either. 😉 Really take a look at how the choices you’ve made affect the story from the perspective of a reader’s experience.

      For example, one reason flashbacks are often a problem (in addition to the usual pacing/interruption issues) is that they take away too many questions that can work to keep readers’ interest. In other words, if a flashback can be delayed until later and have it contribute to more questions readers want answered, but yet not leave them confused, we’d often be better off saving it for later.

      But if readers would be too confused without the context, and if a flashback is the best way to deliver that context, then by all means, use the flashback — no matter the “rule.” LOL! At that point, I’d just recommend ensuring that your flashback is as tight as possible and reveals only what’s necessary for context of the current story.

      Sometimes it can be hard to tell what’s best for our own work, of course. Another option might be to pay for a freelance editor to take a look at that prologue and opening chapters (especially through the first flashback) to see if they have other advice for you.

      Hope that helps! Take care, and good luck with your writing. 🙂

  9. Wow, I really need to check this book out. It sounds jarring so I totally want to see how she does it!

    Know the rules and why they are there, then if you need to break them with purpose, you can. Great post!

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Angela,

      If you read it, definitely let me know what you think of it — and if you come away with any other lessons in how she does it. 🙂

      I’ll be doing a follow-up to this post over at my blog on Thursday, but I think one of the biggest things I noticed is how the author’s voice is so strong–so confident–that readers immediately feel like there are reasons for choices she makes, and we should just hang on for the ride. 😉 That trust can overcome just about any issue, and with her voice, I just settled in to enjoy the story, no matter how she chose to tell it.

      By the end of the story, I understood–and agreed with–the choices she made. The prologue was important enough that I flipped back to refer to it a couple of times while reading (to verify my memory), and even that second person POV had a psychological reason for the character by the end too. (I.e.: It made sense for the character and wasn’t just a choice to do something weird or different–LOL!)

      In the acknowledgements, the author mentions that for the longest time while drafting/editing, she thought the story was a “hot mess” that should be thrown out, which I think we can all relate to. 😉 But I think that also shows that she didn’t make these choices willy-nilly or to be contrary. She worked hard to ensure everything came together for readers, and that’s really the lesson I wanted to emphasize at the end of the post.

      If we’re not able to get a choice to work, that doesn’t necessarily mean the choice is wrong. It might just mean we’re not there yet and to try again. 🙂

  10. These are such good points! And I checked out this book and so far, it’s AMAZING 🙂

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Becca,

      Thank you once again for having me here! And yes, I finished this book just the other day, and I already ordered the whole trilogy — in print. LOL!

      What I especially loved is how even those examples for the “rule breaking” still hint at the things the book does right, like the wry remarks of “the usual” and “I simply point them out for context,” which keep readers entertained with humor and reassure them to settle in and enjoy this story. Again, both things that keep them reading “despite,” which is why our story’s other strengths can be the determining factor. 🙂

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