How to Break the Rules

You think I'm prim and proper, right?  You think I'm strait-laced?  You think I'm stuffed so far into my own principles they would die if I was ever extracted?

Well, I guess I am.  Some rules are definitely useless and should be ignored (Stark's rule about not using JARVIS as an encyclopaedia, for instance), but most are there for very good reasons, and I like them.  Seat belts, returning library books, not wearing the uniform into a fast food restaurant.  (That makes the food considerably slower.)

In writing, though, rules are fluid.  A lot of writing tips are set up as a series of rules that you ought to think about, but you'll find that as you grow, those rules no longer apply.  As you're just starting out, you might have to force yourself to describe things, because you'd rather just do dialogue and leave the world and the action blank.  Thus, you force yourself to describe more until you realize, actually, you're describing too much.  You forced it so much that you passed the proper amount.

Write what you know is a popular rule.  For beginning writers, yes, it's good.  By writing what they know, they spend less time having to research and possibly losing interest.  They are allowed to compare real life with fiction and get motivations, character arcs, and a seamless plot.  They figure out how the mechanics of the story work by doing something simpler.

But as you grow, you no longer need to write what you know.  You begin to realize how much things are parallel in life.  Saying goodbye is universal-- we make different connections to things, and the reasons we have to leave are different, but the emotion of saying goodbye never changes.  The same goes for sadness.  The reason behind it might be different, and the reaction might be too, but the emotion is the same.  Once you realize this, writing what you know means writing what you don't know.  You get to stretch yourself, looking at new characters in new situations that you've never experienced.  But because you understand how people function, you can write it.

So here's another rule/piece of advice: know the rules, then break them.

Spend a lot of time getting to know how writing works.  Write what you know, focus on description, dialogue, plot, whatever you need to focus on.  Make sure every character wants something from the beginning of the story.  Make plot diagrams and write different outlines and squish your story into three-act/five-act/seven-act formulas.  Figure out how storytelling works.  That comes first.  Just follow the rules.  It might feel annoying, but it has to come first.

But writers get published when they go beyond the rules.  That's when they prove they have mastery over the skills of writing.  They mess with grammar, or plot points, or characters, in ways that are off-book, but stunning in their effectiveness.  Authors are published because they can break the rules.  Also, they can break the rules because they're published.

That's not for you yet.  You're still in the learning phase, where a character's motivation might go wrong and you'll spend the rest of the book trying to keep them from becoming the villain.  I don't mean to discourage you, but at this early stage, following the rules is more important than pushing at them.

Now, this is not forever.  The rules are necessary for the beginning, but eventually you'll find yourself at a crossroads.  You want to do this with a scene, but the rules won't let you.  If you can accomplish it, the book will be so much better.  Now might be the time for some rule breaking.

Here's a simple example.  You've got an action scene, and the rhythm of your sentences is important.  Someone does something.  Someone else does something.  Some big chain reaction happens and everything is going wrong and the main character is panicking and something is about to happen and she doesn't know what it is but--




Ta-da, I broke the rules of grammar.  You aren't allowed, by the rulebook, to write a sentence with each word on a different line.  You aren't allowed to leave off punctuation, or stop capitalizing letters.  What I just did is not okay.  If I did it every chapter, it definitely wouldn't be okay.  But once, in the middle of an action scene, to take the emphasis from very high to WHOA PLEASE STOP, that's worth it.

What is the rule here?  Use good grammar so you can get your point across.  What if your point is so big that regular grammar can't understand it?  You might have to break a rule.  If you break that rule all the time, it loses effect.  If you break it once, it has an enormous effect.

So break stuff!  Once you know what you can and cannot do with the rules of writing, start going beyond.  For instance, if Stark tells me I'm only allowed to use the refrigerator for research, I can stick with it for a while.  I'll write a couple food-related fantasies, or maybe an ice-world science fiction.  But when I need to research the effects of erosion, I'm going to need something stronger.  Rest assured I'll ask JARVIS behind his back.

Rules are made to be learned.  They'll keep you in line while you start out, and allow you to learn the mechanics of writing.  But eventually, they'll fall short.  When that happens, you're going to have to get creative and break something.  If that's the case, don't be afraid to break a rule just because it's a rule, as long as you know what you're doing.

Know what you're doing, and have fun.  That's my favorite advice.

~Captain America

Don't worry, I'm still me. Just breaking the rules.