Creative Writing · Writing Tips and Prompts

Breaking Rules

If you Google “rules of writing fiction” there are about 51,900,000 results. Most of the rules for writing are good guidelines — they’ll help make your prose both readable and enjoyable. But, as with any art form, once you master the rules, you’ll be able to recognize when they can be broken. Here’s a few of the rules, and why you might want to break them.

Rule: Don’t Use Clichés

Why: Clichés are old hat and you should avoid them like the plague. Though you might be tempted to stick to the tried and true phrases, it just makes you seem like a lazy writer.

Break the rule: when you can make the cliché new. Rephrase it, use it for comic effect (like a character whose dialogue is peppered with clichés), make it fit the character. For example, in a writing class where we were strictly admonished to avoid “pounding hearts,” I wrote (and was commended for) a horsewoman saying,

My heart was beating as fast as if I had just raced an unbroken horse across the desert

It made sense for the character to say this, and so this phrase stayed in the narrative.

Rule: Write in 1st or 3rd person

Why: First person — I walked into the room — and third person — she walked into the room — are the most recognizable ways to writing fiction. Switching between them throws a reader off. 2nd person — you walked into the room — is hard to do well and less familiar to readers.

Break the rule: This is one I have not broken in my own writings, but I’ve read stories where it worked. Switch between 1st and 3rd only if you have a really good reason and the story absolutely demands it. Write in 2nd person only if you’re Italo Calvino or you’re planning on writing something similarly brilliant to his If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which are frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you…And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too.

Rule: Show, don’t tell

Sherlock is not happy

Why: If you’ve done any research into the art of writing, you’ve heard this rule. At it’s most basic, it is good advice. You don’t want to tell your readers the character was angry. You want to describe it so well that the image in the reader’s mind is at least as vivid as they would get watching a film.

Break the rule: because it’s wrong, as Alice LaPlante points out in “Why You Need to Show and Tell” (part of her book Method and Madness). In her view, telling functions as narrative, and it is necessary to balance showing and telling so plots can move forward. A story without narration would be like writing a play — you have to show everything to the audience using mostly dialogue. Good telling is hard to do, but it can be done, as this excerpt from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan shows. This is narrative telling the reader about Wendy’s mother, but it’s written so well that it shows us the character better than dialogue could.

She was a lovely lady, with a romantic mind and such a sweet mocking mouth. Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more; and her sweet mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right-hand corner.

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