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Thursday, December 16, 2010

When to Break the Rules

Rules can be Good. Usually they are there to help us navigate dangerous, difficult or confusing situations. Unfortunately, sometimes the very rules which are supposed to help us can actually hold us back from achieving a novel’s full potential. There are many examples. For instance, consider the following three rules, which may be the most widely accepted of them all:

Write What You Know.

Successful authors break this rule all the time. Tomorrow I plan to finish a novel that takes place in Manhattan, the Catskills, Thailand, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Rome, Bucks County Pennsylvania, Mexico City, and several small towns in the Chihuahua desert. Since I’ve only been to half of those places, if I followed this rule my novel would have been impossible to write. I wrote it anyway, because there is another rule which supersedes “Write What You Know,” to wit:

If the plot absolutely demands it, break the rule.

There’s no denying “Write What You Know” is wise advice in most cases. For one thing, writing about the unfamiliar exposes us to ridicule by those who know the subject well. For another, writing about the unfamiliar increases the chance that we’ll write something existentially untrue, and that is one of a novelist’s worst sins.

But sometimes the story simply cannot be contained within the limits of our life experiences. In those situations, if the story is excellent enough to justify the risk, go ahead and write what you do not know. Just be sure to do as much research as possible, and use a vivid imagination, in tandem with a well-developed ability to empathize. It also doesn’t hurt to have an authority on the subject read the relevant scenes.

One area where this rule should not usually be broken however, is in the realm of character motivation. If you have never suffered, hated, dreamed, or been in love, do not try to write about such things. Too many of your readers have been there. They will see right through you. There are exceptions of course, but this is one reason why most of the best novelists are over forty. For most people, it takes a lot of living to write authentically about the interior human landscape.

Show, Don’t Tell.

This rule may cause more problems than it solves, beginning with the question, what’s the difference between “showing” and “telling”? After all, a novelist’s entire aim is to “tell” a story. We are not cinematographers; we deal only in words, and in one sense to talk or to write is always to tell. So on the surface of it, this writing rule is impossible.

Some interpret it to mean we must limit ourselves to descriptions of physical action or spoken dialogue. They believe any treatment of introspection or interior monologue does not move the story forward, and is therefore a waste of words. But that’s not good advice for a novelist; that’s how you write a screenplay.

Consider the scene in chapter 30 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck makes one of the most famous statements in American literature. (“All right then—I’ll GO to hell!”) If Twain had followed the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule slavishly he would have omitted the paragraph just prior to Huck’s exclamation, because it is a long passage of introspection which is “told” in the sense that no action is shown. Twain tells us how Huck “feels”. He tells us what Huck “knows”. He tells us what Huck “thinks”. None of that is shown through action, yet more than 120 years of constant publication proves Twain’s readers have no problem with him telling them the reason for Huck’s outburst.

Why did Twain choose to “tell” such an important part of his story this way? Most likely, because he realized very few readers would have understood Huck’s decision otherwise, which brings us to another rule on when to break the rules:

If clear communication absolutely demands it, break the rule.

It is usually better—more powerful—to demonstrate thoughts with actions if possible, but that technique is only possible if the reader already understands the kind of thoughts which might cause a character to behave as he does. If a character is in the midst of an experience completely alien to most readers (such as deciding to free a slave even though sincerely believing such an act is sinful) the novelist is wise to disregard the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule and let his character indulge in introspection.

Murder Your Darlings.

Of the three rules discussed here, this is the one we novelists should follow most. It means, of course, that authors should be willing to cut even their most beautiful words rather than delay action or divert attention from the story. And that is true . . . usually.

We writers love our words. Usually, we love them far too much. Usually during rewrites and revisions, when I’m struggling over the best way to word a sentence and nothing seems to work, the answer is to simply cut the sentence altogether. But here again, slavish devotion to a rule can lead to mediocre storytelling.

After all, if novelists are not cinematographers, it is also true we are not journalists. Our work is not judged by its brevity. We are more closely related to poets, whose words are judged not only for the ideas they express, but also for the beauty of the words themselves.

Sometimes a bit of flowery language adds a perfect flourish to the reader’s experience. Usually it doesn’t, but sometimes. So how is an author to know when it makes sense to let a darling live? Again, we need a rule for breaking rules:

If it improves the reading experience, break the rule.

Darlings must be murdered if they insist upon repeating themselves, as is so often the case. When one lovely sentence says the same thing as another lovely sentence, one of them must go. (Sigh.) Other darlings must be murdered if they demand we pay attention to the trivial, the unrelated, or irrelevant. But does a particularly poetic paragraph help us understand a character or setting? Leave it in. Does it create a necessary mood? Leave it in. Does it serve to shift our mental gears and set us up for what is coming next? Leave it in. Gorgeous words are not inherently offensive in a novel, but neither should their beauty grant them special privileges. Like all other words, they must earn their keep.

Of course there are many other rules in the fiction writing world. Most of them exist for good reasons, and should therefore be followed in most cases. But mention one good reason to obey a rule, and I will mention a good reason to ignore it. Therefore, when it comes to any particular writing rule, it is seldom wise to take an absolute stand, one way or the other. Still, there is one thing that can be said for certain on the subject:

No one ever wrote a great novel by following all of the rules.

Athol Dickson’s novels have been favorably compared to the work of Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner. All five of his most recent novels have been finalists for the Christy Award and three have won, including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. He is days away from completing his next novel, The Opposite of Art, which should be on the shelves this summer. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.


  1. If I only wrote what I knew, my writing career would be concluded after about a paragraph. 8-) I have no choice but to break this one. LOL!

    And it is the exploration of all that I don't know that makes writing such fun.

  2. Bravo, Athol! I also hold to the truth that a writer must learn the guidelines to good writing. But if you hold strictly to the rules all the time, the heart of the story gets lost.

    It's taken me over a year to quiet the Pharisee within and allow the myself license to break some.

    Great advice for writers to follow. Thanks!

  3. One of the best columns yet! If everyone since time began had always complied with "the rules", colored within the lines, we'd still be walking. Never mind writing. Guidelines are good. A little bit of creativity is like the spices added to a meal - makes it better (usually).

    Thank you, Athol.

    Glenna Fairbanks

  4. Athol,

    Love this: Gorgeous words are not inherently offensive in a novel, but neither should their beauty grant them special privileges. Like all other words, they must earn their keep.

    I am learning daily how much more effective writing CAN be with fewer words. Strunk & White nailed it when they wrote, "Omit needless words."

    But your point is well made also.

  5. Great post, Athol. Glad you percevered to make it readable! ;)


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