Writers and rules

Mention rules, especially to a bunch of writers, and you get one of two reactions.

Some will wag their heads sagely, and say, "Yes. That's right. There are rules about writing, and you must follow them."

Others will brandish their fists and shout: "Rules? We don't need no stinking rules."

Now, here comes the shocker. Both groups are right.

Writers should follow rules.

Writers should ignore rules.

The trick is to know when to do each.

There are rules about grammar, rules about fiction and dramatic techniques like viewpoint, and even rules about nonfiction.

Why should you know these rules? One good thing about knowing the rules is that they can help you if you're just jumping into this crazy writing thing, and you're a bit unsure of your ability to tell a story.

You might want to write a novel, but you don't know who should be the viewpoint character of your story. The rules say tell the story, the scene or whatever, from the viewpoint of the person who has the most at stake in the scene.

Don't know how to handle a flashback? The rules say tell that backstory incident in past perfect.

By the way, there's probably a rule for just about everything.

So if knowing the rules is "a good thing" as Martha Stewart says, then why would you ignore them?

Ahh, because breaking the rules, once you know them enough to realize you're breaking them, can add a different dimension to your writing. Sometimes, breaking a rule can ignite a scene or get you through a part of the story where you're just plain stuck. No writer wants to be stuck.

Let's write something and follow one of the viewpoint rules. (There are many in case you didn't know, or at least some people try to convince you that there are a plethora of them.)

A caveat: these samples are straight off the top of my head so the writing isn't to be judged for quality, just for illustrative purposes.

Viewpoint using the person who has the most at stake.

Mary watched John. She gnawed nervously on her lower lip. She just knew that he was angry at her because she'd burned dinner. Again. He had every right to be angry. She'd let him down again. She just wished that he'd yell at her, but she knew he wouldn't. Sometimes she thought he was just too understanding and tolerant.

Same scene, told from the boss's viewpoint, a secondary character.

The executive vice president of sales regarded the blackened pot roast and suppressed a weary sigh. His own wife had always been dependable when it came to entertaining the junior execs.

"Mary, what is this?" John asked.

The VP looked at Mary whose face was as crimson as the red-checked tablecloth. He felt sorry for her obvious embarrassment.

"John, I'm sorry. I just got interested on Oprah. Before I knew it, smoke was pouring from the kitchen."

John put his arm around his wife's shoulders and hugged her. "That's all right, hon. The salad and bread look delicious.

Surprised, the VP stared at John. For the first time since he'd hired the young man, he saw some evidence that the kid actually had a streak of humanity in him. It certainly hadn't been evident in his Pit Bull attack on the sales competition. Who knew?

Not great writing, but I think you can see that using someone other than the person who has the most at stake can impart information the reader couldn't otherwise know or reveal personalities and attitudes of characters. It can also make a static scene more interesting because it's unexpected. Always surprise the reader if possible.

Flashback scene? Rules say to use Past Perfect and relate the scene.

The storm had hit on a Sunday. I had been crying because Jack and I had been fighting. The wind had shattered the windows, spraying glass everywhere, but Jack had flung himself over me. That's when I had known that he loved me.

Let's break that rule. Rather than depart from the story, create a transition into the world of the flashback scene by starting out in past perfect then going to the present time of your story, tell what happened as if it were present time, then end the reminiscence in past perfect and go back to the normal tense you'd been using. Same example.

The storm had hit on a Sunday. I had been crying because Jack and I had been fighting. (3 past perfect verbs)

The wind shattered the front windows, spraying glass everywhere. Jack flung himself over me. (Simple past tense, which is how most stories are told, for however long the scene lasts. In flashbacks when you switch to simple past, passages are usually much longer to make them justify this flip-flop of verb tenses, but that's just another rule.)

That's when I had known that he loved me. (Back to the past perfect to end the flashback though generally speaking 3 sentences is better.)

I encourage you to learn the rules. I prefer to call them tools in your writer's tool kit. Then learn how to break those same rules, when to break them, and why you're breaking them. Rule breaking just adds more tools to your writer's tool kit.

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