Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Rules Were Meant to Be Broken

Few of us would stick to this game, this passion, this bloody insanity called 'the writing life' if we didn't possess a good dollop of rebellion.

We're rebelling against the odds.

We're rebelling against what's "hot" or "in" this very nanosecond.

We're rebelling against countless query rejections.

We're rebelling against the mediocrity prompted by lovers and mothers and friends who gush over our writing.

Why should we listen, then, to rules about writing? After all, we've been fighting an uphill battle to get here. We have guts, forthrightness, tenacity, and a good share of callouses and blisters. And honestly? The traveller we meet on the journey may have no more experience than we do. The sage resting at the top of the mountain may be a bitter old woman, wishing she lived down among the people.

What, then, to do with rules? Rebel at the mention? Embrace without question?

Like most generalizations, a nugget of truth lies buried within most every rule invented. The true task is not to point out the fallacies, the shades of mis-direction, the exceptions to the rule. Our task as writers -- as true believers, as the ones who lead the way, as the seeing among the blind -- is to tease out "whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure" within that rule and apply it to our own writing. And to remember that Truth takes many forms.

Perception is everything. The world around us sparkles with joy or thuds painfully. Rain depresses with gray heaviness or uplifts with life-giving green. So, too, with rules. The point of rules is not always to limit us: why do we read books on writing? If you've picked up Bird by Bird or King's On Writing, then you know it's not to formulate a series of do's and don'ts. For the beginning writer, these gentle training wheels nudge us further along so that we don't have to learn every single mistake on our own.

And sometimes a rule is fixed and inflexible because we haven't grown or evolved to the point that we are capable of breaking it effectively. I'm reminded of Neo in The Matrix: in order to be "The One," he had to hear that he wasn't.

For the record, in most areas of creative thought, I'm a believer in both rules and the breaking of them. Prove you can do it well, whether "it" is a sonnet, a portrait, or a melody, then break the rule in such a way that it enhances your creation.
On the other hand, I am morally opposed to using rebellion as an excuse: if I rebel because I am not capable of executing a perfect move (scene, dialogue, double-kick backflip), then I as writer have truly lost -- and the rebellion is simply a blustery cop-out. Instead, I should go back to rule-following until I've gained the experience to try it again -- with the understanding that every failure is an opportunity to learn and to perfect the move. With the right attitude, nothing is lost.

(Apologies to Paul's writing, intent, and message in Philippians 4:8).


  1. I agree that breaking the rules is an important thing to permit yourself to do, but breaking them for the sake of breaking them is usually (not always) a cop-out. Writers should have enough faith in themselves to know that learning the rules won't permanently contaminate their writing. For me, writing from the heart has no rules. But, many of the rules that have evolved allow us to better write from the heart, and that's why they can often be useful.

  2. Such an excellent point and I agree that learning the rules is an important first step. I'd loved to be deemed a rebel, but I hope that when or if I am, it's in response to a contrary nature that's both creative and meaningful. I love to follow the rules because it's accepted. I love to break them because it's unexpected. Thanks for the post!

  3. I think rules are guidelines as to what is accepted or what the norm is. The more rules you know, the more choices you have to create your world. If you wrote simply by following the rules, you might just write a formula best-seller but it would probably lack soul.

    I also write from the heart, and as an admitted novice to our writing community, I’m sure I’m breaking rules, but not out of rebellion – I’m just an idiot.

  4. There are rules. There are principles. And, then, there are choices. Our choices determine our style and our voice.

    I love Bird by Bird and On Writing. Those are two of the best books on writing. They are honest, and as much about the writer's journey as writing guidelines.

    I suppose that I try to follow most of the rules most of the time. But, I find that some rules contradict, and some rules don't really fit my style. There are different rules for different genres and subgenres, so I suppose that makes sense.

    More and more I have the desire to say I could care less about such and such a rule because such and such an author doesn't follow it and they write stuff that I love. That is a freeing way to think. And I think we all need to make the choice to do that at some point. Otherwise the rules govern us, rather than our instincts.

  5. I don't really break rules, just twist them a little, OK bend the heck out of them.

    If you are writing genre fiction, agents, editors and readers expect a certain type of punctuation, style, plot, and formatting. My feeling is that writing literary fiction it's almost a given that you will push the boundaries in order to get noticed.

  6. Rule should be initially there as tutor till the time the spirit came into in place.Bear in mind, the rule can be double edge sword. Therefore, to reap its fullest, the writer should write freely follow his heart rather than follow the rule.

    Great post that bring this point clearly.


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