Writing’s a funny thing. It’s an act of pure imagination and speculation, and even the most technical forms of writing require some form of spatial and abstract thinking. It’s the process of reaching into one’s brain and hoping that the fistful of words we wrestle out of there will arrange into a meaningful and engaging piece, for ourselves and/or others to enjoy.
So how did it end up with so many damn rules?
Some rules are self-evident for basic communication and clear meaning – grammar and spelling, for instance. Then we get into the more idiosyncratic criteria given to writers and stylistically-minded editors: drop the adverbs; only mark dialogue with ‘said’ and ignore the ‘remarked’ and ‘questioned’ and ‘ejaculated’; show, don’t tell. If you’ve read widely on the theories of writing you’ve probably gathered quite a few broader stylistic rules as well: ditch the prologue; favour minimalism over ‘purple prose’; and on and on and on.
They’re always qualified as only being ‘guidelines’, of course. They’re not hard and fast rules, and all that. So go ahead if you want, just don’t say you weren’t warned. But seriously, no matter how much the consensus might shy away from calling these bullet-points ‘rules’ that are essential to a successful story, what writer sprinkles their writing with adverbs or flowery attributions after being warned against it? Who would risk the provocation of deliberate exposition dumps when we’re reminded again and again how hard it is to be recognised and published?
We haven’t even gotten into the full deconstruction of something like fiction writing yet – whether it’s for a short story or a full manuscript. Story arcs, character profiles, three-act structures, conflicts and climaxes – suddenly the feeling is less the spontaneity of creation and more the need to cram for a test.
We all know intuitively that it’s just meant to be a guide. That this collection of wisdom is the distilled result of observing the most effective mechanics of creative writing. Casting the widest net, so to speak, to appeal to the largest audience possible.
I’m not against the basic mechanics. We need them. Buildings can be built, but they’re at their best when they’re designed. They need to follow the architectural principles to achieve this.
But don’t let these rules paint you into a corner creatively.
I follow some of them – but only because my style in fiction naturally leans towards casual language and minimalism as a ‘par’. It’s against my nature as a writer to get excessive with adverbs. I break some rules too. I write in fragments sometimes.
I’ve decided that some ‘rules’ don’t need to be followed religiously. I was schooled in believing that any shift of POV in a single section or scene was a grievous error in style and needed to be remedied. But that’s not always the case. The rule can be broken. I still hate overabundance in adverbs, but that doesn’t mean I should universally remove every adverb I see, either as a writer or an editor.
The ‘rules of writing’ are there for a reason. Break them at your own risk, and with the knowledge that what you end up with might not be the most marketable piece in the world. And for God’s sake, know what rules you’re breaking – creative license is not equivalent to ignorance. But the result might do something that painting by the numbers, for all its reliability, makes so much more difficult to do. It might give you a unique style – a voice to call your own.
For some encouragement, examples like the ones cited here are just the popular case studies of a wide variety of popular authors who have been able to take liberties with the expected sturcture of writing and made it work in their favour.
It’s a new year. Even if it’s already 1/12th over. Have you felt like you’ve been in a rut with your writing? Break some rules – write wild and unrestrained, and lacking in any sense of feeling self-conscious about the technicalities of craft. If only just for yourself. And maybe then for an audience.
Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen