Knowing When to Break the Rules

I had a government teacher in high school that had a motto: Only by learning the rules can you figure out how to go around them. Rules are, by and large, a fantastic way to learn the craft, but at some point, we all learn that, as the man said at the beginning of the month, they are not really rules at all, but guidelines, and one of the most difficult things to learn isn’t so much how to break the rules, but when.

No one breaks the rules just to break the rules. We do it because it fits the story and helps us manipulate the reader into feeling or seeing or knowing something that would not be expressed as well any other way.

As an example, the James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” starts a tale of a Victorian Age party by jumping from one person to another as they arrive. Now, technically, this is what we term “head popping” and can easily get confusing. Yet, instead of being confused as to who you’re supposed to be following, or feeling distanced by the omniscient 3rd person viewpoint, Joyce quite literally introduces us as if we’re one of the attendees. The first time I read it, I was strongly reminded of the cinematic “one shot”, where the camera follows one person only to be smoothly handed off to another, and then another, without cutting. Think of the opening scene of the film Snake Eyes or the Syfy miniseries of Battlestar Galactica. Joyce, of course, stops the the shifting POV once everyone’s been introduced, and we settle on the main character until it’s time to leave, and we’re shifting around again as we chase after a departing carriage. He effectively sucks the reader in, makes them comfortable, and then lets them go in a whirl.

In “A Rose for Emily”, William Faulkner completely stops the action of a story that’s moved a pretty good pace, to give us a long, extremely detailed description of a room that is being viewed for the first time in forty years in order to help us feel the shock the characters feel as they take in the room and lastly, the forty-year-old corpse contained within.

Stephen King likes to do much the same when characters are heading into danger by adding long, detailed descriptions that pull the tension of a scene taut and deepen in the dread factor when other writers might play it safer by dropping the details and sticking to the rule that pacing should move faster as the character runs headlong into action.

Yet, when we see the experts do it so well, we tend to forget that these guidelines, after all, are there for a reason. For the most part, they are bits of wisdom that writers over time have learned readers react well to. When you go against that, there’s always a risk. Breaking one rule or the other can be a tactical gamble. For writers like King, Faulkner, and Joyce, it seems an effortless gamble. But not every attempt is as effective.

A rather popular YA series that I greatly enjoy follows the POV of one character in third person exclusively, until the tenth book of the series, when we suddenly get an italicized, first person, present tense POV of a completely different character. Sure, the author marks these shifts by making them separate chapters and putting the name of the POV character as a heading, but still, it was jarring the first time I read it. As a writer, I get it. First person, present tense, causes an urgent immediacy that highlights the dangerous, violent and unstable situation the character is in. But really, was the italics necessary? And it’s introduced after nine books of straight 3rd person. Is it something that would lose readers? After sticking through nine books, probably not. I kept reading. But still, it was a little weird, and I’m not altogether sure that the result outweighed the initial annoyance.

The point is, breaking the rules is fine, but as with everything else we writers do, it has to serve the story above all else. It’s good to experiment, to test our craft and expand our use of language, and often enough, for the nuanced writer, the rules can actually get in the way of a good story. But everything has a time and place, and knowing when to break the rules is just as important as how to break them.

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