So, as is now my habit, I was soliciting on Twitter for blog post ideas and the following question was raised by @podcastled:
Do you have to learn the rules (“rules”) to break them? I think a post about resisting being super rule-bound would be interesting.
This is extremely interesting, especially to me because I was an editor before I was a writer. Let’s talk about ‘rules’!
When someone says, “I’m tearing up the rulebook” they may mean “I am coming from a tradition with a different set of rules entirely,” which can be hugely exciting, or “I have examined these rules and concluded they would benefit from change,” which is a vital process to keep any way of thinking healthy, or “I don’t care about your stupid rules, nobody tells me what to do, and by the way my daddy has a lot of money,” which tends to indicate a massive jerk who thinks health and safety is just red tape.
Some rules are good (don’t stick a fork in the light socket). Some rules are bad (don’t use split infinitives in English, as if ‘boldly to go where no man has gone before’ sounds like anything a human would say). Some rules are fossils. (When Gerald Durrell got his first job in a zoo, one of his tasks was heating up the giraffe’s drinking water. Several times a day, buckets of hot water for the giraffe had to be lugged out. Eventually he asked why. Turns out the giraffe had had a cold when it arrived several years earlier so the vet had recommended heating the water, and nobody had ever rescinded the order.)
In my view, and this is my blog so suck it up, if you’re going to intentionally screw with How Things Are Done, you are well advised to first consider Why They Are Done Like That. I am bang alongside messing about with form, or punctuation, or narrative voice, or structure, or most things, as long as you know why you are doing it and consider what effect it has.
Let’s take three oft-repeated Rules of Writing on which I have already written, to make my life easier. (Here I will point out that most Rules of Writing are not, in fact, actual rules.)
Or when a subordinate clause that precedes the main clause has come adrift from its referent, as in:
Jogging down the canal, a swan attacked me.
(If you don’t see a problem with that or need a refresher, read the blog post I did on the subject and I’ll see you back here in a minute.)
The rule is, don’t leave your participles dangling. But why are dangling participles bad? If your answer is “because they’re grammatically incorrect”, go to the back of the class. That’s the very definition of begging the question: bad grammar is bad because it is bad, which is bad.
The actual reason they are bad is that the words/grammar used don’t convey what the author means, and risk jarring or confusing the reader. Look at this:
Now the first woman president of the US, he was astonished at how far his ex-wife had progressed.
Who is the president in this sentence, grammatically? Who do you think the author actually means it to be?
Having invaded without serious opposition, the Channel Islands were then occupied by the German forces.
Who invaded who?
If you’re thinking, “oh come on, you know what the writer means”, join the other guy at the back of the class. The actual meaning of the sentence diverges from the intended meaning of the author, and making the reader stop and go back and pick through the wreckage of your grammar to dig out your meaning is poor writing.
I have tried for some time to think of an example of anyone using a dangling participle to good literary effect. (As in, an adrift one, not a correctly used subordinate clause. Do not reply to this with correctly used subordinate clauses or I will tut irritably at you, and that’s not an idle threat: I’m British.) The only cases I can think of are when it’s being used as a joke about the comic effects of bad grammar. Absent a good reason to deliberately break the rule, you should follow it.
Does that apply to all grammar issues? You tell me. What’s the rule you want to break, and why, and what will you achieve by breaking it, and would the upsides outweigh the downsides? An obvious reason to break grammatical rules in dialogue or deep narrative voice is character. Or you might be making an excellent joke in the narrative. Have at it.
Or you might simply think it sounds better that way, in which case, you will have to take the consequences, including criticism that you did it wrong. I don’t usually split infinitives in my novels even though that rule is bullshit because I don’t want to deal with the legion of self-appointed copy editors who will tweet me, email me, or report me to Amazon. Sometimes, it’s just not worth it.
Wandering point of view, aka head hopping.
I wrote an entire blog post on why this is a bad thing and I stand by it. I once read a m/m romance that switched heads without warning midway during a penetrative sex scene and I swear I felt my neck crick. It’s bad style. Right?
The excellent political SF Infomocracy by Malka Older switches point of view literally from paragraph to paragraph. Why? Because the book is based in a world where everyone has in-head access to The Information, a global feed. This has turned the world into a constantly scrolling present, with people switching non stop between vids, newsfeeds, actual conversations, data, so the manner of telling the story as if flipping from tab to tab is exactly right. It gives us a disconcerting feeling of the nonstop barrage of information with which the characters cope. (This is also one of exactly two books I can think of where the use of present tense narration makes a positive stylistic contribution, and it wouldn‘t work just as well in perfect tense.) The style supports the meaning of the book. An editor who told Older not to head hop here would deserve to have his red pen ritually broken.
Does that mean you can gaily switch POV in your sex scene which is not set in an information-overload tech future? Sure. Just put in a line break or row of asterisks to clue the reader in, so it is a transferred POV not ‘head hopping’. Do you think that looks weird and clunky or jarring? Then ask yourself why doing it without flagging it is better. While you’re at it, consider a flashback, or using the other person’s POV in a different scene instead.
Or maybe you’ve reinvented the sex scene, I’m not ruling that out.* But, given the reader issues that head-hopping causes, the onus is on the writer to mediate those problems and make it work.
*This sentence breaches the ‘rule’ against comma splices, and it does so with intent. I’m writing in a colloquial voice and this punctuation deliberately expresses the way I’d say it: a semi colon would be excessively formal.
Ah, my favourite editorial fad, we meet again. I wrote extensively on it here. The premise of this ‘rule’ is that non-simultaneous actions cannot be presented as simultaneous.
He walked into the room, sitting down on the sofa.
Fair enough. That’s very awkward writing. Unfortunately, this concept is then over-applied by editors who should know better, and we end up with the red-penning of totally reasonable action flows such as
Bob drew the gun, pointing it at Janey.
The actual reason for this rule is that action flows can create an absurd effect when badly done. Unfortunately, some idiot decided to extend this into saying that you can’t do them at all, which is nonsense. This fossilised rule is a coprolite.
The question is not, “Can I break the rule?” or indeed, “Must I obey the rule?” The question is, “Is this a meaningful rule, and will the book be better for breaking it or obeying it?”
This applies just as much on the macro level. One of my least favourite romance tropes is the third-act break-up. There’s a pretty common idea that it’s required to keep the drama levels up and test the relationship. Can you break that rule?
Hell yes, because it’s not a goddamn rule, it’s just a thing a lot of people do, often because they’re told it’s a required ‘beat’ by other people, thus creating a vicious cycle of unnecessary third-act break ups. (Do not start me on the concept of ‘beats’, which has been inexplicably elevated from a basic structural analysis of one type of plot arc into some kind of bible.)
Please, I implore you, burn it down. Put your emotional climax elsewhere. Never have a break up at all. Locate all the conflict externally and let the MCs stand against it, or don’t even have them get together till the last chapter. Do whatever you like–as long as it works.
As author and editor, I have always felt that “Is it correct?” is a less important question than “Does it work?” I am still irritated by an editorial note on a line of mine about someone’s “breath dragoning in the frosty air”. The editor noted the word ‘dragoning’ wasn’t in Merriam Webster but said they were going to let it pass because the meaning was clear. Yes, I know the meaning is clear, thank you. It’s clear because I chose the word very specifically to create a mental picture, and I felt free to do so because English was not actually formed by copies of Merriam Webster being dropped by God from the sky.
All that said, “Do what thou wilt” is very much not the whole of the Law. There are always consequences. If the rule is “a romance novel must have some form of happy romantic resolution for the characters”, and you decide you want your MCs to die, then breaking the rule means you will either need to market your book as something other than a romance novel, or take the consequences of enraged readers to whom you’ve sold a pup.
Knowledge, mindfulness, and accountability are the watchwords here. Use those as your rules and you’re unlikely to go wrong.
(If you want a reasonably comprehensive list of damn fool ‘writing rules’ you can absolutely ignore, such as “don’t use was, don’t use passives, don’t use said”, here you are. Don’t say I never do anything for you.)
Many thanks to @podcastled for the inspiration!
Newest release: A Thief in the Night, an Audible Original.