May 02, 2008

Breaking Rules, Part II

I'm bad with rules. Really bad. I get too close to a rule and I itch to reach out and break it. If something can't be said, I can barely think of anything else to say. If it mustn't be done, I have to sit on my hands to keep from doing it. The only way to cope is to give myself permission to smash the rule to bits. Once the rule is no longer "in force," I can look at it rationally and decide whether I want to accept the consequences of breaking it.

Since everyone and their sister seems full of "rules" about writing, and since these are frequently presented in such concrete language as to invoke the worst of my contrarian nature, I've spent some time looking at the consequences of breaking the rules about writing.

My conclusion? Break any rule you want. Break two, or six. If.

Now, it's one hell of an if, having mostly to do with what a writer is doing in the bits where they're not breaking rules. There are, of course, also consequences.

Writing rules, at least the less arbitrary, more agreed-upon ones, are a codification of the contract between writer and reader as it has evolved through the ages. They're a way of making sure the reader gets enough reward for the work they put into reading. So most of the rules are about not making your reader do too much work to reach the reward. Cut the flab, use simpler words wherever they'll do, don't switch POVs, watch your verb tenses, vary sentence length, keep characters sympathetic and their names distinctive, don't lose sight of your conflict, don't radically change tone--all designed to make the read easier.

There's just one problem. If you read in any significant quantity, chances are that you've found a book that follows all the rules. It may well have bored you to tears. Why? Because it didn't surprise you in any way.

On the other hand, that book with the antihero, the one with the delightful off-topic rambles or the intricate descriptions that put you fully in the scene, the one with the odd sentence structure that made you pay attention to every word, even that one that really had no plot--those were magic. Why?

Because the writer had enough control to know which rules they were breaking and how to follow the rules they were observing. That contract is all about work and rewards. Breaking a rule makes more work for the reader. The more rules a writer breaks, the more they must nail everything else. They must provide more reward. Apt language can sustain a book through a number of diversions, and great insight can pull readers through nearly any number of POV changes.

As I mentioned before, there are consequences, even beyond having to be better at everything else. For every rule, there is some percentage of a writer's potential audience who cannot abide seeing the rule broken. Sometimes it's the happy ending; sometimes the sympathetic character. No matter how good the rest of the book, a writer will lose these people by breaking their pet rule. It's just going to happen.

But knowing that and knowing the extra work or skill it requires, if you want to break a cardinal rule of writing, go right ahead. I'm certainly not in any position to complain.


Anonymous said...

I've always considered the rules of grammar and writing to be more guidelines than unbreakable rules. (And I used to teach college composition.) I think as long as you're communicating clearly with your intended audience, you can do it in just about any way you want.

Look at Herman Melville. Even by 19th Century standards, his writing was obtuse. Yet every one of his words carries more weight than most chapters do in other works of fiction.

And there can be an elegance in poor grammar that rules could never achieve. When Chief Joseph said "I will fight no more forever," he did it in a way that will always be remembered.

Poor grammar can also become iconic. Is there a more famous split infinitive than "To boldly go where no man has gone before"?

Stephanie Zvan said...

Paul, thanks for the comment. I absolutely agree that any rule, even those of grammar, can be broken well. I do, however, still think you have to know them and why they're there in order to do it well.

As for split infinitives, I personally consider it a moral imperative to willfully split them. After all, the rule only applies in English, because (to the best of my knowledge) English is the only language in which they can be split. Am I going to allow my language to be constrained by the physical limitations of other languages? Heck, no. But again, at the same time I know there will be readers who'll twitch when they see it, just because it's a rule. I damn well better give them something to pull them right back into the story I've just kicked them out of.