Tools Not Rules

A look at why you should learn the rules of writing if you are going to break them.

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You will often hear writers talk about the rules of writing. You should be showing, not telling! This doesn’t adhere to the three-act structure! Your character is very passive, they should be active! And so on. Don’t get me wrong, these types of things are generally good criticisms and things that should be looked at, but not always.

Throughout history there have been writers who have taken those rules and broken them to great effect. Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra lacks a plot, characters or anything that resembles a novel—it is simply a series of multiple-choice questions. The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker spans minutes of a man’s life on a lunchbreak—it lacks plot, instead being a stream-of-consciousness with a not insignificant number of footnotes. The Road by Cormac McCarthy lacks an entire structure, instead having the entirety of the book being the second act—with the first and third existing outside the novel.

All of these are things that people will tell you not to do. They are bad form, bad practice or, at times, bad writing. And yet, they work. They work because these authors knew the rules inside out before they broke them.

That’s the important part. You can’t just sit down and start writing something that breaks the three-act structure until you know exactly what that structure is providing and how you can circumvent it. You can’t write a book that is a stream-of-consciousness until you know everything about plot and how that affects the reader. The reason that these rules exist and have survived as long as some of them have is because they work. They do something to your story that allows it to resonate with your reader, to connect. If you rip that apart you’ll end up creating something that doesn’t do that, if you don’t replace it with something else. Without intimately knowing the rule that you’re breaking, you’re not going to be able to replace it, leaving you with a flat story.

Learning the rules is a vital part of becoming a writer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to use them. Know them, so you can break them, or adapt them to create something unique.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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