Are rules made to be broken?

Let’s get straight to the point – rules are put in place for a reason. But that’s not to say we can bend those rules when it suits us.
But when it comes to fiction writing, how far can you bend those rules and is it okay to even break a few?

The answers depend upon the rules in question and the kind of circumstances that exist for writers – i.e. whether the writers are just starting out on their fiction writing journey, or still unpublished, or whether they’re established and experienced writers who perhaps can get away with a few writing transgressions.

There is certainly no reason why we can’t bend a few fiction writing rules; we all do it, but blatant misuse of them won’t do writers much good.
Firstly, new and unpublished writers should dispense with any arrogance about “It’s my story - I can do what I like, how I like” where creative writing is concerned. That kind of attitude will not get you published (unless of course you are an exceptional writing prodigy bursting with immense creative talent and publishers fall at your feet for you to dictate to them how things should be done).

In the real world, however, the reality is quite different.
Your job as a writer is to impress an agent or publisher, to make your work stand out, to make them sit up and take notice of you and, ultimately, take a chance on you and your work. That means putting in the hard work through the painstaking writing and editing process and the polishing to perfection of your manuscript. It also means abiding by general fiction rules in order to give yourself an advantage.

But why do some break the rules?
More experienced and published writers – those who have developed a good working ethic with their editors, those who earn a lot of money for themselves and their publishers, are allowed to push the boundaries. Many famous writers do bend and break lots of fiction writing rules, but that is because they’ve already worked hard to establish themselves through publication. 

Which writing rules matter?
The rules every writer must stick to concern grammar.

Correct grammar is paramount; it sets a standard, and they should never be infringed.  Where novel writing is concerned, any writer who cannot grasp basic grammar will get rejected because you are showing prospective agents or publishers your poor writing skills, thus exposing limited capabilities.  
Don’t think for one minute that editors will gladly give up their time to go through your manuscript correcting your mistakes before joyfully declaring they will accept your masterpiece, because they won’t. You will be rejected.

If you cannot present a perfectly polished manuscript to agents or publishers, you will not find publication. They will spot silly grammatical mistakes, even if you don’t, and they will not only judge your writing skill on the content of your manuscript, but also on the standard of your synopsis and your covering letter. 
What are general fiction rules?

There are plenty of unwritten ‘rules’, a long list of do’s and don’ts that are not as strict or as rigid as grammar rules, but writers can creatively bend some, and on occasion, break them.
Here are a few examples of the kind of general ‘rules’ that writers should observe:-

·        Don’t use too many adverbs.
·        Cut down on the use of adjectives.
·        Avoid hanging participles
·        Don’t use clich├ęs
·        Show, don’t tell
·        Writing should be active, not passive
·        Don’t change tenses
While these are not set in stone, they exist to support the writer in the most positive way, and they exist because hundreds of famous and talented writers before us have toiled and ploughed through their creative works, gone through many rejections and learned through feedback what is accepted and what isn’t, and they have passed this imperative advice onto fellow writers.  If not for them, we wouldn’t have these ‘rules’ to guide us.

New and unpublished writers can bend them, to a point, but should avoid breaking them.  Remember, you are writing to impress agents and publishers, not your ego.  Until you are sitting alongside the likes of Stephen King, J K Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Tom Clancy or Robert Harris, then it’s best to stick to convention.
Every writer starts at the bottom of the ladder and has to work their way up, so when you do become published and you have that experience behind you, then you can experiment with pushing boundaries and breaking the odd rule or two.  Until that time, the advice would be to stick to fiction writing rules to increase your chances of becoming the next big thing.

There is never any shortage of would-be novelists who think they know it all and don’t stick to accepted conventions, whose works are littered with crimes against fiction and all manner of grammatical nasties. They are the kind of people who will not listen to advice.  No wonder, then, that they remain unpublished.
Rules are there for a reason.  Bend them, but try not to break them if you want to get your novel noticed.

Next week:  How important is writing style?


  1. "Your job as a writer is to impress an agent or publisher"

    You lost me right there. Your job as a fiction writer is to tell a great story.

    How many agents and publishers have passed on immensely popular books and authors? How many agents and publishers have bought books that don't sell?

    Agents and publishers are not your audience and writing to impress them has never guaranteed success.

    Your job is to tell a great story.

    1. You seem to have missed the point, Frank.

      Your job - should traditional publishing be the route - IS to impress agents or publishers, otherwise you won't get published.

      Yes, we have to tell a great story, but most self published novels cannot even do that, so the traditional route, with its quality standards in place, can sort the wheat from the chaff.

      Agents and publishers are not an audience, of course not. But they are the gatekeepers - we have to impress them in order to get published and remain published.

  2. The discipline that Ms. Uttendorfsky speaks of is excellent advice. It's the amateurs who think they need pay no heed to the parameters established by their forebears. The same principle applies to jazz: It's a creative art, but one best realized if boundaries are observed.


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