Violate the Rules

You’ve probably heard the old maxim, “Rules are made to be violated.”  Sadly, many of us take this to an extreme sometimes: don’t run red lights, don’t turn left from the right-hand lane, don’t follow too closely, signal before changing lanes, obey the speed limit, etc., etc.  You get the idea.  In traffic, rules guide the flow of cars along the road; in writing, rules guide the production of written material.  The rules have been put down to give us a guide to better writing, specifically, to allow us to present our ideas to others with a good chance that those ideas and concepts will be absorbed with the understanding we intended.  The rules have survived for hundreds if years, dating back even to some of the Greek philosophers.

Yet, rules are made to be broken.  (Not in traffic, hopefully.)

Nick Mamatas, in the July, 2011, issue of The Writer magazine, wrote an article about not starting your story with a hook.  This has been a rule for a long time, at least as long as I’ve been writing, over ten years, certainly very much longer.  You gotta grab the reader right away, the rule says–hook him with an attention-getting concept right up front.  Mamatas doesn’t like it.  The hook, he says, is “the motor of the story–it can be the twist at the end, the broad concept, the compelling change a character undergoes…whatever makes the story worth reading.”  He wants the author to tantalize the reader, not hook him.  That’s the way to keep the reader reading; let him know there’s something worthwhile in this novel or short story.

I like that idea.  Writing should be good enough to keep the reader interested, not bore him into putting the book (or whatever type of e-reader he has) down.  If you can do that by breaking the rules, more power to you.  What other rules can we break?  Lots.

But there’s a problem.  Just breaking the rules for the sake of breaking them isn’t likely to lead to good writing.  A writer has to know what the rules are before he can break them.  An that’s why we follow the rules to begin with.  That’s why the rules were established in the first place, to give beginning writers a guide to go by to produce viable works.  As with any vocation, you gotta know the rules–the basics–first, before you can break them.  Just breaking the rules willy-nilly would lead to gobbledygook, unintelligible crap and unconvincing drivel.  Your message wouldn’t get across, and that’s what you’re trying to do.  You can’t play baseball without knowing the rules, you dare not become a physician without knowing the basics of medicine, you wouldn’t become a plumber without knowing the basics of plumbing.  But once established in your profession, breaking the rules becomes possible because you know what will happen if you do, and are sophisticated enough to work around it.

Violate the rules, sure.  But be careful and realize what you’re doing.

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