Well, they say that rules are made to be broken. Actually, rules are made to be followed and broken only at your own (and possibly someone else’s) risk. This is certainly true in writing, though the risks of breaking the writing rules are somewhat different from breaking the rules for, say, driving. Break the driving rules and someone could be killed. Break the writing rules and you may produce a masterpiece. I’ve had a few run-ins with the rules lately–that is to say, breaking them lately–and I thought I’d pass on my thoughts.
Show, don’t tell. I blogged on this topic a while ago, but it bears repeating. You can’t write a whole novel without telling something. A novel that showed everything going on would be so huge and turgid it would be impossible to read. But, how do you know what to show and what to tell. Generally, you show the important things and tell the less important. Let’s take an example from recent pop culture. If you’ve ever watched Seinfeld, you know that the character of George Costanza was written to be distinctly paranoid, in fact he shows signs of true paranoid schizophrenia. But, were you to write a novel about the characters of Seinfeld, you couldn’t just state that George was paranoid, you’d have to show it. It’s an important a part of his makeup. Show him in a paranoid rant, write dialog that shows his distrust of others, of how he feels everyone (or at least certain people) are out to get him, show him in a way that takes us deep into his paranoia. You wouldn’t even have to use the word “paranoid” at all.
On the other hand, suppose Jerry, Elaine and George met at the coffee shop. That’s the type of thing you could tell in a novel. It’s a small item, it sets the scene, and perhaps the mood of the characters. Telling that they met there might be something you could get away with, you don’t have to go into detail about showing them entering, or sitting down, or ordering, or talking, or whatnot. It speaks for itself in just a few words.
Other rules I’ve run up against are the rules that beginning writers are held to a different set of rules than experienced writers. Why, I don’t know, yet, we beginners are encouraged to read the masters and learn from them. But sometimes that isn’t well received. I read a book by Tom Wolfe where he started the book with a rather lengthy description of the main character. So, I figured this is at least an acceptable way, if not the best way to begin a book. But when I did it, I got shot down with comments like, “no, you can’t begin with a description of the main character. You’ve got to grab the reader right up front. This is dull and boring.” But I wanted a description of the main character up front, so I left it. Break the rule. Go for it.
Another rule I’ve broken has to do with the length of my novels. I tend to be long-winded and my books have been coming out around 120,000 words. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. That’s way too long. Yet I see books of that long and longer on the shelves at my bookstore all the time. This is true in science fiction and fantasy, especially fantasy. Yet us beginners are supposed to produce a book of 70,000 to 80,000 words as a first novel, God forbid anything larger. Horse radish. I produced a novel of 120,000 words, and unless I can pare it down more–which isn’t likely at this time–at that level it will stay. Break the rules. Throw them to the wayside.
Break the rules, yes, but be careful what rules you break. You have to know the rules first in order to break them well.