When you read writing books and blogs, and participate in writing forums, you find lots of rules for writing. There are shoulds and musts for everything from comma usage to major transitions. When you read a few “100 Best Books” of any era or genre, those rules go out the window.
The truth is, there is no one right way. Any way you want to write can be the right way. It would be nice if you could make your writing clearer, a faster read, or more entertaining. It would also be nice if your books would sell. For those reasons and because it’s no fun staring at a blank page, there are guidelines for how to write a book, an article, or anything in between.
In other words, it’s a good idea to learn what writing methods have worked in the past and then write what you want. The more you deviate from tradition the more likely your writing will fail. But if you don’t deviate from tradition you’re one of the crowd. It’s conformity versus deviance. Like most situations where there are two extremes, somewhere in the middle usually works out for the best.
I was inspired to write this article after reading a post about how important it was for a novel to have major changes that break it into thirds. Many of those commenting said they stopped reading books that didn’t have a major change at the 33% point. That’s some strict reading. What about the story arc novel structure that has rising action up to the halfway point, a major change, and falling action in the second half? It may have big upsets in any part of the story but only the one guaranteed upset in the middle. I guess those writers are out of luck with the three act readers.
What follows are a few examples of writing rules that were broken by great writers. It doesn’t show every broken writing rule, you have other things to do, but enough to make it clear that it’s your right to write wrong.
W. Somerset Maugham’s “On Human Bondage” is one chapter. So is Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. McCarthy also breaks a few rules of spelling and grammar. Both are good books.
The 100,000 word novel length is rarely met by the big authors. Publishers make it a requirement for first time writers, but once they show that their books sell they can make them any length they want. Steven King anyone?
Grammar and Style
In Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, the first, and many other sentences, are not proper sentences. I think it was Elmore Leonard who said that if you have a choice between an unclear proper sentence and a clear improper one, use the clear sentence. Read any bestselling author for examples of grammar and style that break the rules and improve the story.
Mikey Spillane’s sex scenes had me convinced for a while that sex makes for bad reading. Then one day I was reading a James Patterson novel and realized he had just given us a sex scene. I had moved right along to the next chapter because the scene fit in with the story. Many novels have sex scenes that are a natural part of the story. Haruki Murakami and Lee Child are both good examples. Speaking of Lee Child…
Show, Don’t Tell
In an interview about writing myths, Lee Child says to tell. We’re telling a story, not showing it.
In Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”, he tells us what characters are thinking all the time. In “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, Larsson says what characters are thinking.
The Omnipresent Narrator
Stephen King is another one who violates the “show, don’t tell” rule. He also uses an omnipresent narrator and can jump from place to place, time to time, and head to head. OMG! Head hopping. That’s a big no-no. He was the world’s best selling author for a long time. Just saying.
Dostoevsky’s “Demons” has an omnipresent narrator that knows about events he could not possibly have seen or even been told about. Kirillov’s suicide was witnessed only by Stepanovich. There’s no way Stepanovich would have shared the story with Trofimovich’s confidant.
Too Much Dialog
Dostoevsky again, tells many minor stories through dialog. Many authors tell stories that happen away from the protagonist using dialog. Dialog is a good way to show the character of the speaker while telling the reader information they need to know.
Start Your Novel with Action
Plenty of great novels don’t start with action. Dostoevsky’s “Demons” starts with over 200 pages of boring narrative about the silly and self-important Stepan Trofimovich, yet the way the action builds from there makes it my favorite Dostoevsky novel.
In Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, the main plot is not revealed until page 100. The novel starts with the downer of a lost lawsuit for the protagonist. Not a spoiler, btw, and it’s a great trilogy.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is three parts. Dostoevsky’s “Demons” is three parts. David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” is six stories that run to the halfway point in the first half of the novel and then finish in the second half. Have you ever felt that Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels were constrained by a three or four act structure? Me neither and I’m hoping he writes another 100.
Sudden reversals, unexpected associations, and plot twists all work to keep a novel interesting. Scheduling the big changes for every third or fourth of a novel seems like a spoiler. Since most writers don’t conform, even those using a three or four act structure will surprise us.
Blasting the writing rules has been fun, but now I must trot along to some other writing. I’ll do my best to break the rules and exercise my right to write wrong.
Article by Ivan Izo.