December 13, 2018

Want to Break Writing Rules? Gain Readers’ Trust

View up a cliff to a rock climber with text: Do You Have the Skills to Break the Rules?

Last time, I shared the guest post I wrote as a Resident Writing Coach for Angela and Becca’s Writers Helping Writers site. Over at their site, we ended up having a fantastic conversation in the comments about rule breaking and how to get away with coloring outside the lines. *grin*

I want to highlight and dig deeper into some of the issues we brought up. Just as there are risks to breaking rules, there’s risk in emphasizing them too much as well. And what does “strong writing” really mean when it comes to developing our voice?

Wait…There Are Risks in Following the Rules?

In those comments, Gifford MacShane observed:

“Too often style choices are presented as “writing rules”. … But I think if everyone followed all the same rules, creativity would be stifled. Every book would sound the same.”

Then Kassandra Lamb pointed out:

“My main issue with the “rules” is that they can stifle a new author’s voice before they have even found it.”

As I replied to both of them, I agree completely. Many grammar-level rules are especially an issue, as they can affect our voice so much. For example, I’ve seen new writers twist their sentences into convoluted knots—all because they’re trying to avoid the word was.

(And that doesn’t even take into account the problem that many writers are unclear on the difference between a passive-voice was—which, yes, we’d usually want to avoid unless we have a reason to de-emphasize the thing doing the action—and a linking-verb or a helping-verb was, which usually isn’t an issue.)

Don’t Let the “Rules” Stifle Your Voice

As I’ve mentioned before, when I started down the writing path, I checked out every grammar book I could from the library. Previously, my grammar skills were non-existent, so that step was great for helping me learn the rules.

If we follow writing rules too closely, we can stifle our voice and creativity. Click To TweetIt was especially important for me to improve my skills, as the first step in successfully breaking a writing “rule” is to learn why it exists. *grin* But I wasn’t yet confident enough in my writing to take the next step: Treat the rules as guidelines and let my intentions take precedence when deciding which rules to break.

It wasn’t until a published author pointed out during a beta read that my strict adherence to the grammar rules was strangling my voice that I realized I needed to find a better balance. Oops.

Are We on the Right Track for Balance?

So breaking rules is risky, but so is following them too closely. How can we find the sweet spot—all while keeping readers happy?

Every rule and piece of advice has a kernel of good sense behind it. As we discussed last time, we want to learn those reasons behind the rule—why does it exist? Then we can do what’s right for our story and storytelling, our voice, our characters, the pacing/tension, and the impression we want readers to have.

What Does Our Voice Want to Do?

For many grammar issues, we might decide our voice takes precedence over the rules—and use unusual or “unnecessary” words or punctuation—for rhythm, emphasis, character development, dialect, clarity, or to create a certain impression. For example, I sometimes include an extra comma for clarity, so the sentence is easier for readers to parse, or for emphasis, such as before a but in a non-compound sentence when I want a lot of contrast between the phrases.

I’ve been known to ignore copy editing suggestions because I want a certain rhythm, even though it’s wordier or whatever. Or use sentence fragments or “bling” punctuation. Just. Because. *grin*

What Does Our Story Want to Do?

Beyond grammar, we can choose to break the rules when we know the reasons the rule exists and decide that we can compensate or overcome those reasons. As Mark and I discussed on my guest post, we might choose to use flashbacks early in a story (often stated as a no-no) because the reasons don’t apply to our story or because our story-reason is important enough to ignore the usual advice.

For example, we know flashbacks can cause problems with pacing or interrupting the story, or that they’ll answer too many questions for readers, removing too soon some of the curiosity that makes them turn pages. But we might determine that our readers need context that can’t wait and is best delivered in flashback form, so we’ll carefully write a flashback that delivers “just enough” context that readers won’t be confused while doing our best to avoid those usual problems.

Do What Works

So many rules can be broken successfully that our storytelling is limited only by our imagination and our writing skills. I’ve read a story that was all told rather than shown because it was a series of emails, voicemails, and text messages—and was entertained. We’ve probably seen stories that were essentially one big flashback with “present day” bookends. Etc., etc.

The point is that we’re being intentional with our rule-breaking. We know the rule and have consciously decided to break it…for reasons.

The “Trick” to Breaking Rules

As I mentioned in the comments at my guest post about N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, one of the biggest things I noticed is how the author’s voice is so strong—so confident—that readers immediately feel like there are reasons for choices she makes, and we should just hang on for the ride.

Is there a trick to breaking the writing rules? How can we do it? Click To TweetIf readers trust that we know how to tell a story and entertain them, if they do “go along” with the story we’re trying to tell in the way we’re telling it, if they do trust us enough to follow our lead, that trust from readers can overcome just about any writing issue. With N.K. Jemisin’s voice, I was able to turn off my “writer/editor brain”—a minor miracle—and just settle in to enjoy the story, no matter how she chose to tell it.

By the end of the story, I understood—and agreed with—the choices she made. Her extra-long prologue? Important enough that I flipped back to refer to it a couple of times while reading (to verify my memory). Second-person point of view chapters? Psychologically, it made sense for the character (i.e, not pointless “bling”).

A strong voice and good storytelling fills the reader with confidence, reassures them that everything has a purpose. The story, characters, sentences, and words are all working together to create something bigger. Readers are swept along, not wondering if this sentence fragment was intentional or why the author made that decision, but just following wherever the story leads.

Try, Try Again

How do we reach that level of confidence? Know how our decisions will affect a reader’s experience and be conscious and intentional with our rule-breaking choices.

How do we reach that level of skill? Experience and lots of effort. Lots and lots of effort. *smile*

In the acknowledgements for The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin admits how hard this rule-breaking story was to get right. When tempted to quit, she says:

I believe my exact words were, “Delete this hot mess, hack Dropbox to get the backups there, drop my laptop off a cliff, drive over it with a car, set fire to both, then use a backhoe to bury the evidence.”

I think many of us can relate. *grin*

But I think that confession also gives us hope. We can look at a rule-breaking, award-winning novel and not realize all the messy sausage-making that went on behind the scenes to get it to that point, to get the right balance, the right voice. We don’t see all the experience and skill it took for them to develop that strong voice or strong sense of carrying readers on a journey.

So if we’re struggling, if we’re not able to get a choice to work, that doesn’t necessarily mean our decision is wrong. It might just mean we’re not there yet and to try again. *smile*

Do you think there’s a risk in emphasizing writing rules too much, especially for newer writers? Have you ever struggled to find the right balance of rule-following and rule-breaking? Do you have any insights into finding that balance? Have you noticed if your ability to successfully break rules improved with your skills and experience? Have you read stories with such a strong voice or sense of storytelling that it overcame other issues?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Robert S.
Robert S.

Funny you should mention this as a few months ago, somebody in a Facebook writing group said she was going to break the rules she didn’t like and if people didn’t agree, tough. Anybody who didn’t agree with her version of the rules had issues with her gender, race, etc. – her words, not mine. She basically expected you to had buy her books, and if you didn’t then you hated women, African Americans, etc. The fact that she was wanting to break some serious rules just to do it her way was in no way a reflection on why you wouldn’t buy her books. She didn’t mention if she was going the traditional publisher route, but they tend to expect you to follow the rules unless you make it big enough in sales to get away with breaking rules.


[…] George A. Bernstein provides tips on becoming a better writer. With more specific advice, Julia Simpson gives the scoop on writing first-person point of view, Kathryn Craft asks writers to zero in on the dark moment in your novel, and Jami Gold cautions writers to gain readers’ trust before breaking writing rules. […]

Evelyn Krieger

Rather than focusing on rules, I prefer to think of them as guidelines. There are certain structures and elements commonly found among popular, award-winning, and enduring books. New writers would be smart to notice what works in books they have enjoyed. For example: Don’t make things easy for your character–create obstacles along the way to her goal. Also, as far as the language itself, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a writing instructor advising heavy use of adverbs and dialogue tags.

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