Breaking the Law II – Now Color Outside Them

Why are there rules or guidelines of writing in the first place?

The rules are the structure within which the reader expects to follow the story.

If you go to a movie, you expect to see certain things: a screen, a dark room, color images, a soundtrack of some sort, a cast of less than a hundred people. If the movie has no soundtrack whatsoever, there had better be some artsy reason why not, or you’re going to demand your two hours back.

If you sit down to an expensive restaurant meal, you expect certain things: the dining ware you’re accustomed to, some kind of food and drink, a varied presentation, some form of service, perhaps a menu. If all the food is the exact same color, there had better be a clever theme thing going on, or you’re not going to recommend the place to your friends.

In fiction, what the reader expects depends on many different things. Is this genre fiction, and if so, what genre? Is it a novel, novella, short story? Different lengths will present different sets of expectation to a reader’s assumptions. Older fiction is expected to follow different rules, which were in force then for different reasons, than more recent fiction. Over time, these will shift again.

This shared reader assumption isn’t always easy to keep track of, but a lot of varied reading will help show what’s currently to be expected.

The more conventions you flout, the more you’re asking the reader to trust you – promising that you’re going to have good reasons and it will all be worth it. Writing within the guidelines means you don’t have to take that risk. Of course, standout work takes risks – but it’s got to be for a good reason and the risk must have been worth it for the reader.

That brings us to the compensation. Let’s take a few of the ‘rules’ and talk about what might be a good way to break them and get away with it.

EXAMPLE: No jargon salad! This means having too many words the reader doesn’t already know, a common problem with ineffective science fiction. When the writer is world building, they’ll often feel the need to plunge the reader right into their world, and to differentiate the world they’ve built from ours with as many odd words for things as possible. Rapid, witty dialogue and interesting action can compensate. Good characterization is always helpful. Someone, frequently the viewpoint character, as confused as the reader, can be funny enough to keep the reader willing to go along with it.

EXAMPLE: No talking heads! This means a long conversation between a large number of people, with nothing else happening except the conversation. It’s odious if you do it wrong, and tends to lose everyone’s interest. However, if the character voices are unique enough, the subject under discussion is crucial, and there is dissension in the ranks to keep things interesting, things can move along briskly anyhow.

EXAMPLE: No head hopping, especially in first person! If you’re in first person, it can be very confusing to move from one viewpoint to another, and the reader starts wondering what the justification is for hearing from so many different people. One of my favorite novels breaks this rule, having six or eight viewpoint characters. The author, however, is a master of characterization, and every character’s voice is utterly different. Even so, each change in viewpoint was marked with a chapter break, and that helped.

So, as you see, it takes a good writer to get away with breaking a guideline, and there needs to be a strong reason and a strong compensating factor before it will work for most readers. Know the guidelines, internalize their ins and outs, and be careful when you break them. Within these restrictions, your voice can be as unique as your stories and ideas.

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