Thursday, April 9, 2015

Breaking The Rules

Writing has some fairly rigid rules - capitalize the first word of a sentence, use commas to create a pause in thought, words are supposed to be spelled certain ways, and so forth.  These are necessary since writing is language, and without the added benefits of body language and tone of voice, following these rules helps the reader understand what we want to say.

Of course, many great novelists break these rules all the time.  Stephen King, in particular, is notorious for this, and it helps make him one of the best storytellers of all time.  Unfortunately, his ability to do this with such ease gives a lot of writers the idea that they can do so just as easily.  The problem is that most of us don't have King's mastery of writing, so we look foolish doing things just to do them.

Allow me to relay a story to demonstrate - several years back, I was playing paintball with some people, and, as the leader, I thought it'd be a great idea to split up my forces to go after the other team.  I broke my team in half, placing one half on a ridge and the other half on the trail below.  I didn't have any particular rhyme of reason for this, but I remembered that Robert E. Lee split his forces at the Battle of Chancellorsville, and he won a tremendous victory, so I thought it must be something awesome.  Of course, it became a disaster - my forces weren't mutually supporting, and there was this big gap between where our fire could reach that the other team found.  My guys got isolated and my team was defeated in detail.

I spent some time afterwards trying to figure out why Lee could do it and I couldn't, and the only conclusion I could come up with was that Lee was a tactical genius with tons of experience...and I wasn't.  Lee knew when to take such a risk and carefully mapped it out, while I just did it for the sake of doing it.

Writing is similar.  There are times when breaking the rules can be genius.  However, these need to be carefully planned, for if they're done incoherently, you've just screwed up your entire book.  Starting a sentence in the middle or intentionally misspelling a word should be used to throw the reader and create an effect rather than done just for the sake of it.  When we throw these things in because they look cool rather than thinking them through, we confuse the reader and make our work harder to understand.

We also need to remember our skill level and experience.  Folks like King can do these things because they've spent decades doing so, and they know what works.  Most of us are inexperienced, so we should tread cautiously.  Try it with something you aren't looking to publish, and show it to a friend.  Insert it into a work, give it to a beta-reader, and ask specifically if it works.  We obviously need to practice, but we need to know whether we have any skill at it too.

Breaking the rules can be good when done well.  However, much like crossing the street against the light, doing it poorly can result in bad things.

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