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Monday, March 16, 2020

Learn the Rules So You Can Break Them, Explained

Early in my writing journey, I often questioned how writing rules really worked. I'd learn all about how to-be verbs are bad, how you shouldn't use too much telling, prologues are the devil, and you should never use an adverb! But when I opened up some of the best-selling novels of the time or even my favorite novels of all time, I found writers doing these things regularly.

"Learn the rules so you can break them," some people said.

But what does that really mean?

And why?

And if that's the case, why have those rules in the first place?

Some of you may already know all those answers, but lately, I've been thinking about this topic more in depth, and how it really works and why it matters. And how I would try to explain it to my younger self or anyone else struggling with this.

I mean, I'm pretty sure at one point in my life, I wondered why we even had writing rules to begin with when some of the best writers break them all the time anyway. Do they even matter?

Well . . . yes.

And in fact, their existence often actually adds meaning to writing--which makes things matter.

But they aren't just arbitrary. They aren't just rules that someone decided to enforce to create a standard.

There is truth to them.

When you are starting out, it might be hard to discern that, because you don't yet have enough guidance or experience. "Are all these adjectives really that bad?" you might wonder. "I think it makes it sound pretty."

A part that plays into this is that, usually at this point, we also don't have much experience reading unpublished stories. Which means we might be rather blind to a lot of the problems that unpublished pieces have. The gatekeepers have kept these things away from us, so while these problems might not seem that big of a deal to us (and may even seem like something "unique"), in reality, thousands of inexperienced writers are all doing the exact same thing, and to the professionals, it's mind-numbing.

But it's a phase we all go through as we are learning and growing.

The writing rules are real. Yes, if you use adverbs too much, it makes your writing sound weak. To-be verbs don't actually really convey anything to the audience. Telling in the hands of a beginner is usually boring.

When we restrict those things by relying on "writing rules," it forces us to grow in ways that are far more powerful. By axing to-be verbs altogether, the writer must stretch for stronger, more specific verbs. By axing telling, the author learns how to write a scene over summary--which is much more immersive for the readers. By axing flashbacks, he or she learns to keep the present the most interesting, full of the most tension.

The writing rules are like a gauntlet you must fight your way through to become stronger, more capable, respected, and wiser.

But that's not the only thing. Yes, they are real. But their existence also provides meaning to writing.

It's an idea that is similar to what I touched on in my post about obligatory scenes and conventions, and also another post I did about appealing to wonder in the modern age.

If anything can happen, then nothing matters.

If we decide to throw out all the writing rules and advice in the world, then however we choose to write, doesn't matter.

This is because it has no context.

Time and time again, people think that having no restrictions makes something unique and powerful.

In reality, without any restrictions, uniqueness and power can't exist. Because there is no context, there is no meaning. It doesn't matter what you do, because anyone can do anything.

Context = meaning.

Boundaries = context.

Establishing boundaries establishes context.

We need some form of context (even if we are not consciously aware of it) to get grounded, so we have some frame of reference to add meaning to what we encounter.

It's similar to what the Cheshire Cat said, if you don't have an idea of where you are going (context/boundaries/meaning), then it doesn't matter what path you take. It's all the same. It's all meaningless.

Originality doesn't come from nothing. In order for anything to be original, there must be some point of reference, some context. Because in order for something to be original, it must be different from other things. If these "other things" don't exist or matter in the first place, then it can't feel very original.

Originality isn't this thing that is swimming clear out in its own abyss--it's something different enough from the boundaries, the context, the reference point, that is set.

Likewise, something is only powerful because it is more powerful than other things.

If "other things" never existed, then we'd have zero reference to recognize something as original or powerful in the first place.

Back to writing rules.

Writing rules are boundaries.

Boundaries create context.

Context creates meaning.

Meaning means what and how we write matters.

Meaning means what and how we write affects our readers differently. 

When we understand this, then we can begin to understand when to break the rules. Because now, breaking the rules has meaning.

But we can't just automatically "know" these things. We have to learn how to discern them first. And discernment comes from learning the rules and gaining experience using them.

Once you have discernment, then you can start experimenting with breaking them to gain more discernment.

And what you choose . . .

affects the audience's experience . . .

because it has meaning.

When I talk about such topics, I often like to think about Picasso.

When people think of Picasso, they think of things like this:

But prior to all this, he actually painted like this:

One of the reasons his later work is so respected, is because he pushed boundaries--that he understood. In other words, he understood context when it came to art. Because he understood context, he understood what to break to create the effect he wanted on his audience. And because he knew the context, it had meaning when he did it.

And once you have context from his earlier paintings, you can appreciate his later work more.

Learning the writing rules is similar. Yes, you should learn the rules. You can try to skip ahead or ignore them, but if you never nail those rules, you'll never develop the same depth of discernment when it comes to writing. Your choices will never carry as much meaning, originality, or power. You'll never be as strong of a writer. Because you don't understand the context.

When you understand the context, you understand how to break the boundaries set.

And you can take what you've learned, to break them well. For example, yes, many writers do use telling. In fact, in some cases almost whole novels are "told." But the only reason this works is because the writer has learned to infuse the techniques that makes showing great, into their telling. They've learned how to write great summary, by infusing it with the same things that make scenes great.

So you can break the rules once you learn them. Even if that only means intentionally using to-be verbs.


  1. I hear my fellow fledgling writers say things like this a lot - well, such-and-such famous writer got away with this, why can't I? That Picasso analogy is a really good explanation of why it's not working in their piece.

    1. And I remember feeling the exact same way! All in good time (and practice)

  2. As another fledgling writer, I've studied how much professional writers break the rules. I've since come to the conclusion that much of a writer's voice comes from which rules they choose to break.

    1. Yes! I feel the same! And when I need something to sound particularly "voicey," I usually end up breaking rules. I'm working on a future post on voice, and I think I might mention that. Thank you!


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