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Monday, April 18, 2022

2 Rules of Thumb for Breaking Writing Rules

In the writing world, there are a lot of writing "rules": "Show, don't tell," "Don't use flashbacks," "Only use 'said,'" "Avoid adverbs" . . . While they can certainly be helpful, they aren't law. And if you've been with me for a while, you'll know that I love figuring out how to properly break just about any writing rule. I mean, I only have a whole section in my Writing Tip Index dedicated specifically to rule breaks.

Lately though, I've been thinking about two rules of thumb that can be used to justify breaking almost any writing rule. And really, they merit their own article.

Rule of Thumb #1: It Conveys More Than Itself

A couple of times I have mentioned that one of the key differences between beginner writing and professional-level writing, is that professional-level writing is frequently (if not almost always) conveying more than itself. There seems to be subtext all over the place.

If whatever you are doing conveys more than itself (and whatever content it conveys strengthens the story), you are more likely to get away with bending rules. It's doing double duty, and anything doing double duty is more important to the story and more interesting to the audience.

Let's look at some examples where this may apply:

"Show, Don't Tell"

Two of the most obvious examples related to this rule are POV penetration and introspection. We are told all the time to show the story, but if you are at Point 4 on the POV penetration spectrum or have a passage of introspection, it's likely you'll need to utilize a bit more telling. People think in telling sentences. We don't think in showing sentences. That can sound unnatural. 

If you want to get strong viewpoint on the page, then you need to use some telling. This is doing double duty because it's not only conveying whatever the sentence says, but it's conveying character voice. 

The sentence, "It was freaking hot outside, like the devil's butt crack" is a telling sentence--we're telling the audience it's hot, instead of showing it's hot, but it also relays the viewpoint character (or narrator's) voice and perspective, which tells us more about them. They're the type of person who says "freaking" and maybe compares things through a spiritual lens ("devil") and uses cruder language ("butt crack"). Therefore the rule break is doing double duty. 

. . . And I would even argue that, in a sense, this is actually showing and telling simultaneously, because we are showing how the character views things (which, in a round about way, is what Rule of Thumb #1 is all about, doing at least two things at once.)

"Avoid Adverbs"

Ah yes, adverbs--a great way to make any writing sound weak, and in the right (read: wrong) situations, threaten to turn it into purple prose.

While there are a lot of reasons to not use adverbs, there are a lot of reasons to make exceptions and use them

But a quick example for our rule of thumb today would be something like this: "She smiled coldly."

Smiling is one thing. But smiling coldly? That is something completely different. Saying she simply smiled or simply was cold toward someone doesn't do as much as saying she smiled coldly. Either she gets pleasure out of being cold. Or she's trying to pretend to be something she isn't.

In any case, it's doing double duty--conveying both what is happening and the character, so I would argue you can keep that one.

Rule of Thumb #2: It moves Forward Character (Arc), Plot, or Theme

At its heart, story is about character (arc), plot, and theme. Yes, setting is very important too, and even more important in stories about a setting, but any such story will ultimately feel empty without a strong character (arc), plot, and/or theme to go with it. Now, these three elements do not need to be perfectly balanced to write a great story. Some stories will emphasize character more, others maybe plot more, and others may seem to be almost entirely theme-driven. The point is, that any good story will do a good job in at least one of these areas, most will do a good job in two, and some types will nail all three.

But this can all lead into a whole other topic for a whole other post.

The point is, character (arc), plot, and theme are the holy trinity of story

If something progresses, deepens, expands, or develops one of these three elements, it probably needs to be in the story. It probably makes the story better.

Let's look at some examples where this may apply to rule breaks:

"Don't use Flashbacks"

Many writers, especially beginning writers are discouraged from using flashbacks. For one, beginning writers tend to overuse them, and use them in the wrong places and in the wrong ways. For two, because flashbacks happen in the past, they inherently run the risk of taking the immediacy (and therefore tension) out of the story.

So when is it okay to use a flashback?

Flashbacks are most powerful when looking back is effective because of what we know or suspect in the present or predict for the future. 

Flashbacks are most powerful when they connect to the present story

When the flashback progresses, deepens, expands, or develops the audience's understanding of the current character (arc), plot, and theme, they can work great.

When it comes to character arc, one of the best things to put in a flashback, is the protagonist's "ghost" (also known as a "wound")--a past, significant, often traumatic event that shaped the protagonist's worldview or lifestyle. Even though the audience may not learn about the "ghost" until later in the story, the event sets up the protagonist for his or her character arc. It's also almost always thematic (because the way the character arcs helps make up a story's theme)

A flashback may also be important in plot. In order for the audience to understand what is currently happening in the plot or what could soon happen in the plot, they may need a flashback to fill them in on an important action or event that took place prior. While I feel that a purely plot-based flashback is less common, it can be a good reason to break the rule and put one in your story.

(I just wanted to throw out, that in contrast to these things, one would almost never be able to pull off a flashback that was only about setting.)

"Never Open with Introspection"

Like with flashbacks, opening with introspection can be a poor decision. Many writers, especially beginning writers, overuse introspection, and in the wrong places and in the wrong ways. Introspection can also suck the immediacy (and therefore tension) out of the story.

But you know when introspection is great?

When it progresses character (arc), plot, or theme.

When it deepens or expands the audience's understanding of those three things--particularly in the present or near future of the story. 

Opening with strong introspection can immediately alert the audience to how the character starts his or her arc. Strong introspection can get the audience thinking about the theme. Strong introspection can get the audience worried or hopeful about what could soon happen in the plot. It's a great way to get significant stakes on the page.

What makes something "significant"? It either has deep, personal ramifications, or broad, far-reaching ramifications. If what the character is thinking about affects that in regards to arc, plot, or theme, you can probably get away with it more, and get away with it in the opening of a story. (That's also true with flashbacks--if it's "significant," you are more likely to get away with it.)

There are lots of reasons to break specific rules (for example, choosing to tell or to use adverbs can go a long way in improving pacing, while using to-be verbs or filter words can make a passage more reader-friendly), but these two rules of thumb can be used in regards to breaking almost any writing rule.

If what you write does double duty or progresses character arc, plot, or theme, you are more likely to get away with it. And in some cases, you may even need it.


  1. I like these rules of thumb, especially the 'serving double duty' one - knowing some of the writing 'rules' can help, but knowing when to break them takes things to the next level.

    1. Totally! It's often what makes a writer feel professional--knowing what rules to break, when, why, and how.

  2. What a fantastic post, September. All the examples you covered show exactly how to break the rules in a good and productive way. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Hi Jan, thank you so much! And thanks for commenting. Sometimes I feel like we teach a lot about the rules, but then not enough about how to break them. Of course, teaching the latter is a bit more difficult and complicated.

  3. Yes. (In fact, I think I talked about Picasso once and used that same quote in another rule-break post somewhere ...) When you break the rules, you should do it for the right reasons--not cause you are feeling lazy or just because "you want to" when you don't know what you are doing. And character can definitely justify rule breaks. True.


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