How to Break the Rules of Writing (and Get Away With It!)

Well, in light of a frustrating encounter with an invasive computer repairman, I’m feeling very… defiant, today.

So I’m going to help you break the rules. Sound good? I think it does.

Thus far, the most complete list of  rules I’ve found are Superhero Nation’s Five First-Time Novelist’s Mistakes. SN’s writer, B. McKenzie, is actually a very brilliant man besides being an old friend, but as I read these rules he’s laid out I keep finding ways to break them. He’s a pretty good sport, though, so I’m sure he won’t mind.

So… ‘on with it’, am I right?

“1. Please do not have a character gaze at his own reflection in a mirror, pool or any other reflective surface.

Ah, but it’s not the gazing that’s the problem. It’s the exposition that comes along with it: eye color, hair color, ‘full lips and a round face’, you know the drill.

Think of Harry Potter, and the Mirror of Erised. That’s an entire plot thread entirely comprised of what occurs when Harry looks at himself in the mirror. You, too, could effectively use the mirror in many different ways. Let’s saythat your character is undercover–hair and eye color would definitely mean something, if she’s in the process of removing her wig and colored contacts. Or if your character’s in a Witness Protection program and changed her appearance for safety’s reason. Your character could be a shapeshifter, wondering what form they’ve taken while asleep the night before.

But okay, let’s take the hair/eyes combo out of the mix. If you still want to highlight your character’s physical appearance somehow, she could be bloodied from a fight, or dead and contemplating how truly jarring it is to be transparent. Or not to be transparent, in the case of a vampire-turned-human. If appearance is irrelevant, the focus shifts to what else is in the mirror. This is all too easy in horror, with axe murderers and nightmarish faces lurking around every corner. Or perhaps a secondary character is trapped on the other side of the mirror, and can only be seen by looking through it.

My point is, the possibilities are endless. Just think outside of the box a little.

Moving on: “2. Be careful with scenes that feature characters eating.

McKenzie counters this himself a little: “If you use an eating scene, make it interesting by adding danger or intrigue.  Perhaps the dinner is part of some larger conflict, like a white woman bringing home a black fiancee to her disapproving family.  Or maybe someone’s poisoned the food.”

Two very good options. My first thought was, “What if they’re eating their rebellious third child?” But that was a little too disturbing to present right off of the bat. Think: What could they be eating that would cause conflict or intrigue? (Cannibalism like my example, or something distinct like sci-fi astronaut goo.) Why shouldn’t they be eating? (A vampire forced for some reason to eat human food, or post-apocalyptic survivors who just stole food from a guarded compound.)

It’s like the mirror: You just have to give it a little kick.

“3. Please don’t switch point-of-view midchapter.

This one’s a little more cut and dry than the first two. The truth is that this is almost 100% a matter of preference. Some readers hate mid-chapter point-of-view switches, some love them for their variety and their insight into other areas of conflict. When it comes down to it, I can list a dozen successful books off the top of my head that employ mid-chapter point-of-view switches and have a better book because of it.

Switching POV mid-chapter will disorient and confuse readers. […] If something has happened that’s important enough to make you want to change POVs, it’s probably important enough to justify a chapter-break,” says B. McKenzie on the matter. I say, as long as you make it clear it won’t be confusing after the first couple of times, but chapter-breaks just to switch points of view has a very high probability of annoying the reader. (A book I recently read started a new chapter just for a page of the other character’s point of view, then started another new one to switch back. It was… kind of jarring, actually.)

There are a few things to keep in mind with this technique, though:

  • If you’re going to employ mid-chapter point-of-view switches, make it clear in your first few chapters while the reader settles in so they aren’t smacked in the face with it once they’re used to a one-viewpoint-per-chapter rhythm. That’s why it confuses people: Authors often introduce the first switch halfway through the book when the heightened conflict calls for it, and by then the reader already has momentum.
  • Even if you don’t switch chapters, make sure you do give it some sort of page break to show that something’s changing.
  • Okay, there’s probably a way to make this work, but in my experience, never switch between first-person narrators mid-chapter. Page break or no, keeping multiple first-person narrators straight in the first place is an ordeal in itself.
  • Unless you’re going for the cliffhanger effect, never chapter-break in the middle of an action sequence. A chase, a fight, a top-secret mission, anything that heightens tension and puts the reader on the edge of their seat. Sometimes the best way to show how these intense scenes unfold are by switching points of view, but that intensity will be jarringly interrupted if you choose a chapter-break to do so. It’s like a speed bump in a Nascar race.
  • Know when to throw in the chapter-break towel. If it truly is a good place to break for the next chapter, by all means, do it. If the chapter’s a reasonable length already and the secondary point of view is only somewhat related, that could be your sign.

The last two rules are relatively solid, so I’ll leave them alone for now. In the meantime, I guess the main point of this (for the first two rules, anyway) is that you can do pretty much anything as long as you find some way to make it intense or conflicted.

And I’m feeling significantly less defiant now. I guess there’s something soothing about breaking the rules. Hah.

Until next time!

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