Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Rules
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso
Times have changed, and so have the rules. Now, more than ever, it’s time to shed conventions and follow what’s best for your story.
A few weeks ago, after watching the third episode of the final season of Game of Thrones, which showcased the epic Battle of Winterfell, I was struck by something. To me, the remarkable thing about that episode wasn’t the battle itself – although it literally defined the word ‘epic’ – but the fact that the wags at HBO let the episode run for a whopping 82 minutes; the longest episode in the series’ history.
Why is this remarkable? Because it shows how much the carefully regimented face of entertainment has changed over the past decade.
Prior to streaming content from YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Prime, the only place to see television was – not very surprisingly – on your television; and everything you watched was created or edited to fit within a very specific time frame.
A sitcom, like F.R.I.E.N.D.S. for example, would have episodes that were precisely 22 minutes in length, to add up to exactly 30 minutes when you added in the two 4-minute breaks for television commercials. A show like Law & Order would run for precisely 40 minutes, again rounding that up to an even hour once commercial breaks were included. Made-for-TV movies would run for a regimented 90-minutes, and cinema hits would be edited to time frame as well (it wasn’t just the swearing that was edited out for network television – “Suck my knee, you muddy funster!” They were also edited for time.)
Then YouTube happened, and the rules changed.
Suddenly, you could pick and choose what you watched – ordering television a la carte – and the creators who uploaded videos didn’t have to think about fitting them into specific time frames or slots. They just made their content as long as it needed to be.
Then companies like Netflix began producing independent content – and, again, there were no strict rules about how long a movie or an episode of a show had to be. They were just as long as they needed to be. Everything changed with the explosive diversity of new content creators; and the old rules got thrown out of the window.
Book to the Basics
The same happened in publishing. Back in the old days, authors would be expected to write to a word-count. A romance novel, for example, would be 40,000 words long. A thriller would be 80,000 words long. Why? Because that was what made economical sense in terms of printing and shipping costs, versus return on investment.
Then Amazon launched the Kindle, and suddenly shipping costs were taken out of the equation – and it cost as much to ‘produce’ a digital book of 120,000 words as it did a novella of 20,000 words. Throw in the influx of self-published and independently-published books, and what used to be almost as neatly compartmentalized as television once again became a free-for-all where authors wrote books to the lengths that they wanted to write them; not to appease the printing costs of a traditional publisher.
What does this mean? That the rules have been thrown out of the window – and that’s a good thing.
No More Rules
One of the problems of self-publishing is that no matter how successful many self-published authors become – making many times more than a traditionally-published author would who sells the same number of copies, for example – there’s still this sense of an ‘imposter syndrome’ for many; and a lot of writers feel compelled to try and abide by the conventions of traditional publishing if only to try and look more like the ‘real’ books that they misguidedly think theirs aren’t.
These include things like the length of the chapters, the length of the book (40,000 words continues to be a very popular target) and the viewpoint of the characters. While to a certain extent, that can make sense – if you’re trying to appeal to customers of a traditionally-published series, it helps to have a familiar format that readers will feel comfortable with – but it can also stifle your creativity to a certain extent; and for the most arbitrary of reasons. If you have to massage your story to fit within the conventions that somebody else dictated, maybe your priorities are in the wrong order.
Other writers have self-imposed rules – for example, I write romance novels and I have a very strict rule about shifting POV (point of view) from chapter to chapter. One chapter will be from the hero’s perspective, the next will be from the heroine’s perspective – never two chapters from the same character’s perspective. However, this is a self-imposed rule, and sometimes I’ve written myself into a corner with it.
Recently, I was editing another romance writer’s book and I saw that she’d had a hero’s POV chapter followed by the female lead’s POV… and then the next chapter was also from that heroine’s POV. I remember looking at it, thinking: “Wait! She can do that?”
And of course she can! The author can do whatever she wants. What’s the worst that could happen? She gets raided by the POV police?
I’ve worked with other authors who suffer from the same self-imposed rules – like making every chapter roughly the same length. I used to feel that way as well, wanting to ‘balance’ my book by having uniform chapter lengths. In the end, though, it can be difficult because there are going to be sections from one part of the book that conclude quickly, and sections from another that need a bit more exposition. Independent author Chris Fox argues for chapters to be 2,000 words in length – the ‘potato chip’ length, as he calls it, which are bite-sized and the reader can’t help but want ‘just one more.’
At the same time, though, when I stick to my alternative POV rule – a chapter from the heroine’s perspective, and then one from the hero’s POV – it’s damned near impossible to balance it with that rule. What I’ve found is that if a narrative thread from one POV takes up what would be three chapters, I’ll keep it all as one chapter, and just separate that chapter with hard paragraph breaks.
But that’s just what I do – what works for me.
What works for you could be completely different.
What’s Right for YOU!
And that’s the point – you need to find what works for you. You need to take a step back from your writing and recognize what rules you’re trying to constrain yourself with, and then analyze the value of them. If your story is urging you to ‘break the rules’ then you have to balance that with the consequences of doing so – and, as we’ve talked about above, there aren’t really too many consequences for breaking rules; even your own. The wonderful thing about readers – as opposed to editors, publishers, and the old gatekeepers of traditional publishing – is that they only care that the story works. They want what’s best for the story – not how it’s ‘supposed’ to be organized.
That being said, sometimes rules DO have value – and that’s where the analytical side comes into play. The more you explore this, the more you’ve got to differentiate between your own arbitrary rules, the format of the genre you’re writing to – meeting a reader’s expectations – and ultimately what makes for the best reading experience.
So let’s look at each set in a bit more detail.
These are rules that you establish for yourself – like the length of your chapters or the book itself, POV switching, etc. Because these are your own self-imposed rules, they’re seemingly the ones with the least consequences if you break them. However, as I’ve argued before, there is actually some value to trying to keep within your rules, as long as they fit within the boundaries of the stories. Self-imposed rules can help create a unique ‘feel’ for your own writing. As you gain more readers, they’ll learn to expect the format you’ve followed in the past – it’ll create a familiar identity to your books that’s as comfortable for a reader to slip on as an old pair of boots. The only problem is – the longer you write within these rules, the more jarring it is for readers when you eventually break them. But as long as the change serves the story, they’ll adjust.
Sometimes you’ll end up having to decide whether to break your rules or not while you’re wrestling with an outline that conflicts with them. On one hand, breaking your rules can sometimes be the best way to solve one of these problems and often reveals new directions you wouldn’t have previously considered if you’d stuck to your old ways. But on the other hand, sometimes abiding by your own guidelines actually helps you refine the flow of a story more tightly than if you’d given in and just changed the rules to make things easier.
Ultimately, the story is the most important aspect here. Stick to your own rules as long as they serve your purpose; but as soon as they don’t – as soon as they interfere with the flow of the story you’re telling – break them. The only person who’ll give you a hard time for breaking those rules will be yourself.
These rules are defined externally – depending on the genre you’re writing to. For example, the alternating female/male POV in romance novels is a fairly well-established staple of the genre. By sticking to that rule, you’ll be producing a product that new readers will be instantly familiar with – which gives you an edge towards making them a fan of your writing. Conversely, if you’re not abiding by the rules of that format, you’ll have a tougher time resonating with readers who are fans of a particular genre.
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I’ve written before about how certain genres, like romance, are actually better for having rules of formatting and storytelling. Just as nobody complains about a poem having rhyming words, or a pre-defined number of syllables in each line, the art of writing ‘to genre’ is the challenge of telling the story you want to within these rules and expectations. It’s like long form poetry, in a way. Extremely long form poetry! Except to my mind, it takes a lot more talent to write an engaging book within a pre-defined format than to write something free-flowing, and that’s why I think a lot of established genre authors are actually better writers than many celebrated literary fiction ones (and if you don’t agree – fight me!)
If you’re serious about writing as a business, these rules and formats are things you need to make yourself familiar with. They’re the hill you’ll fight and die on, and the tools with which you can attract new readers (by sticking to the rules and format of a genre) and then cement them as fans forever (by gently and uniquely breaking them.) It’s to this I think the Picasso quotation I had at the beginning of this article is most appropriate: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
I think the most important thing to remember through all of this, though, is that readers pick up your book wanting a story. They’re not analyzing the length of your chapters, unless something jars them out of the flow of your narrative (I used to have readers complain that my chapters were too short.) Readers aren’t going to complain about switching POVs unless that, too, jars them out of the flow of the story – and they have to take a minute to think about which character is relating the events. Readers aren’t critical of these little details unless you force them to be critical of them, by making them actually notice that something’s out-of-whack.
So, this is why I think recognizing and analyzing the ‘rules’ of your writing is so important; and why you need to prioritize story over format as and when it’s appropriate to do so. What’s the dividing line between those two? Well, I think in the beginning of a book – especially a genre title, like romance or a thriller – it’s important to write within the rules of a format. This is because readers have expectations about the style of book they’re reading, and you want to hook them into the story securely enough before you break that format.
But once you have got them hooked, you have more leeway to break the rules; and you should if the story requires you to.
Ultimately, though, I think the balance for any successful writer is to come up with story concepts that do fit within the rules, and have the writing skill to be able to wriggle them about to make them fit if you’re finding problems. One example – in the romance genre, it’s generally accepted that the first chapter will be from either the heroine or hero’s perspective; and they’ll meet their love interest at the end of that chapter. Boom. It throws a reader directly into the story, and gives them the ‘hook’ they want, and I think as a writer you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t follow that convention.
But what if the path between hero and heroine isn’t that straightforward? How can you address that? Well, one possibility is to have that initial chapter be a ‘flash forward’ and then return to the ‘beginning’ of the story in chapter two or three (have their initial meeting be a prologue, or a teaser from later in the book.) This is a very well-established narrative device, and chopping up the timeline can actually be very satisfying for the reader when they finally ‘catch up’ to the events described in the beginning of the book.
An arbitrary rule I have for my own writing is that every one of my romance novels needs to kick off with a steamy scene – these really hook readers in. However, since a lot of readers like their heroes and heroines to only ever get busy with each other, how does that work? Well, a flashback is one idea. You could have the hero or heroine witnessing somebody else get busy – or, as in my most recent book, I actually invent the idea of my hero and heroine actually having met earlier for a one-night-stand. At first, it seemed to be a shoehorn; but later ended up making the entire book tighter and flow much better because it explained the hero and heroine’s instant connection when they were thrown together as part of the story.
Ultimately, I think what I’m getting at is how story always trumps ‘the rules’ – but the rules are there for a reason. You should always, without fail, try to abide by the rules; but not be afraid to break them if the story or your characters demand it. However, I think the roadblock the rules present always works in an author’s favor; as it forces them to analyze the flow of the story, the perspective of their main characters, and the conclusions they’re trying to reach. Rules are like signposts. You can wander off the beaten path if you need to take a shortcut (or take the scenic route) but they still end up being one of the most efficient ways to let your readers journey from the beginning of your story to the end.