The Road Less Traveled: Rule Breaking That Works
Writing used to be the main topic of posts here at Writing in the Buff. I got away from that a couple years ago for various reasons. But every so often a nugget crosses my path that I think is worth sharing, and when that happens, I go back to my roots. So today’s post is about writing—but for you non-writers out there, there’s something here for you, too, so I hope you’ll stick around. 🙂
The Georgia Romance Writers (RWA chapter) hosted New York Times bestseller Virginia Kantra last month. Ms. Kantra offered a great workshop and imparted ooh-gobs of terrific information. But of all the things she said, one stood out in my mind above the rest:
“There is no right or wrong. There is only what works and what does not work.”
The minute the true import of that statement soaked into my brain, my mind was—poof!—blown!
All those writing rules and best practices—right out the window, Buttercup! Oh, I don’t mean we should ditch grammar and run amok, but the idea of breaking some common writing rules holds appeal.
There is only what works and what does not work. That’s unicorn-amazing and fantastical! That means we aren’t bound by anything. Anything! Because if it works, it’s golden.
Note: It must work.
Breaking writing down from “right or wrong” to “what works or what doesn’t” is a reminder that we don’t have to be rigid all the time and that breaking the rules for the benefit of our storytelling is okay when it works. As a former member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) I read widely about writing for YA and came across a lot of statements which began “A YA novel must . . .” Romance has a few of those, too, including the happily-ever-after I love so much. Many of these rules exist, particularly in genre writing, because they cater to a wide appeal. In other cases, the rules have simply developed into best practices. But there are many examples of broken rules that work.
My first example is The Road by the brilliant Cormac McCarthy (and not just because Viggo Mortenson starred in the movie). The two main characters are never given names. They are simply “the man” and “the boy” throughout the entire novel. But somehow in that book, in that story, it works. In fact, it was perfect. But imagine if Emily Brontё had tried that rule breaker with Wuthering Heights. Instead of Heathcliff and Cathy it would have been “the guy” and “the chick.” That does not work.
And what about J.K. Rowling breaking the “do-not-give-characters-names-that-begin-with-the-same-letter” rule? She gave us Harry, Hermione, and Hagrid. If you think it over, you’ll come up with more H names. She broke the rule and readers cared not one whit. Because—say it with me—it worked.
There is the writing rule that states “never begin a book with a character waking up.” Someone should have told Suzanne Collins, because The Hunger Games begins exactly that way. Four blockbuster movies later, I don’t think she’s too worried about it.
If you take nothing else away from this post, I hope you’ll hold on to this: Writing should be about telling our stories in the best way possible, even if it means breaking the rules, even if it means that what works for us—for our story—might not work for other people. We have to be willing to take that risk when it’s warranted.
Dr. Seuss received a letter rejecting his work because it was “too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.” Can you imagine if he had taken that to heart and changed his writing? But he remained true to his stories and to his voice. What he wrote worked. And 300 million sales later it is still working.
That’s the key, though, right? It has to work.
The cool thing about “what works vs. what doesn’t” is that it applies to everything, not just writing. Think about a time you or someone you know found a different way to do something on the job, or jerry-rigged some whatchamacallit at home. My father-in-law once built an automatic Christmas tree waterer using IV tubing, a panful of water, an electric pump, and a float switch. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.
Would you rather stick to the rules or pave your own way to see if it works? If you’re a writer, are you willing to break writing rules to tell the story you want to tell? Whether you’re a writer or not, how brave are you when it comes to coloring outside the lines?
Thanks for hanging out with me. See you next week!