Breaking the Rules

by | Sep 26, 2016 | Karna Small Bodman, The Writer's Life | 9 comments

by Karna Small Bodman

Whenever someone begins a new job, starts a business or even joins a club, she is usually told, “Here are the rules.” She may even be given a handbook along with FAQ’s and in some cases (for example taking certain government jobs) she is asked to sign a statement indicating she has actually “read the rules” and agrees to abide by them.

And then there’s writing a novel! Yes, we authors go to many terrific conferences where we learn the writer’s rules.  One such meeting is the annual conference of the International Thriller Writers organization called “Thrillerfest” held at the Grand Hyatt in New York.

The Greeting at the Grand Hyatt

Close to 1,000 come to New York to attend workshops, interviews and talks by some of the best published authors in the business who give us their version of the rules.  One that is often drummed into us is the use of POV — Point of View.  We are told over and over again that we must have just one POV in a scene or chapter….the thoughts and reflections of the hero, the heroine, the villain or even a secondary character must be separated, because otherwise the reader can become confused about who’s thinking what at a particular time. Editors call that “head-hopping.”

For example, you shouldn’t write: “Steve had been devastated to hear that Emma was in an accident, but looking around, he was stunned to see her waltz into the ballroom wearing a slinky black dress and a big smile.  As Emma gazed at the crowd in front of the bandstand, she wondered if Steve would be there.” (See? You are hopping from his head into hers in the same scene).  Big no-no.

Authors signing at Romance Writers Conference
Nora Roberts

However, at another popular conference in San Diego sponsored by Romance Writers of America, several bestselling authors were signing their books — stories where they often break the POV rule….though they do it very skillfully.  One author who’s an expert is Nora Roberts. With over 500 million books in print (yes, you read that right – 500,000,000)…she can make her own rules!

Then there’s the question of how you structure a novel.  Many experts advise you to write an extensive chapter by chapter outline, or a complete synopsis, which for some authors can run anywhere from 5 to 90 pages (!)  before sitting down and typing the words “Chapter One.”  Now here’s another rule that can be broken. 

I recall one bestselling author saying that there are two kinds of writers:  First is The Tour Bus Driver. This one knows exactly where she’s going. She knows where the tour starts and where it ends. She has the plot firmly in her mind.   On her tour, she may pick up a few extraneous characters on the way, but she definitely knows her destination. Now she just has to sit down, follow the outline and create great scenes to get from point A to point B.

The second type of writer is the Hitchhiker. This one has a general idea of where he’d like to go but has no clue how he’s actually going to get there.  He gathers his courage and hopes to meet characters who will take him to his destination.  He’s not sure what they will look like or how old they will be. But he’s excited because it will be an adventure to meet them along the way.  This author “lets” his characters tell their stories as the trip moves along.

The “most important rule” that is usually drummed into any writer  from the get-go is “Show, Don’t tell.”  In other words, don’t tell the reader: “Jack was scared and wondered what he would find at the end of the hallway.” Instead show the reader:” Jack wiped beads of perspiration off his forehead. With his heart racing, he crept to the end of the darkened hallway.”

However, this is another rule that can be broken and in factIS  broken in the final chapter of a famous novel. (I was reminded of this when I happened to read an essay on the subject by Robert Repino.)  The novel is George Orwell’s 1984.  The concluding paragraph (with the exception of one sentence regarding tears) gives us a perfect example of how TELLING (not SHOWING) can be incredibly effective.

“He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark mustache.  O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving beast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

And so, if you are writing the Great American Novel — sit down, be creative, and if you really want to — go ahead and BREAK THE RULES.

                                                                                          ….by Karna Small Bodman

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  1. Gayle Lynds

    Amen, Karna! Learn the rules, learn them really well with all their complexity and apparent craziness – then break them. That's how new roads are found, and literature grows. A wonderful essay.

  2. jean harrington

    Excellent capsule review, Karna, of some of the biggest "rules."

  3. LynnetteAustin

    Very interesting article, Karna. I so agree with the idea of learning the rules well–and then breaking them. In addition to the tour bus driver type of writer and the hitchhiker, I think there's a third. The hybrid. The hop-on, hop-off tour-taker. 🙂

  4. S. Lee Manning

    Love the post. I've always believed in breaking rules – for the greater purpose.

  5. Debi Huff

    Thanks, Karna. I couldn't agree more. You have to know what the rules are before you can skillfully break them!! So study your craft and then go out and write that book!!!!

  6. Jamie Freveletti

    Great example for "head hopping." I have had new writers ask me about this and they seem perplexed that it's a problem, because they are so familiar with their story that they always know who is speaking. Nice post!

  7. Karna Bodman

    Thank you Gayle, Jean, Lynnette, s. Lee, Debi and Jamie…for taking the time to leave a comment. I recall from one of our Thrillerfest workshops that Lee Child is "famous" for giving talks on breaking rules. But I'm sure he "followed the rules of decorum" when he introduced my fellow Rogue Women Writers at their panel at the big Bouchercon Conference in New Orleans recently — I heard it was terrific!

  8. KJ Howe

    Karna, I LOVE the word "hitchhiker" to describe a pantser. Never heard it before, but will use it again. Thanks for the wonderful post.

  9. Chris Goff

    I am a firm believer that BEFORE you can break the rules successfully you need to know what they are. It seems that most of the "rules" for fiction are guidelines, but they're guidelines for a reason. Great article, Karna. Thanks.