My favorite writers are rebels.
Most of them know the rules of writing... and break them anyway.
Look at these examples:
- Isaac Asimov thrived on “info dumps”
- Info dumps are supposed to be boring.
- The Hunger Games starts with Katniss's wake-up routine.
- Don’t start with the wake-up. This is amateur writing 101!
- Harry Potter doesn't have a consistent point of view
- Mr. Dursley takes up the first chapter... and we never get his POV again.
But all of them are breakout best sellers.
Which can only mean one thing…
The Zeroth Law of Writing States "There Are No Rules"
Burn the dictionaries!
Kick the bookshelves over!
String up the grammarians by their over-prescriptivist thumbs-
-now, hold on just a minute there.
Let me explain before you start setting things on fire.
There Are No Rules in Writing, Only Very Good Ideas
The world of writing isn't a lawless wasteland.
Instead, you should think of the “Rules of Writing” as very strong guidelines.
Or, even better, you should think of them as lampposts in an ash-ridden apocalypse.
These lampposts have helped authors craft better, more engaging stories for thousands of years.
You can always ignore them...
That's why this is called the Zeroth Law of Writing - because every other law that follows this one can be broken.
In fact, many great authors (and other powerful people) do break the most basic laws of writing, like spelling or grammar:
- Look at James Joyce’s Ulysses
- Look at poets like John Keats
- Look at Deadpool and how he breaks the 4th wall...
So what makes great writing?
Which writing rules should you follow...
...and which ones should you break?
Let’s look at a couple caveats to the Zeroth Law of Writing.
Caveat #1 - You Get to Make the Rules
“There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story.” - Ursula K. Le Guin
When you write, you are God…
...or as close to the idea of a god as any of us will get.
That means: you get to define the laws.
It’s your universe. However…
…You Are Not an Infallible God
Your universe will not work for every reader.
Some readers crave traditional rules and structure. Some are bored by it.
Listen to your readers. If they tell you “there were too many info dumps,” then maybe you should alter your rules on info dumping.
Nobody can tell you what to do - but if you aren’t going to listen to your readers, then who are you writing for?
“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.” - Elmore Leonard
Caveat #2 - 99.9% of Readers Prefer Consistency
All stories have a learning curve.
Readers need time to warm up to the characters, to adapt to the style, and to memorize the important facts.
Infinite Jest has a significantly steeper learning curve than One Fish, Two Fish - but the point still stands:
Consistency makes your writing:
- More immersive
Consistency Lowers the “Barrier of Entry” to Your Writing
When you change the rules in the middle of your story, you better have a damn good reason.
Otherwise, you are disrespecting your readers.
They put in the effort to learn your rules. When you change the rules on them, you are saying, “I don’t care. My lazy writing is more important than your emotional reward.”
Should You Run Your Story Like a Police State?
“Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.” - Aldous Huxley
You don’t need to write a 1000-page dissertation on the rules of your writing.
And, if you do, you don’t need to be 100% faithful to it. If you find one of your own rules is bogging down your writing… you better break it.
There are some authors who literally write companion works to their stories that outline the rules and build the world.
- Brandon Sanderson heavily outlines the rules of his magic systems.
- J. R. R. Tolkien had a worldbuilding bible that has since been published as The Silmarillion.
But both of these authors found extremely interesting elements in their writing by breaking the rules.
For example, Tolkien was writing in a universe heavily inspired by ancient legend, Germanic Mythology, and high fantasy. The Hobbits were the complete opposite of that.
Yet, they became the some of the most beloved characters in his stories.
Great Writing is Not Bound by Rules
There is a wall of glass at the exhibit.
Behind it, an ancient Incan urn made of pure gold. Priceless.
You can either stand behind the glass, and stare at it for a couple minutes, and move on to the next exhibit…
...or you can break the glass, palm the urn, and steal away from the Museum with a dozen guards on your tail.
Which one makes for a better story?
You are the Writer.
You make the rules…
Choose your style, and stay consistent.
That way, when you break the rules - it actually matters.
How do your favorite authors break the rules?
I'd love to see other examples. Comment below.