If writing commanded complete compliance, we would never have the joy of reading original fiction. Numerous literary lists celebrate renowned authors who not only got away with breaking writing rules but succeeded as a result. So, I was delighted to hear about a new anthology with a mission to break many. It could inspire us all to write more rebellious stories.
Writing rules to break
The Book of Unwritten Rules was created by a group of authors who met on one of Curtis Brown Creative’s coveted writing courses. Having already developed their writing to a high standard, they were equipped for creative liberation. Rules, after all, are just guidelines which work in general, but not all the time. Here are just five of the breaks you could try:
Don’t just write what you know
Each of the authors in this anthology have broken away from the comfort of the rules. They’ve embraced curiosity and chosen to experiment with our language and see where it leads. That’s why the results are both fun and interesting. Equally, you don’t need to stick with the subjects you know either. These days, it’s easier than ever to follow your curiosity. Research new themes that interest you and explore, in your mind, situations you’ve never encountered before.
Don’t start with a hook
If you can open your story with a great hook, fantastic. If not, or if it doesn’t fit your story, don’t panic. There are many ways to open in a way that could make readers want more. Could you raise a question? Say something odd? Start with a sentence that needs further explanation? Dialogue that needs answering? A disturbing mood? The opening to one of the stories, Glass House, builds a picture of a place with so much character I read on to discover more: “It was a cramped, dirty town, set on the side of a hill, with farting factories and very small terraced houses jumbled together like a bad set of teeth.”
Don’t try to ‘show’ all the time
Writers are often told ‘show don’t tell’ but neither extreme is perfect. Too much telling can feel superficial whereas too much showing can make a story sluggish. The trick is to get the right balance. For example, ‘tell’ where you want to move the story on and ‘show’ in places you want readers to savour. But who’s to dictate what the balance is? Why not play with different levels of showing and telling to see what happens? Another story, Ugly, is narrated by an unreliable character. It’s largely told. The author uses what’s said to demonstrate the disturbing vanity of a pregnant woman: “I’m tying my hospital gown tighter to give me a more defined waist when my doctor comes in.”
Let characters be passive at times
Generally, it’s most interesting if characters drive action, and that’s why writers are told to stay away from writing passively. But, truth is, if things are to feel real, there are going to be moments when stuff happens to characters. It’s how they then respond that’s interesting. In The Delorean Travel Agency, one of the characters believes “the rest of my life was mapped out already” and the remainder of the story disproves this destiny.
Don’t delete all your modifiers
Cutting adverbs and adjectives can be satisfying. However, a few may be needed to flavour the prose. Modifiers can be effective if they change the meaning of a verb or noun, especially if the effect is surprising or vivid. I like the way Smoke and Mirrors uses modifiers to create rhythm: “Harold had found her working as a glamorous assistant to a second-rate, end-of-the-pier-type chancer who sawed her in half for lunchtime audiences.”
The Book of Unwritten Rules breaks many more rules from unusual act structures to scenes written in the second person to loose endings. If you’re interested in seeing the effect, this playful and diverse collection is definitely worth a read.
Four steps to breaking the rules successfully
“Learn the rules like a pro so that you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso
Although The Book of Unwritten Rules takes rule breaking to the extreme, many stories could benefit from a little creative rebellion. If you want to experiment with breaking the rules, here’s one way you could go about it:
Get to know the rules
In order to spot good opportunities to break rules, you should first understand and have experience using them. If you’ve not attended a creative writing course, workshop or read a guide on the subject, now’s the time to do it, then get writing. Read widely too. You’ll see the rules, both used and broken, in context and it’ll strengthen your inner compass.
Experiment with breaking the rules
Once you have a strong grasp of the rules, start breaking a few and observe the effect. Through experimentation, you want to reach a point where the rules you break strengthen your prose rather than weaken it. Breaking too many at once, for example, can make a story both clunky and messy. Be selective.
Test the result on beta readers
See how beta readers react to your developed stories. Do they seem pleasantly surprised by any unbroken rules, do they even notice or are they cringing? Ask them questions about the impact certain parts had on them and how the story felt to read. Feedback will help you grow as a writer of original fiction.
See what readers think
The ultimate test of whether your rule-breaking is effective comes down to how your readers respond once you’ve polished and published your stories. Interestingly, far from criticising the rebellion, reviewers of The Book of Unwritten Rules praise its variety, enjoyability and the surprise.
So, go on. Give you inhibitions a break. Shatter a few writing rules today and see where it takes your writing.