I Don’t Need No Stinking Rulz

One of the things I’ve discovered about writers on the internet is that they love citing rules to other writers.

Got a prologue?  Get rid of it.  There’s a rule against it.

Dream sequence?  Nope.  There’s a rule against that, too.

These rules emerged from guidelines identifying things beginning writers misused, overused, or did badly.  But they turned into “Don’t do it at all,” as opposed to “Learn how to do it well.”

When we try to break the rules and do it well, we’re often told, “You have to know the rules to break the rules.”  What does that mean?  How do we know at the point where we know the rules and can break them?  If we ask other writers, they fall back on”You have to know the rules to break the rules.”

I learned how to write by reading novels.  Sometimes I see a writing element an author used, and I want to try it out myself.  Little did I realize that if a published author does something that breaks the rules, I’m not allowed to experiment with it.  Other writers descend and tell us a published writer can get away with breaking a rule, but we can’t.  So we’re supposed to read published books and learn from them, but we can only things that follow the rules?

I don’t know.  Maybe it’s a way of trying to control something when so much of the control is out of the writer’s hands.  I sent two short articles to the Washington Post Magazine.  Once I clicked submit, it went into a black hole.  I don’t know if the editor will read it, like it, or even respond.

What do you think is behind this obsession with rules?  Tell me about a time when you broke the “writing rulez” and why you did it?

10 thoughts on “I Don’t Need No Stinking Rulz

  1. The thing about rules is the better you know them, the more adept you can be at breaking them. Otherwise it’s just chaos. It’s all about paying the writing dues.


    1. If you’d said that 20 years ago, before the internet, and maybe even before the computer, I’d agree. But the internet has made rules into a life of its own, and they end overshadowing just writing a good book. I have a dream sequence in my book. I debated about it for a while if I needed it and concluded that it would add an important element to the story. I’d read some in books, so I generally knew what I needed to do, but I wanted to find out more so could do it well. Couldn’t find much of anything anywhere. All the advice in books and sites alike just said, “Don’t do it.” So I posted a question on a message board. I figured someone had tried it. Instead, everyone said, “Bad idea. Don’t even try it.” I explained what it was for, and when they realized the rules weren’t working on me, I could almost see them back slowly away as if they didn’t want to catch whatever I had. It’s 50 words. In a novel! And everyone was afraid to break the rules for 50 words in the middle of a book. It should always be about what works, not just about following rules. But often, the rules are more important to some than what works.


  2. I hear your pain. I rebel, too. That frustration was what I was feeling when I wrote my blog post about ‘Write What You Know” http://bit.ly/yV6oj5

    If we don’t try something new, we run the risk of being stagnant. Try it. You might fail, but then you learn not to do that again–like Kristen Lamb says, memories are short, you get past it and move on; you learn. So, I say dare to break the rules.


  3. My questions are: If you fail, who pays? At what point do you realize you’ve failed?

    You might be absolutely right, and your unorthodox method might be the best solution to a problem. You might even be able to explain this to others. But often we’re asking somebody to gamble thousands of dollars on our convictions.

    All my best reviews include the words ‘unique’ and ‘original’; that’s a big selling point. To create and birth something unique and original, I’ve had a devil of a job trying to convince others that my mechanics would work, and that they’d work better for my specific project than existing mechanics. I’m also fortunate enough to have thousands of Beta testers at my disposal, so when one of my convictions is horribly maimed, and that happens all the time and always will, I can patch up the issues at minimal expense.

    And with each new project, I face exactly the same opposition. I suspect you’d have to make a serious amount of money for other people before they started to relax.
    Of course, there’s always self-publishing! 🙂


    1. I think the true failure is not trying. People often say that best selling writers get away with breaking the rules — except that it’s simply that they take something everyone else does badly or cliched and does something fresh.


  4. Prue

    I agree. It’s easier to deal with black or white, right or wrong. So much easier to say do this but don’t do that instead of well, you can do them sometimes but only occasionally.

    The Internet being the place it is, what goes around comes around, again and again and again.

    It’s like the ‘rule’ about not changing PoV in a scene. I’ve come across a number of places where I’ve read that this is wrong and should not be done.

    I went looking in books which have been published in the last 5 or so years and found instances of a change in PoV within a scene. Example: In a romance, the reader sees the man viewed by the woman when they meet for the first time (a long paragraph), immediately followed by the woman viewed by the man (another long paragraph.) The rest of the scene is in the woman’s PoV.

    Certainly I think anything written unthinkingly is not a good idea. If I change PoV within a scene, I need a good reason for doing so. If I float from one PoV to another and back very quickly I can see that it could confuse the reader.

    But in the example given above, it is far from confusing. In my opinion it cannot be wrong and is most definitely alright because it adds something to the story.

    So please don’t tell me it can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done or is wrong because I just DON’T believe that!

    Um…I’m a bit ranty on this at present – and there are other issues too – but I’ll stop there. Thanks Linda. It’s good to know I’m not alone.

    Anyway, I thought the only rule about writing was there were no rules 🙂


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