Talk Back: Do You Ever Break Writing Rules?

By Marie-Claude Bourque


Hi writers and friends,

I hope you are all busy writing, revising, submitting, signing contracts and enjoying book tours and writers conferences.

I apologize for having been away so much. I am almost finished with my Masters in Teaching and have spent the few spare time I have polishing my pile of manuscripts to be able to start submitting material this summer.

I had an interesting conversation recently with a Facebook writer friend who told me he loved how I wrote my love scenes. He pointed that he was surprised that I had chosen to break the “one POV per scene” rule just for my love scenes and he wondered whether I did this by accident or if it was a conscious choice.

It was a conscious choice.

I do break rules.

Not too many, because as a beginning writer, I tend to stay within safe boundaries, but in this occasion, I decided that showing both my hero and heroine POV while they were intimate would be the best way to keep the reader deep in the story.

How about you? Do you break rules? I will frankly tell you that I actually don’t know all the rules. I may break them at times without knowing. Do you do that too? Or are all your rule breaking deliberate? Any examples you could share with us?

I’m dying to hear how you Musetrackers think about your craft.

Much love,
Marie-Claude xoxox

Location:Seattle

22 Responses to Talk Back: Do You Ever Break Writing Rules?

  1. I think we all break rules..We don’t always mean to break them but it happens..I know i have done it a few times…It takes time to learn and remember everything, especially when you are new…Even after all these years I still learn new things…

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  2. Savannah, I know, there is always something new to learn. I need not trying to grow as a writer would be a mistake.
    Do you ever break rules on purpose for a particular effect in the story?

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  3. mlmjr says:

    There are no rules. Only tools.

    And the tools themselves are not as important as it is how you use them.

    Some are more likely to give you the result you seek. Some are less likely to give you that result. But each have their uses. Even when you don’t know how to use them. Even when you don’t even know you’re using them.

    Many are even interchangeable and adaptable to a variety of situations. But no one knows of all the tools in existence. Nor would such a person need to utilize them all or use them exactly as suggested by others. How you use the tools is only limited by your imagination.

    What many call “breaking the rules” is really just the author using specific tools in way they feel will most efficiently give them the results they seek. And that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do.

    It sounds like your decision was intentional, and that’s ideal. But even when it’s unintentional, it’s no biggie. Every author does it. Every author gets away with it.

    Happy writing. 🙂

    Michael

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  4. Hi Michael!
    I love your concept of talking about tools, not rules. It makes much more sense really. Because writing is a creative endeavor just like any other art, there are ways to create, but sometimes doing something different from others leads to a real breakthrough.
    Thanks for the clever comment.
    Anyone has any specific example of how they last broke “a rule”?

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  5. I agree:) I love the use of the word tools, in place of rules:)…I do break the rules, sparingly as you said, Marie, but I do break them…especially in love scenes. I feel it touches the characters on a deeper level (no pun intended;). And, once in awhile, I use passive voice, it seems to suit my own voice in my writing. If I take it out too often, it doesn’t sound like me…

    Great topic, Marie:)

    Lo

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  6. Loretta, I find it interesting that you use passive voice at times. I think it is needed sometimes but I had got such a bad rep that people tend the shy away from it even when necessary. Great example of how rules can be limiting.

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  7. I use what works for me. Sometimes it’s using passive voice. When I read, I like to know what the other main character is thinking so I might switch POVs more often. I always use that method during love scenes.

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  8. Ella, I get what you’re saying about getting into more than one character’s head. Switching POV is the one thing that really do not bother me when I read novels, especially romance. I’ve read quite a few popular authors doing that very successfully.

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  9. Linda Adams says:

    I break the rules all the time, if I think I can make it work in the story. What I dislike is there are rules for things that writers do badly, and they are encouraged to not do them at all instead of working on doing them well. Even a popular phrase of “You have to know the rules to break the rules” seems to not have a definition of when you actually know the rules.

    But since you wanted examples, I’m including a dream sequence in my novel. According to the rules, I shouldn’t have one because beginners misuse them. All right, well, I already knew what I shouldn’t do with them since that was in all the rules. But what made a good dream sequence? That was hard to find. Nearly every site started out with “Don’t do them.” I finally dug up enough information that I knew I wanted to keep it short and surreal. And like any writing element, it had to tie into the story. I didn’t want the reader to get to the dream and skip over it; I wanted the reader to read it and wonder, like the main character, what it meant.

    So I posted a question about dreams on a writing message board. I figured a writer there would have tried it. I said all of the above, because I didn’t want people just coming in and citing rules chapter and verse. Instead, they were like “You want to do what? Are you crazy?” No one even wanted to try to stretch themselves and do something risky! When I firmly said I was going to do the dream sequence, I could almost see the writers backing slowly away from me like I had some kind of terrible disease.

    I think the internet has been both good for writers and bad for writers. Everyone becomes so afraid of rejection, they try to rule and regulate everything to death instead of trying to write better.

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  10. Linda, I am so glad you brought that example! Yes, they will say don’t do it, but no one will tell us how to do it well. As I told Ella, I think some author do the POV switch really well, so why not learn how to do that.
    I had the same thing with prologue: I was told by many contest judges not to do it. No one explain how to do it well, I had to study authors who did it well. And in the end, my editor always loves my prologues.
    So well said, thank you!

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  11. jbrayweber says:

    I’m a firm believer that once you have a sound knowledge of the rules, then you can break them.

    Earlier in my *snicker* career (if you can call it that) I broke ALL the rules. But I wasn’t aware of the rules. And who makes up these rules, anyway? LOL

    I realize now I had no business breaking rules because my writing wasn’t near strong enough to support it. Nor knowing the rules was no excuse, either.

    Jenn!

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  12. Jenn, I remember your beginner work when you did break “some” rules, but you did already did it so well, that it is no wonder those rules don’t apply to you. I’m thinking maybe some of those rules may make for bland writing without much needed personality.

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  13. I haven’t read your scene and I don’t want to come off as arrogant, but some people seem to think that switching between perspectives in third person narration is a POV shift. Actually — as taught in tradition Rhetoric — it’s not, just a perspective change. It may break an agent’s or publisher’s wants to change perspective within a scene (especially for YA fiction), but it does not break the rules of writing.

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  14. Hi Kenn,
    I think change in perspective is perfectly ok as well, I think people caution new writers to go into “head-hoping” mode where you are in one character’s head in one paragraph, then in another character’s head in the next and so forth. Anything that confuse the reader should probably be avoided. Good writers (not me!) can weave well between point of views and also between psychic distance (from omniscient to very close 3rd and everything in between). I wish I could do that but so far I have stuck to the very safe close 3rd point of view.

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  15. SD Writer says:

    I think the rule is you can only break it if you know the rule you’re breaking–and you have the talent to pull it off.

    In truth, there are only guidelines–you do what the story needs to get the story told.

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  16. SD, I agree. As we start we may want to stay on the safe confine of convention (maybe not rules) and try to learn and grow as much as we can.

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  17. Paul R. Drewfs says:

    What if you could break a targeted fiction writing rule without breaking it at all? You can: if you let the story demand it.

    Fiction is by definition, feigned, invented, or imagined; a made-up story. Many works of fiction manipulate, modify, or replace one or more prevailing scientific laws. Yet, the reader of a work of fiction must be made to suspend disbelief. The reader must be made to believe the implausible real. The fiction writer transforms invented story elements into believable story elements. S/he does this by seamlessly integrating them with concrete real-world representative story elements. Bottom line: all the white lies must be made indistinguishable from accepted truth within the characters and context of the story.

    All fiction writing rules serve one purpose; to transform page borne letters, numbers, and words into continuous real-time reader experience. When one or more of the writing rules is broken the reader experience must not be. If the reader’s experience is nuisance interrupted, damaged, or ruined, then the writer has stumbled, fallen, or failed.

    Notice the correlation. The feigned, invented, or imagined braking of prevailing views and scientific laws may demand the breaking of one or more fiction writing rules. When that happens, the mission becomes to break the writing rule and make the lie indistinguishable from the accepted truth. The criterion of success; the writer must break the rule without interrupting, damaging, or ruining the reader’s real-time experience.

    Hence, the first three rules become: 1. know and understand the fiction writing rules; 2. discriminate the difference between the supposed nonfiction and fiction being manipulated, modified, or replaced; and 3) detect the overlaps between the two. When these rules are met, the writing rule breaks the story demands become apparent.

    For example: If the main protagonist is to be periodically possessed by the antagonist, a fiction writing rule break might be implied. The single point of view (POV) rule might need to be supplanted when the protagonist and the antagonist share a single psyche. Yet, if the POV rule brake is not accomplished in a valid, reliable, practical, and economic way, the reader’s real-time experience will be compromised.

    The example that Marie-Claude Bourque cites is similar, but subtler. The protagonist and lover are fused mind, spirit, and flow of soul in an act of romantic love. Prevailing physiological and psychological science and fiction writing rules require a single protagonist POV, or breaks to change POV: genuine human experience seems otherwise. If done as exquisitely as Marie did it in Ancient Whispers, the two POVs temporarily combine to form a third continuous streaming POV. That melded POV flawlessly conveys the sensations, feelings, and emotions of fused lovers made one in the mind of the reader.

    The key to all this; learn the rules, let the story demand the rule breaking, and accomplish that controlled deviation in a way that maximizes the reader’s experience. Beware; exquisitely broken writing rules can become dark temptresses. Those grim sirens will attempt to take over your every page and excommunicate your readers forever.

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  18. Hi Paul, thank you so much for visiting since you are the one who inspired me to write this post in the first place. While I was aware of my POV switch, beyond that I basically wrote what came to me. I find it super interesting to get it analyzed afterwards.

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  19. Thank you for your post and question, Marie-Claude.

    Yes, I break lots of rules when I’m writing romances. That includes perhaps the one most fundamental to today’s romance fiction: the story must tell about how the heroine redeems the hero, a man sorely in need of redemption.

    In other words, it’s a power fantasy. The reader-identification female protagonist changes the “unreedemable” alpha male into her idea of a perfect husband and lover. She “saves” him from the misery of his egotism, arrogance, and cynicism.

    The two focal characters engage in a heated power struggle. He typically stands at the top of the social ladder; she doesn’t. He has more advantages in this game than she does. But she always wins.

    I’d estimate 98% of romances on the market revolve around this idea. But I’m sorry, I just don’t care for what I call redemption romances. Men who need redemption don’t appeal to me, or my heroines. What’s more, I don’t see anything romantic about redemption. I’d rather write about that which I DO find romantic.

    The romances I prefer to read about, and the only ones I write, celebrate the beauty, power, and wonder of love. Real love, in which the other person’s happiness means more than one’s own—not power fantasies. Such stories describe how love overcomes daunting challenges, from within and without. I try to probe the mysteries of love and examine its impact.

    Real love brings out the best in people, fictional and otherwise. Power struggles too often bring out the worst.

    My heroes are able to give love and worthy to receive it. In a redemption romance, such a man would be out of the question. How can the heroine fight him? That’s right, she doesn’t. In my kind of romances they fight fate, not each other.

    As for my heroines, some readers and just about all editors have a long list of traits a romance heroine must and must not have. I have only one requirement. She must be deeply involved in a situation I find interesting. Or better yet, fascinating.

    Countless potential themes, plots, and characters can arise out of my idea of romance fiction. On the other hand, redemption romances present very few possibilities. And they’re all been done to death.

    Of course, readers and writers who love redemption romances will keep on digging them, no matter what the rest of us say. The market will be full of them for a long time to come. But there should be a niche for those of us who want something—anything—different. I’m writing for readers like this.

    Keep up the good work!

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  20. So beautiful said Mary Anne. I see what you mean. While I love writing tortured hero, I usually don’t buy the redeeming plot if the hero is arrogant and at all mean to the heroine. I recently read a historical romance by a well known author where the hero insulted the heroine so badly that there is no way I was rooting for her to stay in the relationship. I want to tell her to run away as far as possible. I much prefer when I read about their types of obstacles to overcome.
    Does anyone else break any genre traditional plot lines?

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  21. I write how I write. Unless it’s a grammatical error, I don’t bother with rules other than my own.

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  22. john Graceson says:

    Been a long time, M.C. So good to hear your voice.

    As an avid reader, I love watching an auther break rules, when masterfully executed. The author’s control of a reader’s immediacy and distance from the POV character as well as the crafted transition of intimacy from one POV to the other are so important.

    As an illustration, it’s the difference between watching a narrowly focused, jerky home movie hopping around between charcters, and the smooth manipulation of cinematography with respect to transition, distance, and intimacy of the viewer’s lense.

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