Friday, November 21, 2014

Break the Rules Before You Learn Them

I think I’ve told this story before, but I’m telling it again. No, I’m not running out of material.

Once upon a time there was a guy in my writers’ group who was writing his memoir about running marathons. (Now come on, guys. I’m sure it’s much more interesting than it sounds. Be cool.)  This was not unusual because my writers’ group was mostly older people talking about their lives. It wasn’t a great fit for a speculative fiction writer, I’ll admit, but it was one of the few options I had, and on a rare positive note, I got something from it.

Anyway, here’s our conversation.

Him: Do most science fiction books have prologues?

Me: Yeah. I guess.

Him: Well, I’ve read a few and I didn’t see any.

Me: It’s not like a staple or anything.

Him: What does that mean?

Me: You don’t have to have one.

Him: Oh. Well, I was asking if you had to have one.

Me: …

Him: You should read other science fiction books and see how they do their prologues.

Me: …

Him: You have too much hook and too much tension right now.

Me: Like I’m trying too hard?

Him: No. It’s just exhausting.

It was a dialogue I puzzled over for a while until, after being attentive to what he was saying to other people, and adding in information as he continued to give me feedback at later dates, I decided he’s white noise and stopped thinking too hard about him.

The issue between us was actually about our priorities and how we understand the world. He believed you should do things like they were supposed to be done. You shouldn’t have a prologue unless you were supposed to have a prologue, and then you definitely needed one whether or not it actually helps your story. Being that I am of the opposite opinion—you should experiment until it doesn’t work—it explained why our conversation initially seemed a bit on the gibberish side.

Some people believe you should learn the rules to learn to break them. I believe you should break the rules first before they can infect your analytical skills. It’s after you start to understand yourself, your writing, and are seeking solutions that you turn to the old formulas.

1) You learn the rules best by breaking them.

I had a college professor who insisted that his class was “oh so hard” and “training us for grad school.” On paper, this seemed true. We had to read three plays for every class, often four hours in duration, and write a paper about them. His exams were extremely long with impossible questions about literally hundreds of plays (some we read, some we just talked about), as well as demanding three essays at the end.

It seemed hard, but the truth was, it wasn’t. I mean, it was the easiest class I’ve taken. Why? Because he never actually graded anything. He may have expected us to fill out a six page test, but he certainly wasn’t going to read it. Truth was, he’d never give you anything below a C because that’s when you might contest it. As long as you didn’t look like you were cheating and participated in class, you didn’t actually have to any of the work. Like, at all.

You know who didn’t know that? The typical A students. The ones who did everything they were told to maintain their 4.0 average. It was the people who tested their boundaries, the usual D and C students who knew the truth the best.

I always say don’t judge an expert by his accolades, but rather by how well he understands his mistakes. The person who understands when to follow the rules and when to break them is the person who’s broken them more than he’s followed them. The “rules” are actually contextual. They don’t always work, the mistakes they solve won’t always occur, and while they may be a safe choice, they’re rarely the best choice. Someone who has broken the rules a great deal has a pretty good idea of all the myriad of reactions breaking them can cause. Someone who follows the rules only knows what he’s doing now works, not what other options exist.

If you constantly follow the rules, you won’t be as aware what happens when you don’t follow them.

2) When you establish the problem before introducing the solution, you won’t wonder if the problem actually exists.

Let’s talk outlining.

Susie tells Johnny, “You must outline. Real authors outline.”

To which Johnny says, “Fuck that,” and proceeds to never outline out of spite.

So he doesn’t outline and doesn’t outline and doesn’t outline until, lo, one day, he does outline, and he realizes how much easier it makes certain aspects of writing.

He proceeds to turn around and say to Jimmy (knowing full well that Jimmy must be of the same stubborn mindset as he, and so needing to press the importance of it), “You must outline. Suck it up and outline like a real author.”

And we know what happens from there.

The first issue with the writing rules is they’re usually saying you’re doing something wrong. You did something wrong, this is the right way, and no you shouldn’t be feeling like you now have to prove that you’re right.

No matter how open minded the author wants to be, stubbornness will set in. “Don’t use adverbs.” “Don’t use said.” “Show, don’t tell.”

You’re not my mom!

Even when the author is fully aware he’s being spiteful, if this is the first time he’s had the rule exposed to him, he won’t be able to truly tell if and when the rule is stupid/true. His desire to prove this person wrong feels very similar to his gut telling him it is wrong. Meaning that even when the rule actually isn’t appropriate, he’s not sure if he doesn’t just want to believe that.

If the author is inexperienced and doesn’t have a solid judgment on his writing, the advisor has to prove three things: One, there is a problem. Two, he should care about the problem. And three, this really is the best solution for the problem.

However, when an author first reads and then actually takes the time to judge his own writing, determines there’s something wrong with it—even if he’s not clear on what specifically—and then takes it to someone else to help him find the solution, the advisor’s job is a thousand times easier. He doesn’t have to prove there’s a problem, he just has to prove this is a viable solution.

And let’s face it, even the most diplomatic person is going to have a hard time getting the author to not hear “You are wrong.” If the writer has already decided he hasn’t done something up to his own standards, then he’ll be more willing to focus on the solutions, not whether or not this guy is being an ass.

It is pretty useful for the writer to see a problem first. And if you’re thinking that knowing the rules will help him do that…

3) Don’t think of an elephant.

I’m going to be overt about my cynicism here and say that one of the dumbest things I’ve read was when someone tried to prove whatever they were saying by suggesting, “You may not think this is important now, but after I’ve said it it’s going to stand out like a zit on a beauty queen.”

Why is that stupid? Because you can persuade people to be hyper-attentive to anything.  All I need to do is give you the slightest inclination that maybe, just maybe, it’s true, and ta-da! You will not be able to feel natural using whatever it is I suggest.

It’s easy to psyche yourself out as a writer, to question everything a little too much. The main issue with learning the writing rules, especially before you start to understand how you are naturally inclined to write, is you will have a hard time shaking them off. You will notice every time you use an adverb or the word “was.” You’ll question if it sounds funny. And just by focusing on it, it will sound funny no matter what.

After someone tells you you are not to use the word said, you are going to have a hard time trying to figure out when you can because it will always stand out.

HOWEVER, when you’ve started to understand the way you write, what you like, and what you don’t like, it’s easier to put other people’s opinions in perspective. When you decided you don’t like your word choice, there’s something ineffective how you describe things, and someone explains that you use adverbs a lot, it becomes about not using adverbs in hopes to improve uninspired sentences you’ve already identified. Problem first, solution second. Instead of—how people normally tackle it—telling you to find adverbs to find the uninspired sentences. Now every time you see an adverb, you’re not sure if the sentence is uninspired or not.  By being conscious of what you think you’re more likely to curb the absolute influence of your stubbornness/gullibility and access the truth of what someone is saying better.

4) When you learn a way that always works, you don’t want to try new things.

Now that I’ve spent so much time talking about the pratfalls, let’s talk about the good parts.

Most writing rules work in many contexts. They are repeated for a reason, and not just because they’re quick and easy to remember. The majority of them are about not drawing attention to themselves, i.e. allowing for attention to be drawn to allegedly more important things. Meaning that even if they don’t actually solve a problem, it is unlikely they will become distracting.

Not using adverbs, not using passive sentences, whether or not to always use said or never use it, is all about not sidetracking the reader to your word choice. By not using certain realms of your palate, you are allowing the (supposedly) more important things to take focus.

But, at the same time, you will never be extraordinary by playing by the rules.

No one in the entire world thinks a great book follows all the rules. It can’t. It would be contrived, false, and predictable if it did. You want to do something amazing, you have to do something noticeable, which is not what the rules are about. (They are about drawing attention to something amazing, but they can’t do that if you’ve followed all of them.)

If you need a work to be decent quick, the rules are the way to go. They’re safe, they rarely backfire, and they cover up issues well. But they’re limiting, in-the-box, and never amazing or inspiring.

Many people get good at writing by doing what they’re “supposed to,” but then they hit a plateau. They write these manuscripts that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with, but sparks no interest. They need to step it up, take it to the next level, take more risks.

Unfortunately, it’s common they don’t know how to break the rules. As I said, you learn when not to use an adverb after using an adverb badly. After this plateau, a lot of writers (and all kinds of artists) see a drop in the quality of their writing. That’s because thinking outside of the box requires risk taking, and risk taking often fails, especially when you haven’t practiced doing it.

Meaning they’re experiencing the sucky, over-the-top writing most writers have already grown out of, after they’ve already been able to write in a way that doesn’t make them cringe. When you blindly experiment at the beginning of your career, you develop more control before becoming extremely aware of how well/badly you’re doing. When you start experimenting for the first time in the middle, you’re going to be very conscious about it, and it will be nearly impossible to not just go back to what works.

Why write weird when I can do what works?

Because what “works” might get you accepted, but what’s weird makes you a commodity.

5) Your “breaking the rules” will be more motivated and organic.

There isn’t much to this one. If you break the rules before you knew they existed, you had your reasons for doing it. They may not be good ones, and you may decide that they’re exactly what makes you look like an amateur (it’s pretty common in fact), but they are sincere and natural.

If, however, you start breaking the rules after you know they exist, there’s a good chance that you’ll be forcing it—and it sounds like you are. Even if you have pure motivations outside of, “Look at me ignoring all the rules! Aren’t I creative?” your awareness of the boundary will make you react to it. It’s just like the elephant thing again.

Even though I think the rules are great tools and unavoidable standards an author should be aware of, the writer who focused on uninhibited writing first, judged that writing, and understood it will be able to retain some of his true motivations prior to becoming aware of the imposed limitations. Meaning that when you wrote a bunch of stories before you learned you aren’t supposed to have a prologue, you can look back on them and have a better idea why they were there in the first place and if they worked or not. All the prologues after that won’t be free from ulterior motivation.

6) Making something safer is a thousand times easier than making it weirder.

Directors will, in most circumstances, cast an over the top actor instead of a little too subtle one. Why? Because it’s much easier to reign people in than it is to push them bigger.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something true. These are the ingredients to… Well, getting slapped. But also to making a good story. (Don’t hit me. I have a cat on my lap.)

Every story needs to have some expected parts as well as unexpected. It needs to be relatable enough, yet surprising enough. It needs to follow standards so as to not overwhelm the audiences with new stimuli, but not overexpose them to things they’ve already grown immune to. If a manuscript is just weird, breaks all the rules, is entirely unpredictable, it’s not going to have a good grasp on its readers’ attention. They won’t have anything to associate with it, will be overwhelmed, and won’t know what to focus on. They probably won’t care because if it’s too original, it has nothing to do with their life (i.e. what they’ve seen before.) If it is standard, hackneyed, and “technically correct,” they’ll just zone out. The brain says, “Already got this information, thank you.”

The correct balance, on the other hand, is complicated. It depends on the tastes of the author, the tastes of his audience, and what else the audience is being exposed to at that time. But, no matter how much or little, it still requires elements of both the typical and the weird.

A manuscript needs to take some sort of risk if it wants to stand out. That risk is what the author should focus on; questioning standards, trying things that no one else is doing should take first priority—for the simple reason that it’s harder than making a script do what it’s “supposed to.”


The rules are pretty easy to find, and not that hard to implement. The most difficult part of using them is not overdoing it. It is a thousand times easier to start with something that doesn’t fit in and make it conform than to take something typical and make it organically something new, because there are thousands of ways to be different, but only a few to be the same.