Thursday, January 26, 2012

Work It, Work It: Breaking the Writing Rules

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Chances are, you've either heard or said the words, "if it works, it works" at some point in your writing life. You've probably also said, "well that's not very helpful" or "I know this isn't helpful, but..." Since there are no real rules in writing, anything can be done, and sometimes breaking the norm is exactly what a story needs.

It's also something that's very compelling to try just to be different, usually with disastrous results. 

How do you know if "it works" or it's just a mess?

When you break the rules,what determines whether or not it works is why it was done and how it serves the story. Doing something different just to be different rarely succeeds, but if it was a conscious choice to achieve something you couldn't do any other way, it often works. And most importantly, it allows you to tell the story in a way that brings out an aspect that transcends mere words on a page. How you did it adds a layer same as what you said.

I've pulled four books off my bookshelf I think are good examples of books that break the rules, but work anyway.

The Book Thief
By Markus Zusak

This one breaks all kinds of rules. It's narrated by Death, but focuses on the other characters in third person omniscient. But Death breaks into the story all the time to talk to the reader, in first person. It's mixed within the third person text, so essentially, you have two POV types going on at once, all while breaking the fourth wall.

This works because it's the ultimate omniscient narrator. An all knowing, truly omniscient being is telling the story, and it's his story, even if it focuses on the main character, Liesel. Zusak never lets you go too long without reminding you that Death is the one talking here. Since he's true to his narrator, the unique narrative style works.

Zusak also breaks in with loud proclamations about things. In bold. Like this:

Sometimes I arrive too early.
I rush,
and some people cling longer
to life than expected.

You'd think this would be odd and yank you out of the story, but it doesn't. Death is allowed to make declarative statements, and we go with it because it's DEATH. Of course he knows everything. And since these statements are solid in Death's POV, they don't come across as the author making a declaration. These are things that Death would say, and no other. Again, staying firm in the POV. This isn't some faceless narrator here, it's a person (so to speak) with very strong opinions and a unique view of the events at hand.

Another rule Zusak breaks is telling you things that are going to happen long before they do, a'la "little did he know the killer waited just around the corner."

Knowing what's going to happen to a character usually lessens the tension, but here it doesn't. We know the outcome of most books anyway (heroes usually win, bad guys get defeated) but the how and why are what drive us to keep reading. In The Book Thief though, I think there's another reason why this works so well.
We know the setting and the history around that setting.

It takes place in Nazi Germany during World War 2. Much of the tension comes from knowing what's going to happen to that little town and those people without the author ever having to say a word. So when Death says someone is going to die, we take that as a given. When Liesel's foster father does something kind for a Jew, we know how his neighbors will react. We can guess what will happen, so telling us doesn't change our perceptions of the tale at all. It's what we expected anyway.

Even more importantly, Death doesn't care about who lives and dies (well, he does, but not as we do), because they all will eventually. The stakes don't come from typical human emotions, they come from Death and his fascination with humanity and this girl. His priorities are different, and since he wants to know, we want to know, because he's made us curious about the things he finds important.

Another book that plays with mixing POV types is...

Skin Hunger
By Kathleen Duey

This book is a favorite of mine and I've talked about it before, but it's a great example of how to mix POVs effectively. Skin Hunger tells the tale from two POVs, a first person boy in the present day (for the setting of the book) and a third person girl in the past.

This works because the past bears significantly on the first person story, but the present day is what's important. Hahp is the person Duey wants you to identity with and root for (I'm guessing since she did it so well) so you get up close and personal with him. Sadima is the one to wonder about, so third person keeps us from getting too close before Duey is ready for us to be there. Duey couldn't have achieved this if she'd done third and third, or first and first because the two sides would have had equal weight. The more you read, the more you find yourself wondering what the past story has to do with the present, which is exactly what Duey wants you to do. Just as you can't stand not knowing, she tosses you a clue as to how these two stories link.

Anyone who has a "the past really does influence the present" type story should definitely check this out. The past here is its own story, and it does connect to the present day tale.

Living Dead Girl
By Elizabeth Scott

You could say this breaks both a word count rule and a taboo rule, but I'm focusing more on the word count aspect. This is a powerful story about a girl who is kidnapped by a sexual predator at age 10, and at 15, he wants her to find and help him kidnap a new girl to replace her. It's all of 27,000 words long.

This works because of the nature of the story. Scott's tight prose doesn't waste a word, and it fits wonderfully with narrator Alice's voice. Adding words to this story would have mucked it up. Alice wouldn't be the "dead" girl if she thought more or wondered more, because she would have come across as a girl who hadn't been broken. Alice sounds and feels authentic, and the result is heartbreaking.

A longer word count also would have delved deeper into a topic and experience that would have been uncomfortable after a while. It's a story that has to be short because we couldn't bear to live in Alice's world much longer, even though we're drawn so well into it. Alice's world is small, and what she endures is terrible. Once you've seen it, you don't need to repeat it for another 30,000 words, and Scott knew that.

The Everafter
By Amy Huntley

Another favorite of mine, this one breaks the rule, "stories should be told chronologically." In The Everafter, narrator Madison is dead, floating in a void where she sees objects lost in her life. When she touches one of these objects, she re-experiences that moment in time. The story jumps around from infancy to childhood to her teen years and ultimately how and when she died.

It works because these pieces all show you who Madison is and make you care about her, so you want her to find out how and why she died as much as she does. Had Huntley simply started at a date prior to Maddy's death and moved on, the story would lose all it's magical appeal. (and likely narrative drive) It's not so much the events that matter, but the lessons Maddy learns as she explores her life and death. Similar to how Zusak used the first person-third person in The Book Thief, Huntley uses Maddy's journey through her own life to give a third person perspective with the intimate first person narrator. Only by being outside of it can Maddy really examine her life and understand who she is and was. And that understanding makes her death all the more touching.

So, what can we as writers learn from books like these?

Don't be afraid to take chances and break the rules, because you might create something fantastic if you do. But don't do it willy nilly either. If you veer off the path, make sure your feet stay firmly grounded on where you're going and what you're trying to do. If you have strong reasons that hold up to questioning, you just might have a story that will work as a rule breaker.

What rules have you broken? Did they work or fall flat? What other rule breaking books have you admired?


  1. Very cool, Janice. Thanks for telling me about these books.

  2. Thanks for posting this! Added to the to-read book list :)

  3. This is truly a fantastic post, Janice. Thanks. Now I'm off to experiment with what I've just learnt from it :)

  4. Thanks for the support for (and examples of) thoughtful rule-breaking. You've also brought some great books to my attention. I'm off to go check them out!

  5. *squeals* I LOVE wacky techniques like these!

    Excuse me while I go see if I can reserve them at the library. *grin*

  6. I love The Book Thief!

    I think one rule I "broke" for my book is content matter. While it isn't as clean of sexual references as mainstream YA (as of this draft, the narrator mentions how his parents still have sex despite being divorced on the first page), it doesn't approach edgy either. I'm still not sure of the level of coyness though.

    I'm adding this to my weekly round-up.

  7. You always hear people saying that "if it works it works" bit of advice, but I've never seen good, well-explained examples go along with it. Thank you.

  8. I read Skin Hunger and finished Sacred Scars last week. Those books stay with you! At first in Skin Hunger the switching POVs from chapter to chapter threw me, but it didn't last long. And when I finished Skin Hunger I had to get Sacred Scars. I'm a little frustrated that the final book isn't out yet. Duey handles the technique beautifully.

  9. Wow. I'm actually working on a novel with mixed POVs, but I haven't read Skin Hunger. I need to check that out.

  10. I've broken some rules in my book, and I believe it works - but it remains to be seen! Two points of view - third person POV and 1st person POV. It also takes place over two different time periods..

    In the present, the protagonist (with allies) is translating a manuscript and trying to uncover the secrets within.. and the manuscript is the autobiography of a character from the past (who has been dead for 7 years). And for her, she's narrating through first POV near the end of her life, beginning with her life at age 5, and telling her story to age 17.

    So, there's lots going on! My beta readers found it engaging though, and felt that it worked. So here's hoping!


  11. I don't think I've ever broken big rules like these, though I often notice that published writers break the smaller ones on a regular basis; using adjectives all over the place etc. I guess it just goes to prove that there's no one way to write a book.

  12. Loved The Book Thief and Skin Hunger, I should definitely check the others out. A rule-breaking book I love which comes to mind is The Once and Future King by T.H. White. It's an Arthurian book which uses a lot of anachronisms, often for humour, sometimes in more insightful ways. If you haven't read it before I really recommend it.

    I haven't used big rule-breaking stuff like this in my novels before, but you've got me thinking now...

  13. Thanks so much. Writers should break rules because to do the same thing over and over again is so damn boring.

  14. Great list. Need to read a lot of these!
    And just in case anyone hasn't mentioned it: hilarious image choice.

  15. CO, sex in YA has gotten much more realistic over the last several years. Not only do they talk about it, they're having it :) If you're unsure about it, you might try picking up a few of the sexier ones to get a feel for how far it's being pushed these days. Could help :)

    Michael, most welcome! That is one of my blog goals :)

    Heather, they really do. I've been dying for the third one to come out myself.

    Kaitlin, it's a great book.

    Paul, sounds cool. If the story is compelling it usually works. :)

    Iomgen, there really isn't. This is why I try to show what the "don't ever do this" rules really mean and how you usually can do those things if you understand how to do them well. So often those rules came about because they're hard things, and so many new writers do them poorly it was easier to say "don't do it" than explain it's okay for some instances but not others.

    Wendy, I haven't read that, but I've heard comments about it for years. That's probably why!

    Joe, it does. Even if they do it just to have fun :)

    Cat, thanks! Soon as I saw that I knew I had to use it.

  16. I'd never heard of Skin Hunger until this blog post, but I don't think I'm personally ready for a book like that, but I do commend people who are brave enough to face these kind of stories and not let any personal gripes get in the way, and that often is half the battle I would imagine.

    I bought The Book Thief five years ago. I want to like this book since the title was what intriguing to me, but I still can't bring myself to read it to the end, and "Death" narrating isn't even the main reason why, but is a key part.

    It talks about things that I'd spent the vast majority of my teen years trying to run away from, not out of denial, but for the simple fact that my own life was, and frankly still is, enough trauma I can stand, and I never found it entertaining, but I guess I'm in the minority given every writer I know has read it and many suggested I finally finish it, but for different reasons than Skin Hunger, I'm just not ready.

    To be continued...

  17. As far as books I have read and enjoyed that "break rules" as this post demonstrates, I have too many to mention here, so I'll focus one of my favorites-

    Time Stops For No Mouse by Micheal Hoeye.

    Anyone who knows me knows I love talking about this book, and it's three sequels!

    If I had a book shop, this is the kind of book I'd be hand-selling to anyone who will give it a chance.

    This book in my opinion is a 21st century (In terms of when it was published) example of the kind of book I love reading and write myself. It gave me hope that there are people beyond preschool who love these books as I do, and who don't have kids as their cover for reading them, it's one of those things that would be social death where I went to school if it got out, even my grandmother's a bit embarrassed about it, and that was before I was even writing them.

    It's one of the few books I tend to find published in my lifetime, or close to my actual birth (80s) with human-like animals who still retain much of their natural counterparts traits, quirks and instinctual habits, but not in a high fantasy or medieval like setting as in Redwall or clan based like in Warriors, the examples often cited to me, yet it's NOT as arguably pseudo-National Geographic as something like Charlotte's Web or even Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, minus the Sci-Fi like stuff.

    It's more like Beatrix Potter meets Muder, She Wrote, except Hermux isn't a writer like you or I, unless you're a personal journal kind of writer.

    Simply, it took the whimsy and imaginative cleverness of
    often cited writers above, but put them in a crime/amateur sleuth hybrid story, instead of a straight fantasy or naturalistic story like Old Yeller.

    As much as I hate generalize writers I love as I do struggling to sell myself, think "Beatrix Potter for Grown-ups" without being sleazy.

    You don't have to be a child to enjoy it, but it is marketed as one of those rare Upper MG/YA-Adult crossover books.

    In Europe, it seems to be straight YA with light adult crossover.

    The main reason I value this book so much is that it was a fairly recent example of a book that tells the kinds of stories I love reading as a kid and still do now.

    I also chose this books as a key example because often we feel these "off the wall" books can only be sold after writers become bestsellers, but not the case with this one.

    He actually self-published this originally from what I hear, and to keep this in perspective, this was late 90s/Early 2000s, pre or post 1st gen Kindle, B&N and Sony hadn't jumped into the ebook biz yet, etc.

    This was a considerable risk at the time, especially with the mixed feelings this kind of story often has clouding it, and while people say the barriers to self-publishing are less daunting than they were even three years ago, I'm still hesitant about doing it myself, mostly because of all the upfront costs that I don't think are feasible for me, as much as I'm stuck in query limbo right now.

    It later got published by a Penguin imprint. I'm glad it did.

    While I have issues talking about my own stories, it's easier, and more fun, to say why other writers brought me so much enjoyment/hope for my own stories that don't fit the mold either.

    Given many reviews I've seen of this book, this is the kind of book that's turn "talking animal haters" into lovers of talking animals done right, for the same reason why the authors mentioned in Janice's post involve subject matter that can be as polarizing to readers, as they are interesting for the writer to explore.

    This is what I STRIVE for!

  18. Taurean, I don't think Skin Hunger is your kinda book, so you might want to skip it. From our conversations, it's darker than you've said you enjoy.

    I've never read Time Stops for no Mouse but I'll have to look that one up. Thanks!

  19. Taurean, I don't think Skin Hunger is your kinda book, so you might want to skip it. From our conversations, it's darker than you've said you enjoy.

    I've never read Time Stops for no Mouse but I'll have to look that one up. Thanks!

  20. Janice, I think your probably right regarding Skin Hunger, but I didn't think I'd get through The Thirteenth Tale either, but I did, and I liked it.

    But yeah, the lack of psycho pervs who make me ashamed to be the same gender as those guys, helps A LOT!

    Still, I bought The Book Thief, and I personally want to finish it, but I need to wait until I'm in a better state of mind.

    In general though, I do find rewards in reading not just out of my comfort zone, but out of my niche, but I do think it's hard for some people more than others.

    I still give legit props to the writers who are brave enough to tell these stories, especially if they suffered the pain of living it themselves, or knew someone who had.

    The courage it takes just to do that alone cannot, and should not, be underestimated.

    I do hope you'll give Time Stops for No Mouse a try, it's a great read, and I first read it during a time when "finding modern day examples of what I want to write" was discouragingly scarce.

    As a side note, the audio versions are great too, though only the first three books have audiobook versions, you'll need to read the fourth one in print, not that I find that a problem, just something to keep in mind for those like me who like audiobooks, when the reader are/is right, and that differs widely.

  21. Oh I loved The Thirteenth Tale. Took me a while to get into it myself, but once it got to Vida's estate I was hooked.

    Reading a variety of genres and markets is a great way to keep up on what's going on the book world. I do it myself :)

  22. True, and I have been finally shrinking my to be read list a little.