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Thursday, January 26

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:

*** SOME OTHER SMALL FACTS ***
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?