Proving the Rules Wrong

As Professional Aspiring Writers, we hear a lot about the Rules of Writing. Aspects of the craft that we are supposed to adhere to in order to "write well." More experienced PAWs know that the Rules are, in fact, only guidelines. If you don't know what you're doing, you should follow them, but a story can break them and still be good.

I submit here five fairly standard rules and their counter-examples: books or authors that have blatantly broken them, yet remain extremely successful.

Yes, you could argue that the reading public is dumb because it doesn't recognize "Great Literature" (which isn't a very nice thing to say about your future fans, btw). Or you could decide that maybe -- just maybe -- each of these authors does something SO right, their rule-breaking just doesn't matter.

Rule: Write what you know.
Counter-Example: The Dresden Files
Jim Butcher has never been a private eye nor a wizard (I don't think), but it doesn't seem to affect his income much.

Rule: Your protagonist must be proactive.
Counter-Example: The Twilight Saga
Say what you will about Bella, the books about her sell. And Stephanie Meyer now has the freedom to write pretty much whatever she wants.

Rule: Show, don't tell.
Counter-Example: James Patterson novels
(From London Bridges):
It was amazing footage--black and white, which somehow made it even more powerful. Black and white was more realistic, no? Yes--absolutely.

Rule: Never use adverbs.
Counter-Example: Harry Potter
(From Chamber of Secrets):
"We wanted to ask you if you've seen anything funny lately," said Hermione quickly.
"I wasn't paying attention," said Myrtle dramatically. "I was so upset I tried to kill myself. Then I remembered that I'm -- "
"Already dead," said Ron helpfully.

Rule: Be original.
Counter-Example: Eragon
(From The novels feature the tale of a farmboy who discovers a Plot Coupon sent to a wise old mentor by a captured princess, and has his uncle who raised him killed by the impenetrably cowled servants of the Evil Empire. The mentor is a former knight, who teaches the farmboy how to use his mystical powers in about five days. Luckily, the farmboy meets up with a Badass AntiHero, rescues the princess, who is also a major player in the Rebel army, and joins the rebellion, becoming a key member before going to train with a half-mad old hermit in the forest. After this, he discovers that his father was the Empire's right-hand man and he's been betrayed by his own family.

So don't let the rules scare you. They can be trumped.

Where else have you seen rules broken, but where it didn't ruin the story at all?


Matthew MacNish said...

Hah! I made that exact same point about Eragon being exactly like Star Wars. I don't mean that I was the first to figure it out or anything, but anyway.

You have an excellent point. It wasn't the most original story ever, but I still enjoyed it!

Matthew MacNish said...

I just spent the last half hour looking around at that site, and you have now officially just introduced me to my favorite new pastime!

Adam Heine said...

Haha! Dude, sorry, Matthew. I should've put a warning label on that link. is addicting!

You're totally right about Eragon. Lots of people liked it (including me). The movie on the other hand...

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

TVTropes is awesome! I totes use it for research. Seriously. As in, what have all the best and worst minds of TV and literature done with in the last fifty years? I want to kiss their little hyperlinked feet for the service they provide.


There's only one rule: Does it work? Sufficiently vague to cover all bases. :)

(another great rule breaker: Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series - he hops heads, changing POV like he's never heard of the term, but he's so fantastically talented at infusing the text with wry humor that we don't know or care.)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

erg, sometimes I forget how to use HTML ... that should have read ... what have all the best and worst minds of TV and literature done with {insert trope here} in the last fifty years?

Matthew MacNish said...

LOL. I'm actually still looking at it in between doing my stupid job here at work.

Boy are you right about the movie too, I even blogged about it being probably the worst adaptation ever, way back when.

jjdebenedictis said...

In one of Terry Pratchett's books, a character says, "Rules are there to make you think before you break them."

This certainly applies to writing rules. A writing "rule" is usually a bad habit that new writers use as a crutch--the adjective/adverbs one is a good example. Someone who is overloading on adverbs and adjectives is generally doing so because they're not even considering the possibility of using strong nouns and verbs.

By abiding by the rules, you're essentially teaching yourself to walk without the crutches. And once you've done that, you can break the rules judiciously and make it work.

Also, it doesn't really matter how bad your writing is provided the book is resonating with its readers. When a person is swept up in the story, they really don't notice weak prose.

Matthew: I used to frequent a website where people put an explicit warning before any TV Tropes link. That site's hellish ability to slurp your time away from you is not to be trifled with!

Lyla said...

Ha, I always noticed that in Harry Potter--all her adverbs. But it really didn't hurt the story (or it's popularity) at all; a lot of them added to it.

And has anyone else ever noticed that Suzanne Collins has an addiction to comma splices?

Zombie Cock said...

E.B. White quoting William Strunk in his introduction to "The Elements of Style": "Unless he is certain of doing as well, [the author] will probably do best to follow the rules."

Simultaneously hard-assed and generous.

L. T. Host said...

Here, here. If you weren't in Thailand and if I liked beer enough to have it around I'd offer you one. If you liked beer, that is.

Excellent point/ counter-points!

Adam Heine said...

I'm not big on beer, LT, but next time I'm in San Diego you can buy me some carne asada :-)