Know the Rules. Understand the Rules. Break the Rules.

When it comes to writing, I like to say that there are no rules. However, that is not entirely accurate. There is one rule:

  1. Use What Works
  2. Weren’t you listening? One rule! That’s it!

This is a pretty obvious rule, assuming your goal is to write something that other people want to read.

If that isn’t your goal, then you would want to use what didn’t work… which, remembering your goal, would work. Which means you’re still the following the rule. Hrm.

My head hurts.

In the context of creative writing, rules are – as a certain pirate captain might say – really more like guidelines. Use them when they work and ignore them when you have enough reason. The catch being that to know when you can safely (and advantageously) break a rule, you have to understand it thoroughly.

The Laws of Creative Writing

Allow me to use an example from a different discipline – martial arts. I have been an instructor for sixteen years, and a student for twenty. “Keep your guard (hands) up!” is the rule I most commonly pound into my students’ heads. Literally. When they drop their guard, I hit them in the head.

On the other hand, when I spar I often ignore this rule, and let my “guard” down. Of course, opponents who fall for it quickly learn that I never really dropped my guard – I just let my hands drop as a ruse. I can do this because years of experience have taught me the limits of my own speed and reflexes.

The limits of speed and reflexes are more akin to laws. Not judge-and-jury laws, but physical laws – attempting to defy them can only result in pain. As a second famous pirate captain once said: “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do, and what a man can’t do.”

I’m going to make bold here and posit the following: Creative writing has no laws. There are only guidelines. There is no rule that cannot be broken effectively and advantageously – if you understand it well enough.

Using adverbs? – Pffft. Gets broken all the time, and to good effect.

Changing tenses? – Mmmm, now we’re talking.

Head-hopping in “limited” POV? – Damn, son, is nothing sacred?

If You Understand It, You Can Break It

Now, before you get all excited and write a book with lots of head-hopping in several tenses where every other word ends in “-ly,” remember: Unless you understand the reasons why these rules exist, you are likely to get punched in the metaphorical face when you break them. Black eyes heal – one-star reviews are forever.

It is also worth noting that those writers who understand the rules enough to break them effectively are those least likely to break them often. Trying to play fast-and-loose with the rules too often makes you look like an amateur – or ignoramus – instead of a rebel.

So go ahead and read that latest bit of writing advice. Even if you know you disagree with it, or if you’ve heard it a million times before. Study the reasons given for the advice, or the justification for whatever silly rule the latest self-styled internet writing guru is espousing. Eventually, you’ll start thinking things like: “Yes, but…” or “That’s putting it too simply…” – and when that happens, keep reading anyway. Study the artificial walls people build around this funny little hobby of ours. Then bring in the battering rams.

Disagree? Think you can name a creative writing law?

Feel free to punch me in my metaphorical face in the comments. My guard is totally down!

You can find Tristan’s eBooks (including his recently published epic fantasy novel, TWIXT HEAVEN AND HELL) at Amazon and Smashwords.

Tristan Gregory