By Josh David Bellin
The best writing breaks rules.
Name a great book. Rule-breakers all.
Slaughterhouse-Five. Moby-Dick. Ulysses. To the Lighthouse. Beloved. On the Road. All of them, rule-breakers.
But okay, maybe I’m talking about classics of literary fiction, and I should be talking about popular fiction. Most of us aspire to write the latter, not the former. Isn’t popular fiction more rule-bound than literary fiction?
Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean it’s so rule-bound as to be rule-hobbled.
There are thousands of writing “rules” floating around out there, and there are just as many aspiring writers being, I fear, misled by them. Whenever I encounter one of those rules on some agent or other authority’s blog--whether the rule be, “never start your novel with a character waking up” or “never have a character describe herself in a mirror” or “never delay the inciting incident to chapter two” or “never insert a scene with a dancing pink hippo into your novel”--I find hosts of grateful comments from aspiring writers: “Thank you so much, Divine Agent! You have shown me the error of my ways and likely saved me from a lifetime of public humiliation! I will certainly never insert a scene with a dancing pink hippo into my novel ever again!”
But you know, maybe your novel needs a scene with a dancing pink hippo. Maybe your novel needs to begin with a dancing pink hippo waking up, looking at itself in a mirror, and then having a philosophical conversation with the ghost of Albert Einstein, thereby delaying the inciting incident until the second chapter. Maybe those are the particular rules your novel needs to break.
There is no rule in writing so ironclad that it can’t be broken for the right reasons. Just as it’s ridiculous to insist that all novels begin with dancing pink hippos, so is it ridiculous to insist that no novel can begin that way.
What’s the test? How do you know which rules to break?
The test is the story itself. Each story creates its own needs, its own form, its own rules. It’s the writer’s job to know her or his story well enough to know which rules to obey, which to bend, which to ignore. If you don’t know that, then really, what do you know?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to return to writing my big dancing-pink-hippo scene. Trust me. It’s killer.
Josh has been writing novels since he was eight years old (though admittedly, the first few were very, very short). He taught college for twenty years, wrote a bunch of books for college students, then decided to return to writing fiction. SURVIVAL COLONY NINE is his first book, but the sequel's already in the works!
He loves to read (mostly YA fantasy and science fiction), watch movies (again, mostly fantasy and sci-fi), and spend time in Nature (mostly catching frogs and toads). He claims to be the world's worst singer, but plays a pretty mean air guitar. He also like to draw, and will be putting up some of his artwork on his website as soon as he can.
Oh, yeah, and he like monsters. Really scary monsters.
You can find out more about Josh David Bellin and SURVIVAL COLONY NINE at http://www.joshuadavidbellin.com.