First, let me say, I don’t think most writers are very good with rules. The hard and fast bumps up against their creativity and it’s not a pretty picture after that.
Very often – the most-acclaimed writers break the most time-honored rules and not only get away with it, but it propels them to a place of fame.
· William Goldman – the screenwriter for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and many others (Misery, The Princess Bride) – broke almost every rule of screenwriting early on – yet is fabulously successful. When I was screenwriting, the seminar gurus would hold up his work as incredibly good and at the same time warn the class not to try to duplicate him, for fear of alienating potential producers and directors.
· James Joyce – author of Ulysses – became literary legend by creating the “stream of consciousness” technique, telling a story completely outside the usual conventions of a novel.
· A more contemporary example might be the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger who employed two narrators, telling the story entirely in first person in the present tense. Many editors and readers consider this method a mistake, yet her “mistake” worked out quite well, don’t you think?
Do I think we should all just throw up our hands and break every statute of conformity willy-nilly? No, because rules in writing are not really rules anyway. They are instead guidelines for how something is normally done and in a professional way – which are sometimes “Bible-ized” by those who are more comfortable with set ways of doing things.
In my opinion, a set of conventions should always be considered, used if appropriate, bent slightly if more appropriate and tossed away at last resort if they are not working period.
We should not, as writers, be married to an idea because it is through examining rituals, conventions, and normalcy that we actually change things for the better. It is the exposure, through narrative, of what doesn’t work that we sometimes discover what does.
Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, The Outliers, The Tipping Point) does this all the time – expose a conventional way of thought for the reality that lies beneath it. Fiction writers do the same thing, no matter what their subject, but an example would be Kathryn Stockett – whose recent blockbuster debut novel The Help, broke with the accepted wisdom of playing down dialect and accents, to reveal the truth of her black characters – which is that they did speak differently and think differently than their white counterparts.
The old adage “Rules are meant to be broken” holds special meaning for creative types. We know it to be true but are pushed to stay within our boxes. It’s up to each of us to find the happy path between the two extremes.