Breaking Rules For Principles


Honestly – I don’t go around looking for rules to break. I don’t get my kicks and giggles from bucking conventional wisdom. It just… happens. I didn’t like the education opportunities others had created, so I’ve homeschooled my son for nearly nine years. I don’t like standard workweek obligations and expectations, so I contract and freelance all over the place. I didn’t like driving slowly on mountain roads, so I drove my ’66 Mustang around hairpin curves while stepping on the gas and—

Wait. Never mind. Ahem.

When it comes to writing fiction, I believe in principles rather than rules. The “rules” say novels should be written in third or first person. I wrote Sword and Chant in omniscient and, after publication, braced for a slew of “Omni sucks!” reviews.  To this day, I’m surprised I haven’t received one of those. (There were other complaints, and you can find those here.)

So why, if the novel violated RULE, didn’t people complain about it? Because the principle behind the rule is very different.  It’s something akin to, “Entice the reader to care about the characters and their fates.”

I’m guessing more writers are able to live up to that principle when writing in third or first.  Thus the prevailing styles then become RULE. Alas, once something becomes RULE, the principle is relegated to secondary status. We forget the viewpoint choice isn’t as important as how well that choice serves the story, and end up storytelling via bureaucracy.

In my hey-I-don’t-mean-to-break-rules opinion, viewpoint is a valuable and versatile tool. Viewpoint is what the writer uses to open the door to the story so the reader can come inside. Sometimes the best door-opener is a key. Sometimes it’s a lock pick. Or a bootheel. Or a guided missile. Or a set of x-ray spy glasses ordered from the back page of a decades-old comic book. As long as the reader gets to see inside, the writer’s choice of viewpoint lives up to the principle of reader engagement.

But most new writers are told the current and prevailing viewpoint preferences, then told to choose the viewpoint that will best engage the reader.  I’d rather the first writerly discussion be about reader enticement and engagement, followed by an exploration of tools the writer can use.

In Sand of Bone, I’m breaking another rule, alas. (Really, how does this keep happening to me?) The opening chapter doesn’t introduce the reader to the protagonist, her challenges, and her decision to set the story in motion. I start with the antagonist instead, even though the rules say a novel’s opening chapter must be from the protagonist’s point of view because the reader will identify with the first character she comes across.

As a reader, I object to the assumption I and my fellow readers are newly-hatched ducklings primed to imprint on the first moving object we see, or Puck-drugged fairy queens who must fall in love with the first creature we encounter upon waking. Readers are capable of reassessing their decisions as more information becomes available, and many readers don’t mind making that reassessment.*

Remember: the principle is to entice the reader to care about the story and the characters. If the best enticement at the story’s beginning can be delivered via the antagonist, why should the writer not start there?

Wait! I can already hear the answer: The writer should find a different entry point for the story, a different scene with which to start, a way to showcase the protagonist from the very beginning. And certainly, those methods can produce a protagonist-driven opening chapter that will entice the reader just as much as the antagonist-driven chapter would have done, and its primary advantage will be that it follows RULE.

But the majority** of readers don’t care about RULE. They want STORY.


(Hee. Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.)

Writers just learning and refining their craft really love rules, in the same way new religious converts love clear guidelines. Clarity gives the illusion of simplicity and competence. More advanced writers tend to also love rules – not because they’re easy to follow, but because they’re easy to teach to new writers seeking advice.

But writers in the middle are trapped by those rules. They might spend years in that rule-bounded trap – doing everything right by RULE yet unable to snare the desired readership, and receiving the dreaded “liked it, didn’t love it” rejections from story markets.

Been there, done that, got the bobble head.

The overreaching and underpinning key to finding and keeping one’s readership isn’t found in RULE. It’s laid bare in the principles of successful storytelling. Entice the reader. Let the reader care about the characters – their fears and hopes, their choices and mistakes. Make the reader think about your story in the middle of the workday, while watching a new movie, or during a meeting they ought to participating in. Tempt the reader give up sleep to find out what happens next. Seduce the reader into to stepping off the cliff’s edge to plummet into the mist, trusting you to make the fall worth the landing.

Are there a few rules that’ll help the writer do that? Yep. Things like grammar, punctuation, and clear formatting show respect for the reader, and since I consider readers worthy of respect, those things fall under RULE in my book.

The rest of those things folks call rules are actually tools. Viewpoint is a tool to open the door. Chapter breaks are tools to manipulate the reader’s emotional engagement. Plot arcs are tools to increase resonance and control pacing. Using those tools solely for the purpose of RULE results in paint-by-number artwork. Engaging them for STORY creates an experience the reader will want to repeat.

Man, I miss that ’66 Mustang.

*Ye gads, don’t assume I’m judging readers by their desired reading experience. That would be like snubbing someone because they prefer Indian cuisine over Italian. Much silliness. Readers want what they want, and they’ll read the work of writers who deliver that experience. Not every writer can deliver that desired experience.

 **Are there readers who will put down a book that opens with an antagonist viewpoint? That’s likely. Frankly, that’s preferred. A reader who is uncomfortable with the story’s opening won’t be comfortable with the rest of the book. Why would I want that reader to keep reading a book that isn’t going to meet their desires and expectations? I can’t think of any reason. I want readers who love my stories. And I want readers who don’t love my stories to find stories they do love because, in some cases, those stories will have been written by my friends!

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