Saturday, December 22, 2012

When to Break the Rules of Writing and When Not to

There was a young student in one of my composition classes who insisted he didn’t need to cite and document sources.

He was a very intelligent young man who offered insightful comments during class discussions, yet, due to a combination of what seemed to be immaturity, arrogance, and rigidity, he was unwilling to learn what I tried to teach him.

Sometimes writers, like my student, get themselves into traps they can’t get out of. Part of the reason is because they hear the advice given by me and other writing teachers that it’s okay to break the rules of writing.

They assume we're giving them permission to break any rule at any time.

But breaking rules is risky, and breaking them successfully means knowing two things: 1) your audience and purpose, and 2) why a given rule exists in the first place.

Know Your Audience and Purpose

A good example of knowing your audience and purpose can be found in the movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This story belongs to epic fantasy, a genre which usually requires a lot of characters, different locations, and a lengthy time span. Audiences of epic fantasy expect these elements to be present. 

But sometimes writers have to break certain rules to include them.

An Unexpected Journey, for example, is told through the eyes of Bilbo Baggins, as he recounts past events in a book to his nephew, Frodo. However, his narrative includes several scenes in which Bilbo himself was not present. He, therefore, cannot know precisely what happened or who said what. 

(Other characters may have filled Bilbo in later on, though this seems unlikely or impossible in certain cases.)

These scenes break the rules of point of view (or, rather, they adopt an episodically limited point of view). However, they work in the context of the story by allowing the reader to learn a lot of information in Bilbo's absence.

The writers get around this point-of-view shift by focusing on previously introduced characters such as Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield (and even the albino orc), whom we already care about or have strong feelings toward. As a result, the viewer never feels disconnected from Bilbo’s story.

(And no, I have not read the original book, though I started to once and never finished it. I don't know if Tolkein used the same device. But my point is the same: breaking rules is a good thing to do if it results in some easy-to-identify benefit to the story or audience.)

 Know Why Writing Rules Exist

Rules for writing were not invented just to make life complicated for writers. They exist for one simple reason: to facilitate communication between the writer and her audience. Communication becomes easier when writer and reader agree upon a set of rules.

If you and I agree that a red light means stop and a green light means go, we solve a lot of miscommunication problems (and avoid potential accidents).

four unuther xampel, eff i spill thes zentenz thes uay, u prolly haev Difikultie reedeen et. So, if you want to get creative in your spelling, do so at the risk of alienating the reader.

Likewise, understand and respect the conventions of the genre in which you are writing. If the convention calls for in-text citations and a works cited page, use in-text citations and a works cited page.

The Lord of the Rings movies, for all their freewheeling action and imaginative settings and characters, adhere to the conventions of fantasy. Wizards do certain things. Dwarves do certain things. Hobbits do other things. If Bilbo Baggins suddenly starts speaking magical spells and dwarves hide in plain sight, we have a problem.

. . . But Don’t Follow Rules Rigidly

Knowing when to follow rules and when to break them is a judgment call that involves risk. Before you break a rule, write down answers to the following questions: 1) What rule am I breaking, 2) what is the benefit (to story as well as audience) in breaking this rule, and 3) what are the possible consequences of breaking this rule?

If the benefits do not outweigh the risks, don't break the rule.


Dennis Young said...

Great blog, Greg, probably one of your best, because you're really in your element. Please continue and expand upon this. It's something all writers (and readers) need to understand better.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Thanks, Denny.

Kristin McTiernan said...

Oh the scourge of students who think they know best. I'm interested to know you're student's reasoning as to why plagiarism is okay as long as he's doing it. Rules are certainly okay to break every now and again (particularly in dialogue) but it should be the exception rather than the rule.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

What he basically did in his research paper was summarize the findings of a single research project. So he did acknowledge the source, but he offered no synthesis of it and other sources and drew no original conclusions from it.

Pos.Vibe.Only. said...

Fascinating ~ inimitable de'ja` vu !

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