Most of my life, I’ve been the kind of person who gets a sick sort of pleasure out of following the rules. How many times do I brush my teeth a day? Twice. What day do I file my taxes on every year? April 15. How many times did I lie to my parents as a teenager about where I was or who I was with or what I was doing? I swear to god, only once.
But when it comes to writing, I always bristle when I hear advice that is too prescriptive.
I remember the first time my tenth grade English teacher announced that adverbs weren’t allowed. I had to restrain myself from making a face in his direction. His underlying point, I knew, was valid—don’t let adverbs do the work that your character development, dialogue, and tone should be doing—but certainly there is a time a place for everything in writing, isn’t there? Even adverbs.
Since then, I’ve heard more writing rules than I can count: write in the morning, write at night, start in action, end with an epiphany, don’t use contractions, don’t use dashes, don’t use ellipses or exclamation marks or anything that might do the work that your writing should otherwise be doing without it.
I can’t tell you how much I cringe when I hear these kinds of rules.
As a rule-follower of the highest accord and a student of both literature and the crafting of it, I can tell you that all of these writing “rules,” like any other literary style or trend (maximalism, minimalism, realism, surrealism, etc.), will continue to come and go throughout the history of storytelling.
What won’t, however, is this simple fact: the very best writing breaks the rules. Any reader knows that. You pay attention to when the rhythm changes. You dig deeper when the punctuation stops making sense. You perk up when a character stops speaking.
What I’ve learned in my years as a writer is that the most thrilling parts of any story are when the writer starts breaking the rules.
When I started my MFA program, I had a professor who loved to draw insanely intricate and confusing diagrams on the blackboard. He mapped out each of our character’s trajectories from each of our stories. He labeled their emotional states with smiley faces and frowns. He added random words that didn’t seem to go with anything he was saying: “Jungian,” “memories,” “life change,” and one time just “SAD.” One of the first things I remember him writing on the board was, “ABCD.” Action. Backstory. Conflict. Denouement. That was the structure of every story, he said.
I felt myself bristle. “Every story?” I wanted to ask. Surely not every story. But then I looked at the reading we had done so far for his class and realized that every story did fit that structure. Or, if it didn’t, it didn’t for a very good reason. A reason central to its purpose or overall meaning.
“Oh,” I realized in that moment. “You have to know the rules in order to know how to break them.”
If you’ve taken one of my workshops at Writers in Progress, you will know that this is one of my regular refrains: “Learn the rules so that you know how to break them.” We as writers have to understand the tools of craft intricately first, so that we can decide when and how and whether to use them.
This spring, Emily will be teaching a weekly workshop, The Art of Story, again on Mondays from 6-9 at the Writers in Progress Studio. This workshop is perfect for writers of every level and genre: whether you’re learning the rules, trying to master them, or looking for ways to break them to shake up your work-in-progress, there will be prompts perfect for every stage of writing. Register here! Only a couple of spaces left.