As a writer, the only time you should break the rules is when you know the rules beforehand.
Fortunately, in writing, there are no rules. Which is why you must be extra careful before you go around breaking them and drawing attention to yourself.
I know. Sounds screwy and somewhat zen-like. But there’s a lot of truth in it. Many classics have withstood the test of time because they are stories which, in one form or another, broke rules. These can be rules of grammar, pacing, POV, format, a lot of different elements. You can name just as many as I can off the top of your head, probably more. Novels like Lolita, Tropic of Cancer, Dracula, Blood Meridian, Moby-Dick, 1984 and on and on.
But you have to know what the basic rules are before you go around breaking them. That means you have to learn your craft inside and out. You have to do your homework and you have to keep your mouth shut and listen when professionals are talking about writing. Because you know what? You can tell instead of show…but only if you know how to show instead of tell first. You can mix POV in a scene. But only if you know and understand why it’s normally not done in the first place.
There are lots of others like this. You can break all the rules because writing is not a protocol exercise. It’s an organic creative process. Because it is organic it has the leeway already built in so you can leaven your imagination into it and make something truly memorable, truly artistic.
I am a big believer in breaking rules. You should be, too. But learn what they are first and then when you do break them it won’t be because you’re an amateur, it will be because you are empowered. 🙂
4 Replies to “Rules are made to be broken, except when they’re not.”
What I read here, KM, is that we must follow a pattern in breaking the rules!
I’m writing a story set in the Texas/Mexico war, 1836. At one point my main character is speaking to someone from the Mexican side, in Spanish. How do you handle non-English? I haven’t read every story you’ve written (sorry!), but I figure it has to have come up at some point given your settings and characters. I’m considering my options, and weighing the merits of artistic and historical sensibility versus the practical needs of the readers.
There are different ways to handle this as I’m sure you might suspect. One way is to have the Spanish sentence in quotes (as it is spoken) followed by an English translation. James Clavell did this a lot in his novels.
1. Example: He got off the horse and said, “De dónde es usted?” Where are you from?
A bit awkward sometimes, but usable. You can also skip the translation but have the reader figure it out in context. Using our above example:
2. Example: He got off the horse and said, “De dónde es usted?”
“I am from Texas,” I said.
The third example is having a character nearby who can translate what is being said. This can also get awkward because now you’ve introduced a new speaker.
Lastly, you can not provide any kind of translation at all in any context and just let the characters behave and act and perform naturally. Like you said, this last example of providing no translation at all doesn’t necessarily fit the practical needs of readers but it can be done as long as it doesn’t interfere or limit the story. Usually, novels that are of a certain literary bent take this last tack. The novel I am working on now does this. I don’t provide any translation at all, but that’s a departure from my earlier works.
In the early Haxan stories I used the second example most often, I think. That way the reader can figure out what is being said by the actions of the characters.
These are the three most common ways but there are others. I don’t mean for these examples to be definitive. All things being equal I would probably go with the second example more often. It reads simpler and doesn’t clutter up the story with translation.
Let me know how it goes! 🙂