In 1970, The Five Man Electrical Band belted out the iconic “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. Do this don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” Sorry to say, 70’s rockers, things have only gotten worse since then.
Rules, they’re everywhere. Art isn’t something we usually associate with rules, but every medium comes with its own set.
Anyone remember Scream‘s The Rules of Surviving a Horror Movie?
“Sex equals death?” Oh man, I’m dead.
Yep, even when being chased by a masked, knife-wielding psychopath, there are rules.
My brother, stage name Verbs, is not a masked, knife-wielding psychopath, (that I am aware of). Verbs is a rapper. Verbs and I didn’t grow up together, (he’s my half brother, I’m adopted), so I’m not sure how long he’s been rapping, but he’s only now making the leap to professional gigs. Some kind of wacky fate put him in tiny Nelson, BC, for his first big show and I stayed up past my ten o’clock bedtime to come out and watch.
I’ve never seen a rap/hip hop show before. It was pretty damn cool. In fact, I think it’s a musical genre that is probably better appreciated live. Several groups and individual rappers performed and it was fascinating to see what worked, what got the crowd going, and what made some performers stand out.
The next day, after Verbs dragged himself out of bed (at 11am!), we spent the day hanging out with family and friends, and I had a chance to ask him about the process of creating a song from start to finish. An enormous amount of work goes into creating even one song, and that seems like the easy part. Performing the song live is another art form entirely. And there are rules, a formula if you will, for a good performance.
Even more so than rules and art, rules and rap are two words that don’t seem to belong together at all. And yet, as Verbs described some of these rules to me, (keep making the W, always have a song to acknowledge the ladies), I realized that the performers I had considered the best had used these rules well, and consistently.
Writers have rules, too. Lots. Google “rules of fiction” and you will find endless pages of them. Go to any writer’s conference and you will hear writers complaining about them, “But those ten scenes where my characters all sit around drinking tea and talking are really important!”
As it was made clear to me while watching the rappers onstage at the Spirit Bar, rules exist for a reason. For writers of fiction, they are guideposts to help you navigate the fickle waters of reader interest. (Not that you, dear reader, are fickle—kiss, kiss, hug, hug). Nevertheless, there are authors who broke the rules and wrote great books. Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones is one example of successful rule breaking.
Rule: Don’t begin a story with “My name is…”
Opening of the Lovely Bones: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.”
If you want to read about more rule-breakers, check out Suzannah Windsor Freeman‘s blog post 6 Writers Who Broke the Rules and Got Away With It.
So when is it okay to break the rules of fiction? When does a writer’s vision trump Authority? My short answer is: “I have no freaking clue.”
My long answer’s a bit more complicated. Gifted writers will successfully break the rules instinctively. Don’t envy them, or try to copy them. They are genetic freaks who operate on a different mental plane than us, and often suffer terribly in their personal lives because of it. For the rest of us, the decision to break a rule should be done with one eye on our skill and experience, the other on the needs of the story.
I’ve attended classes, workshops, and panels by some amazing writers and editors, but my all time favourite piece of advice came from Donald Maass, who said, essentially: You can break the rules as long as you know what the rules are.
If you know what the rules are, then you know when you’re breaking them. If you know when you’re breaking the rules, then you know why you’re breaking the rules. If you know why you’re breaking the rules, then you can answer the important question: “How does this serve the story?”
Take another look at that Lovely Bones quote above. Read closely. Notice anything? One word in the opening sentence makes this broken rule work. That word is “was”. Subtle yet brilliant.
“My name is Salmon…” Good for you. So what, fish girl?
“My name was Salmon…” Why isn’t your name Salmon now? What happened?
Sebold broke the rule and made her readers immediately ask a question, (as some of the best first lines do). I’m willing to bet she knew exactly what she was doing with that sentence, cheeky monkey!
If artists never broke rules, we’d still be drawing antelopes on cave walls. If artists never followed rules, we wouldn’t have the Sistine Chapel. One of the hardest tasks for any artist, but especially for new artists, is to balance the risks and rewards of rule breaking.
Josh and I took a chance with Warpworld. We knew that our concept was original. We knew that the story required a bit of work on the part of our readers, and lot of trust that we would guide them through these foreign new worlds. From a marketing standpoint, we knew Warpworld would have to be a long game, slowly building an audience over time. We guessed that this wouldn’t appeal to traditional publishers who are primarily concerned with sales, (we were right), which is why we kept the option to indie publish in our back pocket. That was the risk.
The reward comes with every reader who praises the originality and complexity of our worlds, characters, and plot. (Thanks for taking a chance on us; we’re working hard to get Warpworld II: Wasteland Renegades out to you!)
To my brother, Verbs, thanks for introducing me to a lyrical new world. I’ll keep sending mad vibes for your success, (but maybe you could ask the promoters to start the show earlier next time?). Remember to have fun, work hard, learn the rules…and then break them.
If you’re an artist, do you break the rules? How? Has it worked for you? Feel free to link to your work or website in the comments, we’d love to see what you’re up to!