One of the interesting things that I noticed in the novel that I reviewed yesterday was that it often “breaks the rules” in all sorts of interesting ways (eg: making up new words, breaking the fourth wall, using a film script-like format for dialogue segments etc…) and, surprisingly, this actually works really well.
So, naturally, this made me wonder when it is ok to “break the rules” when writing fiction. And, I would argue that there are three criteria that you must think about before deciding to do something a bit different in your story.
It is ok to “break the rules” when it improves your story, when it emerges organically from the story you are telling and/or when what you are doing is easily understood by your readers. Out of these three things, the first and third are the most important.
If you remember these three things, then you’ll know whether it is ok to do something a bit quirky or uncommon in your story. For example, the film script-like dialogue segments in the novel that I mentioned earlier (“Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero) fit into all three of these criteria.
Firstly, the script-like formatting removes a lot of superfluous speech tags and descriptions – which makes the dialogue flow faster. Secondly, it fits in well with the TV show-style theme of the story (and doesn’t seem too out-of-place). Thirdly, most readers have seen scripts before and won’t have too much trouble understanding one.
Likewise, the novel’s made-up words also fit into these criteria too. Firstly, they allow for more unique descriptions. Secondly, they fit in with the slightly eccentric and informal atmosphere of the story. Thirdly, they are often made up from pre-existing words or used in a context where their meaning is obvious. So, the reader can usually understand what Cantero is trying to say.
In short, you need to think about your reader first and foremost. If breaking the rules makes the story more readable or interesting for them, then break the rules. However, if breaking the rules leaves your readers feeling confused or is something that you’re just doing to show off, then think twice about it.
And, yes, although you might understand the reasons for doing something a bit more weird and/or experimental, you need to be sure that your reader does too. In other words, you need to be a reader yourself – since seeing both good and bad examples of this sort of thing in other people’s writing can help you to see your own story from your reader’s perspective.
Another thing to remember is that “the rules” are there to make stories enjoyable and understandable for readers. If you are able to find a way to break the rules that still allows your readers to enjoy and understand your story, then don’t be afraid to do it. But, again, remember to think about things from your reader’s perspective.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂