When Is It Ok To “Break The Rules” In Your Writing?

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.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

“Rules” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

Joanne sat back on the wine-stained sofa and tapped her phone: ‘So, are you going to this Halloween do at the union next week? I think there are still tickets available.’

A lager can hissed. Toby shrugged: ‘Dunno. Still can’t think of a good idea for a costume. I mean, have you seen the number of rules about it?’

Joanne laughed: ‘You’ve been reading the tabloids again, haven’t you? They always exaggerate these things. Every year, they pick one university with an especially zealous student’s union and then claim that their rules are some kind of universal law. It’s a sales tactic. If they don’t make their readers’ blood boil every day, they’ll go out of business.’

‘I think it might be our university they were writing about.’ Toby took a solemn swig of lager. ‘I was stupid enough to look at their website earlier. Seriously, there are dictatorships with less…’

Joanne laughed: ‘Well, of course they’re going to ban tasteless costumes. This is 2018, after all. What were you thinking of going as?’

Toby leant over and whispered something in Joanne’s ear. If she wasn’t already sitting on the sofa then she would have collapsed with laughter. When she got her breath back, she said: ‘Oh god, you wouldn’t have to worry about the union staff making a fuss. The police would have arrested you first.’

‘Seriously? Even without the… Oh, I see what you mean.’

‘Look, it isn’t too difficult to think of a costume. I don’t know, just go as Hannibal Lecter or Jason Voorhees or…’

Toby shook his head: ‘Rules won’t allow it. The union is worried about copyright.’

Joanne raised an eyebrow: ‘Please tell me you made that up. Well, that’s my costume down the drain.’ She put her phone down and reached for a bottle. After a couple of swigs, she said: ‘Ok, then. We’ll go with the classics. You can’t go wrong with a zombie or a vampire.’

Toby tapped his phone and shook his head: ‘Apparently you can. And I quote: “Costumes involving the undead may provoke fear and therefore are not permitted” .’

Joanne downed half of the bottle: ‘Isn’t that the whole point?

‘Apparently not.’

‘Ok, then. How about a trident and a pair of horns?’

‘Sharp objects policy.’ Toby finished his lager. ‘Apparently, it’s been extended to include anything that even resembles a point.’

‘What about a werewolf?’ Joanne tried to howl, but ended up belching instead.

Toby shook his head and was about to read from his phone when Joanne said: ‘You know, we should just go to one of the nightclubs in town. I bet they don’t have a huge list of rules about everything.’

‘Normally, I’d agree. But, I like a challenge. And, you know, I might just have thought of a good idea for a costume.’

A week later, Joanne shivered at the back of the queue snaking from the mouth of the student union building. It moved slowly, with the bouncers checking for drugs and the union’s officers carefully evaluating each costume afterwards.

A chill ran down Joanne’s spine. Even in her copyright-free pumpkin costume, she still felt a little nervous. And where the hell was Toby? She was about to phone him when she heard something rustle in the distance.

A large rectangle emerged from the darkness. As it got closer, she saw that Toby was wearing some kind of large board painted to look like a smartphone with a social media feed on the screen. He grinned at her. She looked puzzled: ‘It’s well-made. But, it isn’t exactly Halloween. I mean, what’s creepy about that?

‘Think about it. What has turned the world into the authoritarian panopticon of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the mindlessly superficial dystopia of Brave New World?’

Joanne was speechless. Finally, she stuttered: ‘Wow… That’s… Unusually literate of you.’

Toby shrugged and fumbled behind his board for his phone. He tapped the screen a couple of times and held it up: ‘Yeah, someone posted it online. Sounds pretty impressive, right? I’m not sure what the ’80s and a heavy metal album have got to do with smartphones though. Still, it should amuse the people at the door.’

When To Break Your Own Artistic Rules – A Ramble

If you’ve been making art for a while, there’s a good chance that you’ve probably come up with your own set of “rules” about art. These might be rules about things like colours, composition, lighting, painting/drawing size, subject matter, art materials etc…

These types of rules can be incredibly useful for making your art look distinctive, giving yourself a bit of a challenge, making art more efficiently or even just making art that you really like the look of. Generally, if you’re following a rule without any outside pressure to do so, then that usually means that there’s a good reason for doing so.

So, I thought that I’d talk about the times when you end up breaking your own “rules” about art.

This is mostly because some of my more recent paintings, such as the one that will be appearing here tonight come dangerously close to breaking one of my key rules about lighting (eg: at least 30-50% of the painting’s surface area should be covered with black paint).

This rule is one of the things that gives my paintings their distinctive “1980s/1990s movie” style look, and it usually results in digitally-edited paintings that look like this:

“Architecture” By C. A. Brown

“Aberystwyth – Above” By C. A. Brown

But, here’s a reduced-size preview of the painting that will be posted here tonight. If it wasn’t for my other rule about including black “letterboxing” bars at the top and bottom of each painting, it would break my rule about lighting:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here tonight.

But, why did I break this rule? Simply put, it was because the rule was temporarily getting in the way of making good art. Basically, I’ve been going through a bit of an uninspired phase and, when I’ve tried to draw or paint from imagination recently, it has resulted in rather crappy art like this:

“Underwater Base” By C. A. Brown

So, until the uninspiration passes, painting from life or from memory is one easy way to make good-looking art without having to rely on my imagination too much. However, since most of the things I saw and decided to paint were things I saw during the day, this made following the “30-50% black paint” rule a lot more difficult.

In other words, there was a good practical reason for briefly breaking one of my central rules about making art. Breaking the rule allowed me to make better art (during an uninspired phase) and to reassure myself that, yes, I can still make good art.

So, the lesson here is that you should only follow your artistic rules when they improve your art. If breaking one of your rules allows you to make a painting when you’re totally uninspired or even to make a piece of art that you feel really proud of, then break that rule!

Just remember, the whole point of having artistic rules is to improve your art. So, when they get in the way of this, don’t be afraid to ignore them.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

The “Rules” Of A Comic Or Story – A Ramble

2017-artwork-rules-of-your-story

A while before I wrote this article, I was watching this Youtube video about game design which included a part showing how a modern videogame broke it’s own “rules” in order to make a dramatic point. It was really interesting to watch because usually this sort of thing is an absolute no-no in gaming, but it seems to work well in the example given.

It also made me think about some of the problems I encountered with this year’s upcoming Halloween comic (that I finished preparing a day or two before writing this article).

Although I don’t want to spoil the story too much, there was one part of the ending that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with. And, thanks to that video, I now understand why. I’d broken an established “rule” of my story. A rule that I’d introduced a bit suddenly in the later parts of the story.

Yes, I’d broken the rule for comedic effect. And, it works as a strange joke, as something for long-time fans of the comic and as a subtle movie reference. But, it was still something that I felt a little bit uncomfortable with for the simple reason that I’d introduced said rule somewhat later in the story. This made the rule in question seem slightly contrived. In retrospect, the rule was something that I probably should have established much earlier in the comic.

This, naturally, made me think about rules and storytelling. Since, although there are very few “formal” rules about storytelling (eg: grammar, spelling, the order of speech bubbles in comics etc..) stories, like videogames, rely very heavily on rules.

However, most of the time, the author or comic maker gets to create their own rules. However, this also means that they have to stick to them and/or establish them properly. They also have to think about how these rules will affect the events of the story too. They also have to think about how the characters will interact with these “rules” too.

For example, one reason why my Halloween comic’s story was let down by introducing a “rule” later in the story is that it was the kind of rule that any logical person would have exploited at the first available opportunity. Yes, I tried to cover this up by including some comedic dialogue and character-based explanations for why the characters didn’t… [you’ll have to wait for the comic].. much earlier in the story. But, nonetheless, this part of the story comes across as slightly contrived because I didn’t establish the rule properly.

In other words, even if your story is set in the distant future, the distant past or in some alternate dimension, you need to have rules. “Realistic” stories have an advantage here, since they can just focus on the ‘rules’ of real life (eg: physical laws, legal laws, social conventions etc..). Likewise, some genres tend to be more tolerant of rule-bending (for example, the thriller/action genre can depict combat in unrealistic ways, because it looks more dramatic). But, less realistic stories still need to have rules.

To use a cinematic example, there’s a brilliant low-budget sci-fi movie from the 1980s called “Trancers“, which is about time travel. One of the gadgets that a character from the future has allows him to create a “long second”, which can freeze time for ten seconds. This device is introduced early in the story and – more critically – it is explained that it can only be used once before it’s battery is depleted.

So, when this character uses it to escape danger a bit later in the film – the scene doesn’t seem contrived. Plus the rule about using it once means that it doesn’t allow the characters to use the device in every dangerous situation. So, the film is able to maintain a decent level of suspense and drama.

So, yes, not only do stories need rules but you also need to establish the rules as early as possible, and construct them in a way that prevents anyone saying “well, why don’t the characters just do this instead?

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Finding The Right Pace To Make Art – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Pacing yourself article

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about finding the right pace to make art. Although I’ll be spending virtually all of this article talking about the pace that I make art at, everyone is different and different things work for different people.

So, everything I say in this article is just an example of one way to pace yourself whilst making art. It isn’t the way that you “should” make art.

Anyway, back when I started making art every day in 2012, I quickly got to a point where I’d make several small drawings per day. In fact, as recently as 2014, I was making about two to four small paintings per day. However, unless I’m making a webcomic, I usually only make one small painting per day these days.

So, why have I slowed down?

It’s all to do with pacing myself. I’ve found that the risk of being uninspired is slightly lower if I only make one painting per day. If I’m feeling even mildly inspired, then trying to just make one painting per day means that I’ll be looking forward to making the next painting even more. In other words, it’s a way of maintaining my enthusiasm for painting (rather than using it all up in a single marathon painting session).

If I make several paintings in a single day, then it can be harder to think of ideas for the next day’s paintings. If I have lots of ideas, then I’ll sometimes quickly sketch them out in my sketchbook, but I’ll try to only turn one (or very rarely two) of them into paintings per day. This means that I don’t have to worry about coming up with new ideas for several days. It’s a way of making inspiration last longer.

The other reason that I quite like making just one painting per day is because of the large “buffer” of art that I’ve built up from the days when I used to make art more regularly. Although I almost always manage to make one painting per day, having a large stock of pre-made paintings (that I can post online each day) takes some of the pressure out of making art and it allows me to keep going at a reasonable pace.

Even when I’m not feeling inspired, having a rule about only making one painting per day can also help me keep painting. First of all, it lowers my expectations slightly – since I don’t have to worry about producing multiple paintings. I just have to make one painting, and this is something I can do when I’m uninspired.

Likewise, when I’m feeling uninspired, having a “one painting per day” rule can also be a form of damage limitation. Since I take my “make art every day” rule fairly seriously, I’ll still produce art when I’m not inspired – although it usually isn’t very good. Since artistic uninspiration usually tends to pass after a few days, limiting the amount of art that I make during this time also reduces the number of crappy paintings that appear here.

Ironically though, I don’t have this rule when I’m making webcomics. Instead, I used a different rule – which is something along the lines of “don’t spend more than about a week or so on a webcomic“.

By following this rule, I can produce multiple comic updates per day (and build up my “buffer” of daily art/comics updates) but I’m able to stop before I feel too burnt out. This is why most of my webcomics that have appeared here this year have been released as shorter mini series (they can be seen here, here, here, here and here).

Of course, this is just what works for me. Everyone is different and different things work for different people. Still, it’s usually worth finding the pace that works best for you. However, the only way to learn what works for you is through trial, error and experimentation – so, it can sometimes take a while to get it right.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Why Your Webcomic Should Have Rules (With Four Examples).

2016 Artwork Webcomic Rules Article Sketch

Well, I thought that I’d talk about making webcomics again, given that I’m posting a short webcomic series on here at the moment (stay tuned for another comic tonight). For today, I thought that I’d look at one thing that can really help to give your webcomic a bit more individuality and depth.

I am, of course, talking about rules.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “surely the whole point of webcomics is to break the rules and do your own thing?“. As comic formats go, webcomics are one of the most anarchic ones. You have more freedom when making a webcomic than you do with making any other type of comic. There’s no editor or publisher to appease and, depending on where you post your webcomic, there might not even be any censorship rules.

So, if there are little to no externally-imposed rules, then what do rules have to do with webcomics?

Following a set of rules that you’ve come up with can be a very easy way to give your comic a distinctive “atmosphere”, since it affects the kind of humour that you can use and it also influences the worldview that your comic portrays too.

Not only that, following a set of self-imposed rules can be a good way to set up running jokes, and to give yourself a bit of a challenge too. Plus, when a rule has become well-established, you can shock and surprise your audience by breaking it every once in a while.

The best rules tend to evolve organically, since they’re often the sort of things that seem “logical” in the context of your comic. Likewise, many rules can also evolve for simple practical reasons. But, if your comic feels like it’s getting stale, then one way to liven it up again is to set yourself a series of interesting rules.

To show you how rules can influence a webcomic, I’ll show you a few examples of rules that I’ve applied to my long-running “Damania” webcomic series (you can see more of it here, here and here) and explain what effect they have had on the comic.

1) Ghosts don’t exist, but zombies do:
Although I didn’t really follow this rule in some of the earlier comics (on DeviantART), it turns up in at least a couple of the more recent ones:

"Damania Redux - Be Prepared" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Redux – Be Prepared” By C. A. Brown

"Damania Resurgence - Debunked (Censored Version)" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Resurgence – Debunked (Censored Version)” By C. A. Brown

What this rule means is that if I include any horror-based humour in my comics then, exlcuding the occasional djinn, skeleton and/or mummy, it’s probably going to be zombie-related. This affects the kind of jokes that I can tell.

Why? Because both ghosts and zombies are different interpretations of the concept that a person can exist beyond death.

Because of the macabre and emotionless way that death is treated in zombie movies/comics/games etc.. zombie-based things are much more well-suited for dark humour, cynical humour etc.. than ghost-based things are. So, making the decision to include zombies instead of ghosts has had a subtle- but noticeable – effect on my comic.

2) Everything looks like an old movie when Harvey is alone: A long-running rule in my “Damania” comic series is that when Harvey is the only person in a panel, everything instantly looks like something from an old movie.

Since he’s an trenchcoat-wearing detective, it fits in really well with his character – as well as being a quick visual way to establish his character to new readers. It also allows me to make comic updates slightly more quickly too.

Although I’ve accidentally broken this rule at least once or twice (like in this comic about the EU Referendum last month), I’ve intentionally broken it in at least one of my comics to make a joke that rewards long-term readers of the comic, who have spotted this rule in other comics (it also includes references to one of the earlier comics in the mini series too).

"Damania Resurgence - A Calculated Risk" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Resurgence – A Calculated Risk” By C. A. Brown

3) Character rotation: Generally, I try to make sure that all four of the main characters in my webcomic appear in roughly the same number of comics in each mini series.

I originally set up this rule in order to avoid a problem that I’ve sometimes seen in long-running webcomics, where a comic series will re-introduce an old character with relatively little explanation.

Although this is really cool thing for long-term readers, it can often be confusing and off-putting to new readers. So, when I made my own webcomic, I tried to make sure that my audience will have seen all four members of the main cast after they’ve read no more than two or three comics. Like this:

"Damania Restricted - Universal Language" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Restricted – Universal Language” By C. A. Brown

"Damania Restricted - But, Is A Smartphone Mightier Than A Sword?" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Restricted – But, Is A Smartphone Mightier Than A Sword?” By C. A. Brown

However, this has also had an interesting knock-on effect too. Unlike many syndicated newspaper cartoons like “Dilbert”, “Garfield” and “Nemi”, my comic doesn’t really have a single main character.

Although this means that my comic has slightly less focus and slightly less “personality”, it also means that I can place more emphasis on the relationships between the characters, and can make comics about a much wider variety of subjects by choosing which character (or characters) I want to focus on in each episode, rather than being restricted to just one character.

4) Idiotic censorship: Although I have broken this rule exactly once in the five-year history of my “Damania” webcomic series (on DeviantART, at least), one of the rules that I set myself for the comic series was that the characters can’t use a certain commonly-used four letter word without it being censored in some way. I’ll be the first to admit that this is a f**king stupid rule in this day and age, but allow me to explain further….

Originally, I set myself this rule for simple practical reasons. The sites that I post to often have content rules of some kind and, being a somewhat nervous person, I often tend to err wildly on the side of caution.

But, although this idiotic rule has meant that the dialogue in my webcomic is occasionally less realistic than it should be, it’s also been a useful source of humour too. Why? Because I either have to turn the censorship itself into a source of ironic humour, or I have to use clever wordplay.

For example, in a comic about social conservatism and over-zealous censorship in mainstream American TV shows, one of my characters gleefully tells someone to “F.C. C. off!”

"Damania Returns - American TV Censorship" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Returns – American TV Censorship” By C. A. Brown

This, ironically, seemed funnier than just including more realistic dialogue. The same is true for my decision to use the phrase “bovine excrement” instead of “bullshit”. It just sounded funnier and (along with the word “tizzy”) it also served to subtly imply that Rox – like all the main characters- is British, rather than American.

Although long-term readers of my comics will probably be more than aware of this (since I’m also British), I thought that I’d include it for the benefit of new readers.

So, those were are four examples of how setting myself rules has influenced the development of my webcomic. The thing to remember here is that the best rules tend to evolve organically and that your rules don’t always have to be set in stone.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

The Joy Of… Self-Imposed Rules

2014 Artwork Self imposed rules sketch

Ever since I got back into creating art on a daily basis in 2012 and got into writing non-fiction on a daily basis in 2013, I’ve set myself a lot more rules than I used to.

Whilst, back in 2009, my only real “rule” for myself was something like “Don’t post any nude art on DeviantART” (which was just as well, given how terrible my art looked back then). I seem to have picked up a lot more “rules” since then. Although I’ve thankfully got rid of the “no nude art on DeviantART” rule though…..

Some of my new “rules” emerged out of fear of external censorship or controversy, but many of them were things that I imposed on myself for various random reasons.

I’m not going to list them all here, but they include things like not directly using my favourite four-letter word on this blog (which can be really f—-ing annoying sometimes!), setting myself limits on how often I can produce some of my favourite types of art (eg: zombie art, art featuring various eccentric fashions etc…), trying to avoid politics as much as possible etc…..

Anyway, since I’ve already written more than a few articles about the downsides of these self-imposed limitations, I thought that I’d turn things around and look at the positive side of self-imposed rules.

At first glance, it might seem like making up self-imposed “rules” for your own writing or art practice would do nothing but stifle your creativity. More to the point, you might wonder, why would anyone bother to do this?

After all, creativity is supposed to be about expression and freedom, right? Many people (including myself) would, quite rightly, oppose any kind of externally-imposed “rules” being placed on creative people. I mean, censorship and regulation is the enemy of creativity.

So, why would anyone do this to themselves?

Well, one of the advantages of coming up with rules and limitations for your own work is the fact that it can actually make you a lot more creative. It can prompt you to make more varied types of art or writing and it can also be a good way of finding your personal art or writing “style” fairly quickly too.

After all, if all or most of your work has to fit within a set of rules that you’ve come up with before you started, then it’s going to have a fairly consistent and distinctive “look” to it after a while.

Not only that, if you’re the kind of rebellious soul who is driven to create things for yourself (rather than just looking at things that other people have created), then you probably hate pointless rules. So, the idea of being able to “break the rules” occasionally or of finding sneaky ways to “bend the rules” can be a very powerful driving force for creativity.

So, if you make up some self-imposed rules that you can break and/or circumvent later, then this can be a good way of keeping things interesting when you’re writing, drawing, painting etc….

Yes, the idea of rebelling against yourself might sound kind of bizarre, but it can be a good way to feel like a rebel quickly when you’re uninspired. And, let’s face it, many people do their best creative work when they feel like they’re rebelling against someone or something.

In addition to this, if you set limits on how many of your favourite types of stories, drawings and/or paintings that you can produce within a given time (eg: only allowing yourself to write one horror story a month), then this makes these things seem a lot more “special” than they might otherwise do.

If, for example, you can only produce one thing that you really love every week- then you’re going to put a lot more enthusiasm and energy into it than if you produce it every day.

The other great thing about setting rules for yourself is that the only person you have to answer to is yourself. In other words, if one of your self-imposed rules is actually hindering your creativity rather than helping it, then you can drop it. Likewise, if you want more of a creative challenge, then you can come up with a few more rules to follow. It’s totally up to you.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂