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Stop Breaking Rules

A writer need not be familiar with, let alone understand, Aristotle’s Poetics in order to write excellent fiction. A writer does not need to master mimetic prose before composing non-mimetic prose of the first order. A writer does not need to understand what a narrative arc is, or what foreshadowing is, or what thematic development is, to write successful fiction. A writer ignorant of “mirrored action” is not any less of a writer.

“You must know the rules before you can break them,” is a lie told by the academy out of a canny instinct for self-preservation.

46 thoughts on “Stop Breaking Rules

  1. True on the “you must” point–there’s nothing you must do and I wouldn’t recommend someone start writing traditionally and then move away from it tentatively and apologetically. But I never interpreted that phrase as, “You’ve got to master writing by the rule before you begin breaking it,” but took it more at face value–awareness. Which is a pretty different prescription. I find awareness of traditional expectations useful, sometimes to play into them and other times to subvert them.

    1. I enjoy playing with expectation, too. Doesn’t using “rules” amount to shorthand, almost like a complex cliche? Why not use each piece to create one’s own rules to be broken. Why not teach the reader to read in a new way. Why, in other words, rotate language around tired maxims and prescriptive formulae?

      1. Yeah, that’s well-said. I’d just add that “The Rules” encompass a lot of things: “The landscape description should somehow mirror the protagonist’s emotion” gets at exactly what you’re talking about–it may have been a neat trick the first 100 times, now it’s dead on the page.

        But compare that to: “The story ought to keep getting more and more exciting as it goes along.” That’s not the academy talking, that’s just appealing to our heart rate. And it’s not something to be heeded in every piece of writing, but it is something that can be done again and again. It’s not expendable. It also sounds way more rigid and terrible when it’s called “Rising Action” and it accompanies an arrow.

        1. I agree there’s a difference between these two things. I also agree that how we tell stories goes right to the heart of how we live as humans. By extension, then, those things we truly require for “good story-telling” will continue to organically rise to the surface.

          I wonder whether we’d do ourselves a disservice by ignoring things that essentially make us human (in the way we are now), or whether, by contrast, we’d free ourselves from a barbaric understanding of the relationship between conflict and the self (which would be something like: identity requires tension to exist and develop).

            1. Well, I’m riffing, really. Thinking aloud. The “way we are now” caveat meant to suggest that there are surely other, undiscovered or neglected ways to define or describe “humanism” that might result in different interests in so far as creative narrative is concerned.

              But this idea of rising action–of its primacy–is interesting to consider here. Because few people, at least, in the west, would argue that, like it or not, this is what we like from stories. And it’s not because it’s what we’ve been taught–at least not explicitly. So it makes me wonder if there are other narrative traditions in which rising action is ignored. And what about western culture gives rise to this preference. Are we limiting ourselves? Or is it part of some destructive characteristic that expresses itself too in, say, empiricism.

              1. I think it’s okay to want it and it’s okay not to be given it. And to writers’ credit, there’s a whole lot of people interested in not giving us rising action.

                I’ll be interested to read how The Pale King weighs in on this. We’ve been told Wallace is meditating on/working with/encouraging boredom, but what will that look like for 600+ pages? From the excerpts I’ve read, something pretty unboring.

                I absolutely agree with this: “those things we truly require for “good story-telling” will continue to organically rise to the surface.” Our heads should be in the humanity, not the checklist.

  2. I sincerely believe this. My current fiction professor has twice given me the speech about Picasso “recreating the history of Western art” before becoming a cubist. When I asked if Guernica would have mattered as much without this fact, he sort of changed the subject…

  3. i’m with gabe on this one — awareness is not absolutely necessary, but good writing is rarely an accident.

    josh: i would ask: “mattered as much to whom?” maybe not to western art (though i would say guernica is not as important when not seen as a break with what had gone before, nor as important as it is outside of the context of the spanish civil war) but definitely important to picasso himself, ie, would he have gotten to guernica without “recreating the history of western art?” (thinking of his blue and some of his pink periods, which can be straight up corny.) (also, guernica isn’t really cubist in the sense the term was first used, meaning that it was also a development on cubism itself.)

    which leads me to my question for shya, which is a real question, and not meant as a provocation:

    if you don’t need to know the rules before you break them, where do we get standards of quality? is everyone who is willing to type not just deserving of publication but the best writer ever? could a russian with no knowledge of english (or the rules of english grammar) intentionally write a great novel in english?

    i ask as someone who has frequently gotten his workshop/review ass kicked for breaking those very rules (though i was definitely aware).

    1. How would avoiding reference to an established set of rules undermine the ability to judge the merit of a given piece of art? Does the untrained eye have no ability to determine preference between two Picassos? Is the preference based on a knowledge of the history of Western art a more valid preference than that based on something more personal, say, or something equally broad but unrelated? The price of tea in China, let’s say.

      I don’t see our ability to judge or create hierarchy of value as dependent whatsoever on objective standards. We will always judge.

      What I’m talking about is the “hegemony” of a certain set of criteria used to evaluate writing, and the irony that, even among people who are not judged well by these criteria (nor by the people who prescribe them), these criteria are nonetheless still championed, under the rubric of knowing the rules before breaking them.

      What I’m talking about is that we’ve been swindled and duped.

      1. i see where you’re coming from, but while obviously there are no objective standards, i do think there are some standards we should all try to agree on, and it’ll sound conservative, but i also think context helps provide those standards.

        i think maybe the aristotle reference was a strawman, because while his poetics certainly looms large over western lit, most of the “rules” i heard in workshop probably weren’t aware of themselves as derived from them, if that makes any sense and i can personify rules.

        i mean, i doubt most creative writing professors believe that tragedy is the highest form of art, and even if they do, i doubt they can define it in aristotelian terms.

        i used to argue all the time, and still believe, that the novel was built on self-conscious (rabelais – cervantes – sterne) so that the late 20th century postmodernists were actually traditionalists. in that sense i see many sets of rules and many collaborating and competing traditions.

        1. I think that’s an interesting point. And actually, I have no problem whatsoever with writers who choose to incorporate elaborate systems of citation throughout their work. I just have a problem with the thoughtless regurgitation of formalism for the sake and site of arbitrary authority.

          1. can’t argue with that, and i suspect we actually agree more than we disagree, at least in practice (i’ve never even attempted a “well-made story”). i guess i’m not trying to defend the rules themselves as an awareness that we’re working in or against a tradition because i think it makes our work better.

            1. Yeah, I’ve got to say that I love to learn about new “rules” to use, too. I’m not at all convinced that it makes my work better, but it makes writing it more fun.

            2. And actually, I’m increasingly headed toward what could be the most difficult experiment I’ve yet to undertake: writing a successful story in the realist mode.

  4. Christian-

    Yeah…any visual art term I use is going to be loose at best (ha), but to frame my argument in light of your question…does it matter if the Russian’s great novel is intentional? Do we appreciate a piece because we trust that all of its “broken rules” were intentional? Does it matter if they are? Is someone’s free verse poem better because he once wrote a sestina? etc…

    1. Josh — yes I agree with you to some extent, but what’s the likelihood of its happening? I would just recommend that any Russians who want to write a great English novel should try learning the language. Safer, yes, but also more likely to result in good writing.

      Amos Tutuola would be a good example of someone with very little grasp of the conventions of *Western* storytelling and standard written English. I think “Palm Wine Drinkard” and “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” kick ass, but that dude’s work has also been subjected to some of the most shameful exoticizing and outright condescension I’ve seen in the academy.

  5. I find it most interesting when one knows the ‘rules’ then pretty much ignores them. This can either be by intent or through a naive ignorance, or simply not being able to color between the lines due to a congenital deformity of the hand.

    If one focuses too strongly on Aristotle’s Poetics then there is a tendency to a rigidity of the creative imagination.

    Though there is nothing particularly wrong with an understanding of an historical context to one’s creative work, it can add layers of depth in complexity, and it may help one to fit into the current zeitgeist a bit better than otherwise, there is ample precedent for artists who simply did not ‘get it’ but were brilliant and remain enjoyable just the same.

    But if one begins to look at those outliers it is difficult for some people to not see patterns and to begin to envision a different set of rules, or to describe how the different set of rules are a subset, or a variation on a theme, or simply bullshit.

    As to hierarchical dominance of the academy that dominance is well established the minute someone decides to pay the invoice for the professor.

    1. I agree–there is nothing wrong with an historical understanding. And there are many ways to establish such an understanding. Indeed, there are many histories.

  6. the formation that bothers me is ‘if you do break the rules, you should know why.’ doesn’t make sense to me. writing is an experiment, right? you break the rules, or do whatever you do, to see what happens? in any case, i don’t know why i do anything in writing, much less why i break the rules.

    1. but Joe, I will be curious in that you run the risk over time if you continue an interest in writing that you will get curious and suddenly one day realize that there is a rule that you are either following, or breaking and you had not thought of it previously… or some numnitz will come along and say, “I saw this rule that Joe Young uses. I wonder if he knows that. I’d better tell him.”

      I like the formation, ‘if you break the rules — what rules? what are you talking about?’

  7. The entire body of brilliant “outsider art” in the world is an obvious blow to this theory. Some of the most affecting things I’ve seen this year were my people with no formal training, and so none of the rule mastery advocated by that adage.

    1. Hi Matt, Shya, all,

      For me, what’s interesting is some kind of balance between following and disregarding convention.

      For instance, I was just looking at this:

      Béla Tarr is an astonishing director for many reasons, but one of them is how long his scenes are (and how complicated the shots are). There’s a precedent for that, of course, in European art cinema (Tarr is clearly heavily influenced by Antonioni, for instance, and Tarkovsky, as well as his brilliant fellow Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó—someone whose work has been much too overlooked).

      But Tarr has taken some of those still-unconventional ideas about duration and ran with them in pretty shocking directions. The “walking” sequence in “Werckmeister Harmonies” is a revelation (and, sadly, not at YouTube)—it impressed Gus Van Sant so much that he pinched it (beautifully) for “Gerry.” (He pinched a lot of Tarr for that film.)

      Here’s the opening of WH, since it’s nice to be able to look at something:

      BUT—and this is essential—look at how much is conventional in Tarr’s films! He obeys the usual spatial conventions, for instance (if he didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to see his innovation). He uses rather conventional—pretty, even—lighting and music. His actors perform in character. He has taken a lot of what others before him did, and pushed particular aspect of it. And the results are brilliant—”Sátántangó” really is one of the greatest films of the 1990s, as many have called it. (‘Tis a pity one can’t see it!)

      I used to work in an outsider art gallery (Intuit, in Chicago), and part of what can be so powerful about “Art Brut” (or whatever one wants to call it) is the disregard of dominant conventions, and often the creation of new, singular conventions. Outsider art is not “anything goes”! An artist like Henry Darger is working according to a highly-organized system of conventions—they’re simply his own conventions (influenced in their own way by the pop art he saw around him). Similarly, the Shaggs were *trying* to play 1960s rock ‘n’ roll. They lacked the ability to do it, so they had to devise their own way of playing it. And the end result sounds more like free jazz than anything else.

      Returning to Shya’s original point: I love it when people try to make art without knowing exactly how. It’s frequently wonderful to see how people try to solve the problems they encounter. This was one of the ideas behind Harmony Korine’s failed film “Tap”: He would get up and start tap dancing until he “figured out how to do it.” (He has no tap training.) Too bad he never finished that one, as I think it would have been brilliant.

      If you don’t know how to draw, sit down and try drawing a portrait. Really try! Do it every night for a month! Don’t look up how to do it, but just do it! You might figure out something very clever.

      Great art, meanwhile, results from tension (I think). That tension can come from many places (including audience vs. artwork). The interplay of convention and innovation is one powerful source. An entirely conventional work is most likely to be boring—but an entirely unconventional work—pure randomness, perhaps—is also very likely to be boring. (This is the problem I have with a lot of experimental art: it goes too far afield, disregarding all convention, and becomes mush. In general, I prefer the middle path.)

  8. Why debate what the artist knows? The work is there. It stands for itself. I think anyone working in a certain field has an ‘awareness’ (good word Gabe) of their medium, it’s history, etc. No one just opens a writing pad and produces something that will win them the Nobel Prize, except Henry Fool.

    You become your art by making the art, not by reciting theory, so while I whole-heartedly agree with Shya, I would hope this is a foregone conclusion.

    1. I don’t know, Greg. I brought this up because I hear the argument from a surprisingly large number of writers/readers of innovative fiction. Most recently from our own Christopher Higgs–a very smart dude who I’d love to hear weigh in.

      For the record, I’m not actually sure where I stand on the issue, but I certainly think it merits consideration.

    1. Near the end of The Dead, Gretta describes how Michael Furey, dying, stood underneath her window and threw gravel at the pane get her attention.

      A few paragraphs later, Joyce draws the reader’s attention to the falling snow in the final paragraph with: “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window.”

      That’s mirrored action.

  9. I’m gonna be a pain in the ass here, Shya, and disagree, partly because you wouldn’t be able to write this without knowing the rule that you first must know the rules in order to break them. But, if your point is that vision is first, and other considerations follow, then I wholeheartedly agree and appreciate the post.

    1. Knowing that laws exist isn’t the same as knowing what they are. I can decide I don’t want to follow them on principle, or I can decide on a case by case basis.

  10. I don’t see how someone can write fiction without knowing some “rules.” What are they using? Their own language? Their own orthography? (Maybe those fifteen new letters the Onion article mentioned.) Do they write their own text editing software? Or do they just dance in the moonlight?

    Writing is convention-based. I don’t see how there’s any way around that. Writers proceed knowing some of those conventions: maybe many of them, maybe few of them. They follow those conventions to a larger or lesser degree. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s bad. And those results can vary for different people (the audience, too, has its own knowledge and acceptance of conventions).

    I had a poetry student once who told me that he didn’t want to “learn any rules” or “read anyone’s writing” because he feared it would contaminate his free expression. I said, “Oh, how lucky for you that you invented the idea of writing poetry, especially as an expressive action. How un-compromised you are!” (Although I may have said it more politely than that.) …No surprise, he wrote really boring poetry.

    What’s underlies the position that not knowing things is superior to knowing things? Why is the experimental set often so anti-intellectual? Knowing things isn’t necessarily compromising. Blindly adhering to conventions is what I consider compromising.

    It’s what one does with one’s knowledge and abilities that ultimately matters. (But I happen to be a formalist, and like knowing how things “work.” That helps me to work. Others I can imagine it not helping.)

    That all said, Wittgenstein claimed never to have read Aristotle, and he did all right. Great poet! (But was he lying?)

    1. You’re absolutely right. You can’t get around conventions. Language is comprised of conventions. Though I suppose certain poets have tried getting around that, too, by not using “words.” Thank you for taking the matter to its logical conclusion.

      I remember having that feeling, though, as a kid. The anxiety of influence. Surely it grips most writers at one point or another.

      That said, I’m not sure that “knowledge” can’t be compromising. It depends on what knowledge means, or rather, how it operates. I’m not sure I think it’s a static thing, like an object, like an apple, which one can either be holding or not holding. Because once you pick it up, it becomes part of your body. You can’t put it back down again.

      So what if the apple is poisonous? Wait, this story seems familiar…

      1. You probably are right. I imagine that there is some knowledge that, once it gets inside you, can’t be gotten past—at least, not easily.

        I had a realist writing teacher once tell me not to use words like “tree,” but rather to “be specific! Write ‘pine’ or ‘ginkgo!” And I have taken this advice to heart (slivers of poison apple caught in my chest, and are now are clogging one of my ventricles). My own writing, which is not very “realist” (I don’t think), does tend toward the *specific*.

        (I think the same writing teacher told me to avoid the verb “to be,” and to use instead more action-oriented verbs. I’m reminded here of Stan Lee and John Buscema’s (marvelous) “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way,” where they argue you shouldn’t show characters just standing around, but rather depict them as engaged in actions—and at the more dramatic points of those actions, to boot. …I’m not saying that any of this is bad advice—like I said I tend to follow it. But it of course isn’t absolute.)

        (While I’m relating anecdotes: I once heard Philip Glass call style the a tendency to solve a problem in a particular way. You know there are other solutions, but you favor one, and tend to make that one. Those decisions add up and become your style.)

        (A good exercise, then: make a different decision. Try to get past what’s ingrained—that swallowed knowledge.)

        1. This is good. You should write a post that lists some of your writing quirks/habits, and ask people what quirks/habits they have, and whether or not they try to rid themselves of them.

          1. Yes!

            (Lately I have been using a lot of parentheses.)

            (And not proofreading my comments all that carefully.)

            More seriously, lately I’ve been writing all of my fiction in meter—not strict meter, but in a handful of recurring metrical patterns. (Like four novels, all in recurring meter.) And it’s starting to annoy me. I feel a real need to break out of it.

            I tried writing something where I didn’t pay attention to doing that, but then I started revising…and the meter came back. And once you have it in one place, you have to have it everywhere…

            Maybe we can co-author a post on that, or post related posts. I’d like to hear what other rules of thumb or stylistic tics others have. It would be fun to try trading them for a week or so…

                1. Would you like to begin the post? It sounds like you have some things you can at least repeat. I’ll watch for the post, prepared to comment with my own writerly tics.

                  1. OK, I will. But probably next week, when I can devote some real time to it. I’d like to see it done.

                    It will be like that month where all the Image comics artists traded books. (Although they really should have tried to imitate one another’s styles.)

        2. Today in another place someone mentioned Finnegan’s Wake and I took notice as I do not know very many people that have actually read it, or tried, and I was reminded that a long long time ago I actually did read all the way through… once, never with it in mind to ever return… as to that “knowledge once it gets inside you, can’t be gotten past.”

          I do not exactly have formal training in writing, so discussions of ‘rules’ makes me wonder what the rules are, as the rules that I find useful are ones that I learned through the reverse-engineering of reading stuff like FW… and suffering through years of terminal inability to communicate in writing very well at all as a result.

          As to different solutions for style, yesterday I heard the expression, “It is a poor rat that does not have more than one hole.”

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