Neil Gaiman Breaks Writing Rules! (The Graveyard Book)

If you hang around writing blogs and craft books well enough, you'll start absorbing commonly held principles of good writing. Two common ones are:

1. Don't break point of view (POV). Headhopping is disorienting for the reader.
2. With each progressive scene, increase the stakes and the tension. If the novel still works without a particular scene, take it out.

Hmm, take a look at this scene from The Graveyard Book. There are four characters here -- the two children Scarlett and Bod, Jack who wants to kill them, and the mysterious Sleer monster.

[Scarlett] gulped. Her mouth was dry, but she took one shaky step forward. Her right arm, which had been twisted up to the small of her back, was now numb. . . .
IT HAS BEEN SO LONG, said the Sleer, but all Scarlett heard was a slithering noise, as if of enormous coils winding around the chamber.
But the man Jack heard. "You want to know your name, boy before I spill your blood on the stone?"
Bod felt the cold of the knife at his neck. And in that moment, Bod understood . . . .

Hmm. Sure looks like head hopping to me.

As you might guess, The Graveyard Book doesn't follow the second principle either. Rather than being a tightly knit plot with constantly increasing stakes and tension, the book is rather episodic in nature with each chapter narrating a different adventure. While the stories are loosely tied together at the end, you could almost certainly remove some of the chapters, and someone who hasn't read the book before wouldn't even notice.

Well then, aren't you folks happy to have found my blog? If it weren't for me pointing these slips out to you, you would have all thought Gaiman a good writer. Well, now we know better. I take back all the good things I said about his subtle narration style and characterization. Too bad the Newbury and Hugo committees didn't talk to me before giving him all those awards.

Um... right.

So what lesson do I actually draw from this? Well, it's kind of ironic to say on this blog, but writing is an art, not a science. Sure, there are rules of thumb, and I'm not disparaging them or the people who give or use them. In fact, I follow rules 1 and 2 pretty closely in my own writing -- it's harder to make mistakes that way. But it's nice to have a reminder that these rules are not gospel, and that it's possible to break them and still win every book award in 2009.

What are your thoughts on rules? Do you follow them? Break them? Wish you could break them but don't think you could pull it off?


  1. When I studied music composition in college, one of the first rules we were taught was no parallel fourths. Then I went to my first Pucinni opera and how does the overture start? With parallel fourths.

    Rules exist because only the masters of the craft know how to break them successfully.

  2. Yep, people often forget there is only one real rule to writing: be engaging. Past that, anything goes, IMHO, anyway.

  3. I still think Gaiman is a great writer, although he did not write by the book, as they say, and this is because writing is science artfully aplied ;) And as we all know, especially the English people, where there's a rule, there are exceptions.

    I've started reading, following writing blogs just a few months ago. Since then, I didn't know about any rules regarding writing. Although I was pleased to say that my inner writer's voice, followed most of them.

    Sometimes there's a need to break the rules. Simply to state that not anyone could be a great writer.

    I stick by the rules just as long as they serve my narrative. And sometimes a like to experiment.

    No. I'm not a published writer (yet). If I'm a writer, well that's a completely other subject.

    by the way, love your blog and the way you analyze the narrative structures, the characters. I like your medical, or "doctorish" approach to literature.

  4. I think if every writer followed every writing rule, all books would sound robotic. The fact that different writers break different rules is what gives them each their own brand and individuality.

    I haven't read Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book", yet. However, that is really the only way I can determine if it is great, good or bad. If a book engages me with it's plot and characters, many of the rules don't matter.

    Just my opinion, though. Thanks for letting me chime in.


  5. I find that those who really know the rules are the best ones to break them. That breaking the rules is an art in and of itself.

    Take Picasso for example. Never been a big fan of his-- too disjointed for my taste-- but I went to his museum in Paris and saw how wonderful his early works were.

    He knew what he was doing, and I assume had the respect of his contemporaries on some level. So when he took art to a new level it was a break through, rather than a failure. I think this aspect is often forgotten.

    I'm not an art historian, but that lesson wasn't lost on me. Art seems to be easier to put side by side, in chronological order, for anyone to see the progression. Books take a bit longer!

  6. I don't mind reading books that head hop at all. Most of them go chapter by chapter, or scene by scene, but I've read several authors who head hop within scenes. As long as its clear, it doesn't usually slow me down.

    As an aspiring writer, I stick with each scene having its own point of view. Although I did break that rule once or twice in my completed ms. I think it works, but am still working out a final revision, so we'll see if it stays in :)

  7. You must follow them, until your are published. Then, you can break them based on your level of success at publlishing.

  8. I have some rather extensive thoughts on "the rules", which I posted on my blog a while back:

  9. I actually didn't like that it was an episodic kind of a book. No matter how well episodic books are written, I have trouble picking them back up after putting it down. For the Graveyard Book, I got stuck for a long time on one of the early chapters. I think he did this in part because he was trying to parallel the Jungle Book in some ways but for me it was like reading a book of short stories (which I generally don't read) :P Towards the end though, it became less episodic and I found it much more interesting.

    That being said, I totally agree that you can break the rules and still have a great book. It's just really hard while you're writing to tell whether or not you're one of the people who can pull it off ;)

  10. Amitha -- I'm glad someone is bringing up the possibility that he didn't actually pull of breaking the rules, or at least didn't pull it off for some readers. Perhaps it's just that the strengths of the book outweighed the rule breaking :-). (I'm not pushing this view, just bringing it up as a possibility). You liked the book right? What was it about the book that you liked? Why do you think it won all those awards?

  11. "The rules" exist for the reader's benefit. The more closely they are followed, the wider the audience your book will have. They ensure that your writing stays within the comfort zone of the largest number of readers. The more your writing moves outside this comfort zone, the smaller your audience will be. Each of us, as writers, picks the audience we want to appeal to. "Head hopping" is harder work for for the reader but we might still choose to write for those readers who find it easy, or who are prepared to put in the effort.

  12. Omniscient used to be a fixture in children's literature. I don't read enough children books today to claim it's done even now (HP is written in Harry's point of view only), but it holds some practical interest as a technique.

    Omniscient responds to a child's need to know what's going on in every character's head, as opposed to the appeal for mystery and uncertainty to the older reader. Hearing what crosses everyone's mind is interesting because 1) you get acquainted with all the characters in a more intimate way, 2) you are aware of the possible misunderstandings and conflicts. IOW, it ups 'relational suspense'.

    Of course, characterization and conflict can be shown with other, more sophisticated techniques, but omniscient is simple and direct. That's why it was traditionally used in children and middle graders' stories.

    Finally, head-hopping is just a perverted omniscient PoV. It's always a matter of execution.

  13. My favorite head-hopping example is in Hemingway's Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber where Papa dips in and out of consciousnesses so fast it almost gives you whiplash. He even slips into a lion's head for a paragraph. And it's artless, seamless. It's Hemingway.

    Yup, greats can get away with it.

  14. I find the rules helpful, on odd occasions, if something is 'not working' and I can't put my finger on why. When I first started writing I had great trouble with pacing, and 'Story' was a book which really helped me to break it down.

    But mostly, I learnt to write by an organic process, in the same way as I learnt to speak (by watching how other people do it), and I'll always have a go at doing it 'my way' first.

    Rules can be helpful - and can be ignored, if you've written something that works anyway.

  15. I also studied music composition like EmilyBryan, and yeah, the rules are there to stop intermediate composers from shooting themselves in the foot. They're generally good guidelines that help make things sound better.

    It's probably the same with the writing rules. For beginning or intermediate writers, the rules probably help them express their ideas better. For masters, perhaps they've gone beyond the need for rules, just like a good jazz player who can't remember the names of chords anymore.

  16. I break rules all the time.

    Usually, it doesn't work and I take out the rule-breakages when I edit. Sometimes it works.

    I quite like a little bit of head-hopping in books, but only if it reads as though it was planned. I can't stand it when a writer pops into another character's head because they were too lazy to establish another way how Character B feels while they're in the head of Character A. If you're going to head-hop, plan it and do it well - do it because you're choosing to, not because you can't be bothered expressing something in another way.

    Great post, btw, thanks.

  17. I'm pretty strict about the POV thing - just don't like head-hopping ... but, I always tell writers that if they convince their audience, then they can do whatever they want--it's convincing the audience (me, the reader) that is difficult when it comes to head hopping - I did read a novel not long ago that did it and I didn't mind it so much...but, I'll always love the POV that stays in POV best!

    As for plots and all that...I never think about it while reading or writing - get me interested in a character (which is why POV is so important to me) and I don't care what happens (mostly) - I'll follow that character(s) anywhere!

  18. My $.02:

    I think general principles of good writing should be considered as guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. They're established for an excellent reason; when they're broken haphazardly and without thought or understanding, it typically decreases the reader's enjoyment and the readability of one's prose.

    However, once a writer becomes proficient at her trade and develops a good understanding for what works and what doesn't, these rules/guidelines can be broken. The trick is to know the rules and why they exist, when and why it would better serve the work to break a rule, and how to pull off breaking it. If a writer does it properly, the reader doesn't even notice that the POV shifted or that the story is in present tense or whatever, only that the story was a compelling and satisfying read.

  19. Would you say that Gaiman is using omniscient pov in The Graveyard Book? Then the headhopping is more like narrator opinion. The first paragraph is from the POV of the knife, unless you recognize the omniscient, traditional, storytelling voice.

    Love Gaiman's writing style, and Pullman's, too.


  20. On a certain level Gaiman's writing is very pedestrian. I think he works very intuitively. Interestingly enough I did an analysis of Ananzi Boys and found that it followed Blake Snyder's (Saved by the Cat) beat sheet almost to the letter.
    Yet, American Gods which rambles on a bit is a better book.
    Which incidentally also breaks a major rule - the big climax happens off stage.
    If it it wasn't for Sandman would Gaiman get out of the slushpile?

  21. The Graveyard Book is a retelling of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and follows many of its conventions. People today are so used to third person limited narration (where the action is only in one person's head at a time and other characters' thoughts or feelings must be inferred from their actions, words and expressions) that they are jarred by third person omniscient. I think it's a dumbing down that I don't welcome.

  22. Rules or no rules, I didn't care all that much for The Graveyard Book. I found it hard to get into. I didn't connect to the characters the way I love to do. Whether that was from his "rule-breaking" or some other thing, I can't say. The fact is, writing is art. And like all art, it speaks to the beholder. Many people love pictures that are strong on technique and realism, while others prefer abstract art, using the very unstructured quality of it to explore their own feelings. I think that's part of what makes Gaiman successful, he is art, he dares to be art, whether everyone "gets" it or not.

  23. I loved the Graveyard Book.

    I think that the "rules" are only useful for trying to explain to another writer what it was that jarred in a story. So if I found head-hopping pulled me out of the story, I have the vocabulary to say what it is that didn't work for me.

    In Gaiman's book, it didn't give me any problems at all.

  24. I definitely could NOT get into The Graveyard Book. What's the deal? I cannot figure out why it got so much acclaim. The head-hopping didn't bother me at all and I tried to stick with it but quit after a few chapters because it was so boring to me. Also, the voice of Bod was absolutely unconvincing as a toddler. He sounded like he was at least 12 or 13 long before he ever actually grew to that age (those ages). Similarly, I pretty much couldn't stand Coraline. Wasn't scary, wasn't atmospheric, wasn't exceptional at all in the quality of writing. These are the only 2 Gaimans I've tried. Maybe I just don't have the gene...

  25. Hmm. Sometimes I think good writing is like beauty--in the eye of the beholder.

  26. Must admit, I didn't find a publisher willing to give me a break until I said to myself "to heck with it" (or words to that effect) and wrote the novel I really wanted to write -- deliberately breaking rules on plot development and generally having a whale of a time. Head hopping, however, is something I never do. Have known some writers to carry it off very successfully (the British author Graham Joyce springs to mind), but it rarely feels "right" to me.

  27. I did head hopping (first novel) and it worked out - for me and my readers.

  28. This is a great post. It gives me hope that good writing, means good writing, which means it will thrive no matter what boundaries a writer pushes. Thanks for following me on Twitter. That's how I found you. Following you now. Great blog.

  29. My rule is I have to know a rule well, use it wisely and with success, before I can break it all to hell.

    Does it work? Well, I think. People pay me to put words on page, rules or no rules. So yeah, I like my rule.

    Loved this post and your site. Brilliant, genius!

  30. Mmm that must be why my discerning 9-year old daughter only got through a few chapters before dumping 'The Graveyard Book'. Like her mom, she's a stickler for rules ;)