More Discussion on Writing Rules

There were a lot of interesting comments on the Neil Gaiman Breaks Writing Rules post. I thought I'd highlight some of them to continue the discussion.

Several commenters drew parallels between writing and other art forms.

Emily Bryan: 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.

Kat: 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.

HowDidUGetThere: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!

Amitha was the only commenter to say that she didn't like Neil Gaiman's approach. Is there anybody else out there who would have preferred it if he hadn't broken the "rules" discussed in the previous post?

(For those who didn't read the last post, the principles were 1)Don't break POV and 2)Build the plot and increase the tension with every scene, taking out any scenes that do not advance the plot.)

Amitha: 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 ;)

And finally, Graham had an interesting comment about how readership affects "the rules:

Graham: "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.

Further thoughts, anyone?


  1. Thanks Livia, very interesting post-- especially with the perspective from all (us) musicians! I, too, confess - while not a composer,I attended NEC grad 1 year (love Boston!), but graduated with an opera fellowship from Eastman.

    Maybe this is because it's so easy to hear when something isn't right? What do you think, Livia as a neuro scientist? Are we more bothered by aural dissonance but comfortable filling in the blanks with word related confusion?

    I know the rules are there for clarity, but what we're really talking about here is the battle between clarity and the challenge of sparking that "Ah Ha--you've done something new AND clever" light. Isn't that what great writing, composing, art is all about?

  2. Very intersting stuff. Art is sometimes all about breaking those rules - but you have to be a master of them to break them.

    As a teacher, this is what I tell the kids - in all areas of the curriculum. They tend to agree - it's hard to do it well unles you have great control in the first place :)

  3. Hi Livia. Interesting discussion. I think part of why "rules" appeal to us is that humans crave order (I know you wouldn't think so if you saw my desk, but trust me, I know where everything is!) We are drawn to patterns without even realizing it. We need structure, even if it's not readily seen.

    Even the great artists, musicians and writers who seemingly flout the rules, have rules of their own. Schoenberg, the composer who shunned traditional tonality, had strict rules about composing his "12 tone" pieces. (Of course, very few people enjoy listening to them. They're more a mental mathematical exercise than art.)

    The truly great ones make their rulebreaking appear effortless. You look at a Picasso and think, "Oh, yes! The vibrancy. The freedom of expression. This is what painting is supposed to be." Or read Neil Gaiman and think, "Well, that was disturbing, quirky and fun. Where can I find more?" We sense the underlying structure in the work, without it being easily discerned.

  4. HOwDidUGetThere -- I'm a pianist and vocalist myself as well :-) Musical dissonnance is interesting -- there is some evidence that some non-human animals prefer harmonies to dissonance, and some (less solid) evidence that humans naturally do as well. So I've always wondered whether the gradual progression to more dissonant music over time was necessary -- people needed to get used to more dissonant sounds. I'm not sure...

    It's easier to make such an argument with music though. Much harder to say what is "natural" in telling a story. Like -- I'd have thought that limited POV was more natural since it's what we experience, but it's a relatively late invention.

  5. Hi Livia! Thank you for this great blog. I will surely be back and read more useful posts like this one.

    Keep up with the good work.

  6. PS: about the rules...

    Breaking the rules is admitting you'll (probably) not have as many readers as you could otherwise, but you do it anyway because you are writing firstly for yourself - published or not.

    Breaking the rules could sometimes be genius if you already know how to do it and are a successful writer.

    I don't believe first time writers should try to break the rules though.


  7. Appreciate this blog, and its real discussion about writing. I recently bookmarked it.

    Wonder what the take is on Salvador Dali.

    Following up on "increase the tension with every scene," I heard an interesting approach yesterday. There's an mp3 file which is half marketing/self promotion and half good info about the "mini movie method."

    Essentially, you alternate between hope and fear, playing with the viewer/reader and their investment with the character/situation. Anything which fails to guide the reader along the shifting hope/fear continuum can be cut.

  8. HowDidYouGetThere said, "...what we're really talking about here is the battle between clarity and the challenge of sparking that "Ah Ha--you've done something new AND clever" light."

    The value of novelty in art is a vexed question. Modern visual arts as well as 'serious' modern music seem to be about little else, and, frankly, novelty for the sake of it is very boring. It happens in writing too. Many of the short story magazines push writers to be 'different' and I find the content of these mags extremely tedious. Yet these same magazines also tend to stress the 'rules' - possibly in the belief that novelty can still be achieved within them.

    This tension between 'the rules' and novelty is to be found in the book publishing world too, where publishers want authors to 'push the envelope' and yet are very wary of taking any risks themselves.

  9. @graywave I agree completely, as a matter of fact novelty alone, or for shock purposes is irritating because there's a lack of challenge.

    Perhaps that's why composers like Mozart are still considered geniuses. He worked within the rules but the results were completely novel.

    Livia: How interesting you're a musician, too! I've noticed the sciences and music go well together. I know someone in Houston who organizes orchestra performances in hospitals, performed by the medical staff in their scrubs.

    Very interesting topic: our need to organize, as opposed to randomize, while also moving forward the challenge of novelty.

    The Organized Novelty does make you wonder whether something bigger's happening. We can't look too far back in analysing music, though I remember hearing a podcast about some scrolls of musical notation from ancient times being performed (?) anyone else remember that? Maybe Sci-Am?

    Great conversation, by the way, everyone.

  10. I immediately agreed with @graywave as soon as I read is comment - that's really it! Authors that TRY to be new and original end up boring me and I drop the book after a long time of 'TRYing to enjoy it'

    There's a lot of TRYing involved in it, right? Novelty should always be effortless, your inner voice that comes different from other writers here and there and somewhere in between your story written according-to-the-rules, brings that extra especial, spicy difference, subtle hum-hum! that could eventually (if you're persistent and lucky and...) turn you into a bestseller.

  11. What are word artists to do? I appreciate Graham’s input. Reader understanding and experience are the goals of writing. We must consider who we are writing for, who our audience is. As a writer of literary fiction, my readers expect rules to be broken, but only as those breaks contribute to their overall understanding and sensory experience. If I make careless mistakes, I fail. If they detect I’m attempting to impress them, I fail.

    Best for beginning writers to stay the course on Rules: they exist as guidelines to help the reader. Unless your readers expect something more. But that requires clear knowledge and understanding of the whys of rules.