Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Break the Rules

A couple of days ago in the 3/16 blog discussion on minor characters, David Cranmer (The Education of a Pulp Writer blog) cited the example in Nero Wolfe that Archie gets more page time than the main character, Nero. This is totally contrary to the general story writing “rules.“ Hello, a main character has to be the main character!

What is it Captain Barbossa tells Elizabeth Swann? “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Sailing along, if we only base our writing off what has been done before or what the masses popularize, we box ourselves within an area already set. As a broad generalization, in my humble yet entirely accurate opinion, nobody’s teen vampire book will top Stephanie Meyer just as no boy wizard book shall surpass Harry Potter. Authors trying to replicate those successes will likely go adrift.

Now, to be more specific, let us return to David’s example. Rex Stout broke the rules. Yet, it works beautifully, acting almost as a suspense mechanism which pulls the reader along. You read Archie’s parts at times wondering when he’ll go to Nero. Archie gets more pages, but David nailed it. Nero is undoubtedly the main character.

Writing conventions give the reader a familiar ground to stand on, which can at times be good. Mitch Wallace (Sphagnum Patch blog) and I blogged a couple of weeks ago about the standard use of past tense and the possible merits of present tense. Yesterday, over at Magical Musings, Edie Ramer wrote about how James Patterson consistently defies not only chapter lengths but also the standard 3 sentence paragraph. My goodness, we're all rule breakers!

There’s an exceptional business book sitting on my desk at work that came out about 10 years ago by Gallup called “First Break All the Rules.” It shares that the world’s best managers don’t follow the norm and goes on to identify common ways in which these managers differ.


I’d say the world’s best authors don’t necessarily follow the norm, either. Could that be what differentiates them from the rest of us? Can you think of some other writing rules we can break? Or, name some rule breaking authors?


  1. J.R.R. Tolkien has to be my favorite "rule breaker." Lord of the Rings is too long on its own, while the three "books" it was broken into cannot stand alone. Both in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the story comes to a climax much too long before the story ends, and it takes too long to wrap up the books and loose ends. He also probably uses too many points of view, which was an interesting discussion in your previous blog.

    However, whether you are a fan or not, his unique writing style seems to work for the average reader, many of whom would not normally commit to a 1200 page book.

  2. Great post! Reachers don't know the rules and only care that it's interesting. Supposedly there's a rule about no prologues, but Allison Brennan's editor told her to write a proglogue in her first romantic suspense.

    I've read all the Nero Wolfe books, but it's been awhile. The next time I go to the library, maybe I'll check one out again.

  3. Hey Mark, I can't resist a Lord of the Rings comment. You did a great job analyzing Tolkien's rule breaking. One more that comes to mind - I'm guessing that there weren't too many other books about elves and such that were selling well at that time. Does anyone know? Maybe that's another rule Tolkien broke.

  4. I'm so glad you mentioned prologues, Edie, because I've read the same thing in multiple spots. It seems some folks really detest prologues. They insist that if it's worth mentioning than it should be in the first chapter. This crowd would definitely view the use of a prologue as breaking the rules. Yet, Clive Cussler has sold over a 100 million books by always beginning with a near-totally-unrelated prologue in each.