Thursday, April 21, 2011

How to Know when to Break the Rules

First and foremost, to know when to break the rules of writing we must first learn the rules of writing. If the thought of all that grammatical gobbledegook makes your brain leak out of your ears, get over it and learn it anyway. You want to be a skilled writer, don’t you?

Secondly, we have to be sure to break a rule for the right reason. If we break it out of ignorance, laziness, or the elusive search for cool, then we should think again. There’s no point breaking a rule for the sake of it, or because it’s all the rage. There has to be a valid reason. Below I’ve listed a few possible reasons to break the rules:

For Clarity
The writing rules of grammar and punctuation are put into place to clarify meaning. Without them sentences often become ambiguous. For example: ‘Let’s eat Dezmond.’ Without a comma before Dezmond, that sentence means we want to eat the poor guy. Of course, if we gain more clarity by breaking a rule, then we can break it.

For Emphasis
A broken rule will often stand out in text and emphasise a point we might want to make. Be careful, however. Overuse of broken rules will quickly lose any impact we hoped to achieve.

For the Rhythm
For the sake of the music of our prose, it’s good to break a few rules. For example: A series of fractured sentences create a clipped, sharp rhythm which can add a certain agitated vibe to the prose.

For the Art
When I worked in a bookshop I had so many returns on one particular book because the readers misunderstood the artistic opening. The book started after twelve blank pages and, on the thirteenth, the first word was a lower case ‘and’. People thought the book had been misprinted. The author took a risk. Personally I thought it was genius.

Which rules do you like to break? Which rules do you break too often?

Note: This post is part of the A-Z Challenge. To learn more about the challenge click the image on my sidebar.

Reminder: I’ve entered my blog into the People’s Choice Award as part of the Sydney Writers’ Centre Best Australian Blogs Award 2011. If you haven’t already, please vote for my blog here. It is listed under W.I.P It: A Writer’s Journey -- Lynda Young.


M Pax said...

I break the ones about sentence fragments. Usually for flow and art's sake.

Old Kitty said...

I know my limitations so don't deliberately break writerly rules but I cheer anyone else confident enough and more talented than moi to do so!! Like the author behind that book with the blank pages!!! That's just so mad it's brilliant!!! Yay!

Take care

Luanne G. Smith said...

You know, it sometimes irritates me when I read a novel by an author *cough* cormac mccarthy *cough* and they don't use quotation marks for dialogue. I always think it's because they're too lazy to type them out. I suppose they're just exercising creativity, but it bugs me.

Let's eat Dezmond. Too funny. :-)

Anonymous said...

It's always good to know the reason behind rules. That helps in knowing when or when not to break rules. :) A book with twelve blank pages and starts with "and"? That sounds too cool!

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

M Pax, Fragmented sentences are one of the more common rule breakages I've seen around.

Old Kitty, yeah to break a rule so radically that way was both brave and clever.

L G Smith, that does make the read awkward. It's not something I'd do. It is a risk to break those kind of rules.

Madeline, yes, exactly. Knowing the reason is important.

Lindz Pagel said...

Great post.
I love to break the 'rhythm' rule to most. I feel rhythm in prose is like cuts in a movie. If used well enough they can control the pace and hopefully the reader's reaction.
On a side note: Poor Dezmond. I hope he's alright.

Anonymous said...

I remember learning "grammar" a long, long time ago. I also remembering reading lots and lots of books, which was easy to start with because we didn't have TV until I was 12.

I just got the "feel" of good writing. Sentence fragments can work sometimes and sometimes they can't, and so on for all the "other" rules. Punctuation for clarity. The "classics" are peppered with commas; I find this annoying. It interrupts the flow. We don't want to interrupt the flow.
Ann Carbine Best, Long Journey Home

Suze said...

If your brain did leak out of your ears, at least you'd have a network of zombie agents to perpetuate spinal activity. At least for a little while. (I know, this is not what you intended with this nice post but I couldn't resist. :))

DEZMOND said...

ah, I don't really mind eating or being eaten :)

Speaking about genius book ideas, have you heard about the one published last year which became a bestseller even though it had just blank pages and nothing else in it? The title was WHAT MEN THINK ABOUT BESIDES SEX :)

Theresa Milstein said...

I do a few fragments for emphasis. And I made up a word, but I don't know if I'll be allowed to keep it.

Unknown said...

Definitely the ones about sentence fragments. Sometimes you've just gotta get that sense of urgency, you know? And so you use choppier sentences; sentences with only one word. "Pale. Frosty. Like winter's kiss in mid-December."

Strunk & White's Elements of Style is a handy little tool, too, and completely pocket size. Well. Purse-size, at least. It comes in great handy when you're stumped on a specific grammatical right or wrong.

By the by... I totally snorted a perfectly good sip of red wine when I read: "If the thought of all that grammatical gobbledegook makes your brain leak out of your ears, get over it and learn it anyway."

J E Fritz said...

I'm terrible with dialogue tags. It's very hard for me to get rid of them because I always feel they are "needed." I need someone to point it out to me before I ever actually get rid of them!

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Lindz, having the skill to control rhythm is an important one. Oh and Dezmond doesn't mind ;)

Ann, that's why reading is so important. It's seeing the grammar in action.

Suze, hahaha gotta love the zombie agents ;)

Dezzy, phew, glad you don't mind ;) lol! that book is genius.

Theresa, oo, I like made up words.

Alyssa, Strunk & White is definitely a good one. I use the Australian Style Manual.

Oh noes! we can't waste a good red! lol

Unknown said...

One thing most classics have in common is that they break the rules. I love breaking the rules. My publisher, doesn't like it so much.

Laura Pauling said...

I'll break a rule when it's for the better of the story. It's too hard to think of the rules. But seriously, one rule I don't break is describing the character in the mirror. Even done well I don't understand why it's allowed. :)

Sarah said...

I do a lot of sentence frags and sometimes do a few other things. I just think it's important to know and understand those rules before you start breaking them.

LTM said...

we can't all be Cormack McCarthy. Good one, Lynda! :o) <3

N. R. Williams said...

The rules I break are mostly incomplete sentences to add tension.
N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I usually don't like the lack of dialogue tags, but YA novelist James Phelan did that in the Alone book, Chasers. And it was brilliant because when the twist came it all made sense.

As long as you know the rules, it's okay to play with them.

Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Shallee said...

I don't habitually break any rules, but I do break some occasionally, usually for the points you mentioned. I love how you broke it down! It really helped clarify the "rules" of breaking the rules. :)

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

JEFritz, yep and sometimes they are needed.

Clarissa, hahahaha your last sentence is the funniest. Sometimes we have to sell those rule breakages ;)

Laura, yeah I recently read ANOTHER book where the character did that. Good one to avoid.

LTM, hehe thanks, Leigh

Nancy, yep, you did it well in your book.

Charmaine, I should read Chasers (gosh there's a lot of books I should read hehehe)

Shallee, occasional rule breaking is good. Glad you liked.

Unknown said...

Hmm.. I think I do the very short sentence thing... And in school we were taught not to start a sentence with "and", but I do that too :-)
That book with the blank pages sounds very interesting. What was it about?

Anonymous said...

Oh yes i agree with you. I took a C&G Patchwork & Quilting course as a complete beginner and while i needed to learn the basics of P&Q our tutor wanted us to step outside the box. I wasn't read to do that without knowing the rest first. Needless to say we clashed bigtime. Of course I was later told she shouldn't have press-ganged me into the C&G until I was more proficient. Great post :O)

Anonymous said...

I usually break rules for emphasis.

I break the most rules for dialogue to depict actual speech, and then sparingly in other areas.

Anonymous said...

OOOOOH, I love this post!

I agree 100% that you've got to learn the rules before you break them, tho. :)

Talli Roland said...

Fantastic post. Yes, if you do break the rules, you certainly need to know the rule you're breaking and why!

Anonymous said...

I use sentence fragmsnts, especially during actions scenes like a fight. They ad much and keep the action moving forward.

Steven Chapman said...

Absolutely excellent advice, Lynda. A writer should know the rules before attempting to break them. I can’t be 100% sure of all the rules I break, because I haven’t learnt them all, but I’m sure it’s an extensive list!

I suppose the one I’m most guilty of breaking is rules about rhythm, I do like breaking down a paragraph until it almost reads like poetry.

Steven Chapman (writer)

Carol Riggs said...

Haha, love the "get over it" part. ;o) I use sentence fragments, I confess, as well as one word "sentences." It's great for variety of rhythm!

You have a great point about clarity. That book, EATS SHOOTS AND LEAVES is a popular one addressing the importance of grammar and correct punctuation. :)

LynNerdKelley said...

You made me laugh out loud with your first example, "Let's eat Dezmond." Good one!

I write YA and use a lot of sentence fragments, especially in dialogue, since that's the way teens talk.
Nice post.

Anonymous said...

I need to learn those rules. My writing rules are from over 40 years ago at school, so I have no idea if I am breaking any newer ones, or writer-specific ones.

I need to start studying!

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Rachel, I wish I could remember the name of the book.

Madeleine, good example. Shame you had to go through that though.

Medeia, good approach

Ibdiamond, thanks

Talli, exactly. Thanks

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Stephen, they do add much.

Steven, I don't see a problem with that. There's music in poetry.

Carol, I'm not familiar with that book. I'll have to check it out.

LynNerd, yes exactly. It's a good way of capturing the teen voice.

Maria Papadopoulou said...

This is a fantastic post! Personally, I tend to break some rules for emphasis.

Stratoz said...

yes, I agree with knowing what rules you are breaking (but be ready to pay the consequences).

I fully know my a-z's but have at times broken the rhythm to meet my flowing life.

Happy Easter to You