Friday, October 7, 2011

Style vs Formula

Often the 'rules' of writing a good book can cause a writer to fall into the dreaded realm of formula. Let's all shudder together. *Urgh!*

You know the rules I'm talking about: Start the book with a hook, make your characters likeable, cut back the walls of descriptions, don't load down the story with backstory dumps, show don't tell. And so forth.

All these rules can be crippling. Yes, there are things that work best in a novel, but should we always stick to the rules because we're afraid to veer off the righteous path of thou shalt nots? Should we quash our writing style in the quest for publication?

There's a lot of pressure on new writers to catch the eye of agents and publishers. If we can't follow the rules then how will our books be any good? The rules are there for a reason--because they work.

And yet I think the best writers break the rules--but I will add they do it with caution. They find a way that works for their stories. They hold onto their personal style and create the story only they can write. These are the writers that stand out. For example, China Miéville writes copious amounts of meandering description and yet his work is a delight to read. Suzanne Collins wrote wads of backstory and yet it worked in the Hunger Games.

I'm not suggesting to ignore the rules. I am saying be true to yourself and your stories. Writing is an art. And the best art requires bravery, honesty, and hard work.

Do you agree? Can you think of other favourite novels that broke the rules?

Note: On Monday I have to head to the Supreme Court for jury duty. I'm told if I'm picked it could take up to three weeks. I won't have time to post during that time, but I'll try and pop around the blogsphere a little.

Call for help: I'm looking for some critiques for a science fiction short story I've written. It would be best if you like and understand the genre. I'm happy to return the favour in any genre for the equal number of words (3300). If you are interested please send me an email or leave a comment. A huge thanks in advance.  
M Pax of Wistful Nebulae has released her debut novella, Semper Audacia, this week, available from Amazon or Smashswords. Check it out.

Thank you to The Writing Nut for the Seriously Cute Blogger Award. It's not one I've received before. It's much appreciated.


  1. Good luck on jury duty. Eeep. Sounds... interesting. And I believe rules are there to help us, but shouldn't bog our story down. And I agree about being true to YOU as the writer. Great post!

  2. I agree with you. But the agents and publishers don't want to take a chance on unknown authors. Suzanne Collins was picked up from within the writers of Scholastic already. Unknowns have to stick with formula because publishers want "more of the same" than to take a risk.

  3. I think it's really important to know the rules and know WHY they're rules. When you know the reason behind them, you can break them for specific purpose.

    Good luck with jury duty!

    And I'd love to take a look at your short story! I read and write and love sci fi. :)

  4. I agree! It's always best to take a lot of things with a grain of salt as they say... Good luck with jury duty! We'll miss you!

  5. I think you're completely right. I don't want my stories to sound or read like a formula and I don't like reading books that are too formulaic. The best books are those that surprise AND satisfy.

  6. I totally agree that rules are meant to be broken if we have a good enough story and reason. Many of the rules aren't ones I agree with anyway.

    I'd be happy to critique your short for you, just drop by my blo and leave me your email address!

  7. Right now, I'm just writing. I'm not thinking abut any of that stuff. I'll panic later :-)

  8. Jury duty! How exciting!! I hope you have a really juicy but not too depressing case!! Yay!

    I'm a useless critiquer - useless!! I know there are others more skilled at this craft than me - me I just say - ooh I love it or I don't. LOL!

    Good luck all with being true to your writerly self and keeping within some kind of writerly framework! Take care

  9. I'm kind of ambivalent about the whole thing. I kind of think all genre fiction follows a formula. But like a recipe, there are ways of adding secret ingredients to spice it up and make it your own.

  10. Robin McKinley is another one who breaks the rules with long, LONG descriptions and yet pulls it off - because it's so entertaining and off the wall and has its own peculiar tension.

    My take is: you have to know the rules and practice the rules for your "apprenticeship" before you can break the rules as a professional! (not there yet myself!)

  11. Yuch on the jury duty. I think when you look at older novels, including many considered literary classics, they break tons of those rules including info dump.

  12. Tolkien broke the rules - more boring exposition than you can shake a stick at!
    Crap, sorry about jury duty. That always sucks.

  13. rules are here to be broken :) At least in the book world. And I hate the fact that writers often exist for publishers and not the other way around :(

    oOOOH, jury duty! Our little Lyndylove sending somebody to jail :PP

  14. They're really more guidelines, than rules.

    And they exist to help those struggling to figure out what's going to capture an audience.

    And the one's mentioned are pretty broad, so I can't say I've ever felt stifled by them. And as a reader, most make a lot of sense to me. Too much description and I start skimming. Don't start with something interesting, I stop reading. No matter what I'm going to spend lots of time reading, but not necessarily the work of a particular author.

    These guidelines become guidelines, come to be thought of as rules even, because you break them at your own risk.

  15. RaShelle, yeah, I think it might be interesting. Thanks

    Michael, even more so in this economic environment. Which is a shame because I think it might scare off some writers from writing something truly unique and special.

    Shallee, You are a doll! Thank you so much for the critique.

    WritingNut, thanks

    mshatch, yes, totally agree

    Heather, Yes! We need to be able to justify a broken rule. We have to do it with purpose rather than through ignorance. And Thanks so much for the critique offer! Really appreciate it.

    Sarah, hahaha it's a good plan :)

    Old Kitty, oddly enough I'm looking forward to jury duty. Who knows, the experience might inspire my next book.

    Luanne, oh well said. I like that.

    Margo, yes, good example. And yes, we definitely need to know the rules and the reasons behind the rules before we should break them.

  16. Great point, Lynda! Strict rules box people in and stifle creativity. I like to think of them as guidelines and industry standards. :)

  17. Susan, for sure. Older novels were written when people had more time and patience, I think ;)

    Alex, not a Tolkien lover? ;) But his descriptions were so gorgeous and he had a wonderful lyrical rhythm to his writing too.

    Dezzy, I think if a writer has the skill and the gumption to write their own story, then their work will shine through despite the 'rules' and, if they also have patience and perseverance, then their work will also end up being published.

    Matt, oh yes, I agree, but I think some writers could become so bent on following the rules/guidelines because their first goal is to get published. And then there is the problem of going too far with the rules eg 'adverbs are bad' so they don't use ANY adverbs at all, even though sometimes they are useful. I think it's important for writers to understand the reasons behind the guidelines so they can then use them (or not use them) to their own advantage.

    Carrie, it's definitely a better way of looking at them.

  18. I think rules are there for a reason.

    I also think that rules are made to be broken.

    Every story has a need for structure and rules, but there are always exceptions.

    Also, good luck with your jury duty!

  19. Rules can be broken, but they also provide structure. My manuscripts have gotten stronger since I learned to follow the rules. I'm surprised when I read a story that drags because I would think that would be rule #1.

    Good luck with jury duty. I've only done it once, but I found in rewarding.

  20. I love Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse 5" and, yes, it certainly breaks the rules, to include a non-linear chronology and multiple flashbacks and flashforwards.

    Good luck with the jury duty. If you get picked, I hope it's an interesting that could perhaps serve as a backdrop to future works?....hmmmmm....

  21. I spent a month on jury duty - coincidentally, it related to my story perfectly! Great research.

    As a new writer, I found it extremely hard to stick to some of those rules. They are certainly good guidelines, however.

  22. Such a fine line to walk with rules. I agree, we need to stay true to our writing but at the same time we have to be open to crits and change.

    Have fun with jury duty!

  23. I agree with you on most everything, except I'd add this: great authors don't break rules with caution, they break rules with flair. And they know exactly what they're doing. Great post. :)
    And if you still need someone to critique your sci-fi short story, I'd love to help. I'm not an expert in sci-fi, but I'm hardly a novice. :)

  24. Sometimes, a good book is vastly different from a 'marketable' book. Breaking the rules will definitely show your unique voice, just don't break too many all at once :P

  25. I look for ways to improve my writing and I find the rules. Yet, I see the rules being broken in published fiction all the time. Yep, it's a tricky one. I've been ignoring them for quite a while now.

  26. I can probably help you get out of jury duty by telling you exactly what answers will get you kicked.

    As for following the rules, many of my favorite writers do not but as best selling published authors they are afforded liberties that agents normally will not extend to unpublished writers seeking representation.

    Good luck with jury duty.

  27. This is a great post and exactly what I needed to hear. Someone suggested and info dump in my novel and it just isn't happening. I think modern writing has shifted to promote the action in a story and inserting plot as you move alone is more exciting than boring my readers. Anyway, every writer has their own unique style. :)

  28. I think the rules are for beginner writers. But the best writers do break the rules. They start with telling but it's great telling full of voice. We just need to know how to break them!

  29. Good luck on jury duty. I find them exciting (maybe that's because I work as a paralegal during the day) or maybe because you can get some great writing information there just by people watching alone. Great post!

  30. Rule breaking is a punishable offense ;)
    For writers its very important to know why we are breaking certain rules, if there are strong reasons and the story is gripping, then the readers are in a forgiving mood.

    Lynda..though I am no expert where science fiction is concerned, you will just get a fresh pair of eyes looking at it. Feel free to email me the story if you are comfortable.

  31. My favorite "rule" about breaking the rules is this: only break them if they make your job as a writer more difficult, not easier. Then you can safely assume you're doing it for the right reason!

  32. I think it's important to know the rules...that way you can properly break them:)

  33. If rules and formulas keep you from writing your story, then they aren't the rules you need to follow. I think you have to follow your muse, write honestly, and keep writing. I can't make myself read stories that are formulaic, but I LOVE Tolkien and Vonnegut.

  34. I think rules are great, but when broken properly it's WOW. Good luck on jury duty. The last time I served on federal jury duty in the US, I barely touched the internet due to the judge's warning. Might be a good time to unplug.

  35. I agree with you. Breaking the rules can work--though it's hard to tell what will and what won't.

    Good luck with jury duty!

  36. Thanks for the shoutout. I'd be happy to critique your sci-fi.

    Yes, about the rules. They can squish our voices into nonexistence. I've been enjoying China Meiville for several weeks. His meandering is fun.

  37. Oh, jury duty. I was once picked for the pool but didn't serve. Always wanted to, tho, voyeur that I am. :)
    When mystery writer PD James started out, she broke the mold with crime fiction. Now her intellectural character approach IS the norm.

  38. I think this is why honing or writer's intuition is so important.

    All the knowledge and rules can be crippling. We have to be able to sift what we hear, and shift it out when we need to!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  39. James Patterson and Stephen King definitely break the rules, but they are famous and it's their great style that I love.

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  40. I agree with what most of the others said -- it's good to have guidelines, but they don't always have to be stuck to. I think it depends on the story and style and so on.

  41. I think those guidelines are trying to get at the general idea: do you need it? is it swamping the story? If not, get rid of it. That's how I see it anyway.

  42. I've heard that you need to know the rules before you can break them. Occasional disregard can be artful, but wanton rule-breaking will make one look like a rookie.

  43. Great post! All the best with your jury duties!

  44. Ugh, good luck with the jury duty! And I always find it interesting to see writers who break the rules, especially since I try to adhere to them, myself. Most of them, anyway...

  45. I think it's okay to break the rules sometimes, as long as you follow most of them. IE, I think it's a bad idea to blatantly strike out all the rules because you "can." If it's something you feel passionately about though, like a character some might think is cliche but is true to your vision, I say keep it.

  46. You can send me your short story if you like. I'm a lambda reader but I'll give it shot. Thanks for joining my blog and commenting it. ;-)

  47. Caitlin, yes, both structure and rules are important, but it's often the story that dictates how they are used.

    Theresa, absolutely. We need to learn the rules first.

    Mohamed, yes, there are a few stand-outs that break the rules.

    Joanne, ha! I haven't been picked yet but that's what I'm hoping too--it's all great research and experience.

    Deana, yes, exactly.

    Bethany, ha, well said. Thank you so much for your offer! Hugely appreciated.

    Jamie, I agree with that also. That's why it's important to know the rules first.

    Deborah, you rebel you ;)

    Melissa, very true, but I think if it's done well enough, the story will still shine through. But that's the key--it has to be done with skill.

    Laila, so true.

    Laura, that's the key isn't it: Knowing HOW to break them.

  48. Maeve, I hope I am picked. It hasn't happened...YET.

    Rachna, thank you so much for your kind offer. I appreciate it.

    Susan, ha! Well said. I totally agree.

    Mark, absolutely

    Tonja, the rules that improve your story are the ones that you need to keep. It's a fine line.

    Stacy, oh really? eek. I haven't been picked yet, so while I'm free I'll try and do some catch ups.

    Golden, it is sometimes hard to tell. Thank goodness for revisions!

    Mary, China is unique, I think. And thanks HEAPS for the offer.

    Melodie, that's a great example.

    Angela, yes, exactly! Use the rules (or don't use them) to our advantage.

    Donna, yep, when you're that famous you can pretty much do anything ;)

  49. Jenna, it definitely depends on the story.

    Trisha, it's a good way to look at it.

    Will, exactly right. It's so important to learn the rules first.

    Nas, thanks

    Carol, I dunno, I've seen you break some rules with flair ;)

    Colby, yes. It's no good if you blindly break the rules out of ignorance. The best way to use a tool is to understand its uses.

  50. I think the key is know the rules inside and out. Once they are ingrained, breaking them becomes more of a strategic move.

  51. L.A Speedwing, oops, almost didn't see your comment there. Thanks so much for the offer!

    Cynthia, yes exactly right!


I'd love to hear your opinion. Thanks for leaving a comment.