My first Poetry Professor once told me something that I remember to this day. When I insisted that I wrote exclusively free form poetry, he asked me if I wrote any form poems. I told him no, I didn’t like rules. He looked me in the eye, and in the way a father corrects a son—a nugget of wisdom wrapped in steel wool—said, “You must know the rules before you can break them.”
Of course I was young and thought he was too full of himself to recognize my talent. But then I learned the rules, and learned that I had no poetic skill to speak of, primarily because I’d not bothered to take the time to learn the rules of poetry.
Fiction is very similar. In virtually every writing class I’ve had, there’ve been two lines of thoughts: The first is writing “by the rules.” The other is that “rules were made to be broken.” I tend to be somewhere between the two. Rules were made because they’ve been proven to work. However, for every “rule” we can come up with, there’s an exception—a successful story or novel that eschews tradition and forges ahead successfully to wide critical acclaim. But these are few and far between.
Additionally, there have been countless attempts to write amazing novels that break “all the rules.” These, by and large, are Hindenburg type failures.
I return to what my professor said. If you know the rules, you will know when to break them—that is to say, what effect the breaking of that rule will have on the reader. You will understand the risk and reward. You will understand which “rules” can be, and sometimes should be, broken, and those which should remain intact. There’s a fine line between the two.
In Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Kurt Vonnegut (one of my favorite writers) lists eight rules for writing fiction. Over the course of the next eight weeks or so, I’ll look at these, and provide my meager commentary on his “rules.” I’ll tell you which I think are sound, and the possible risks and rewards for breaking them.
A note from the blogger: On a completely separate note, and at the risk of sounding like an affection-starved child; don’t be afraid to leave comments. I love hearing from you, whether you disagree or agree. I’m sure you may not agree 100% with what I say. Seldom do two writers ever agree on things like “rules” etc. So feel free to weigh in. Let me hear your voice.