Experienced, multi-published authors often tell a newer authors, “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” This is great advice, but oft times, not well-received advice, and I think I know why. Aspiring authors are told to study the authors they like—successful authors who have a quality the new author would like to develop. So Ms. Aspiring Author reads, reads, reads. She’s been told that secondary characters shouldn’t have a point of view. She's been told that it’s customary in a romance for the hero and heroine to meet as early in the story as possible. etc. And then she reads her favourite author whose current hero isn’t introduced until page twenty-six. Now Ms A.Author thinks, “Well, I guess that’s a rule that's OK to break.” BUT, Ms. Aspiring is focusing on the wrong point. She’s looking at the mechanics—the what—but she’s missing the why.
When learning to hone your craft, don’t just look at what is happening on the page, study why it’s happening. Don’t just see that a rule is being broken, discover why the break wasn’t obtrusive. I recently began to read a romance that was so engaging in its opening scene and pages—the prose, the plot progression, the introduction of the heroine's inner conflict—that I didn’t even realize until I was introduced to the hero (some sixteen pages in) that that was the first hint of hero or romance. This author broke a rule, but it was done with such style, and for good reason (The set-up was a necessary foundation) that it wasn’t obtrusive in the least.
So, as you are analyzing your plot, here are some things to think about:
- First: Know the rules. Seriously. Know them. No Joke.
- Second: If you are going to break the rules, know why you are breaking them.
- Third: Once you’ve broken them, honestly ask yourself if it was necessary. If there is a viable way not to break the rules, don’t break them. And this is a place where you really have to be honest with yourself. Don’t break the rules simply because you can or because you want to. Those aren’t good enough reasons. Your plot, your hero, your heroine must demand those rule breaks.
- Fourth: Break them well. Seek objective feedback. (Objective feedback does not come from your friends or family unless you know they will tell you the absolute truth if something you’ve written is terrible.) If you get negative feedback from your rule breaks, they didn’t work. Period. Don’t try to justify your reasons. When the rules are broken with finesse, it doesn’t bug a reader—OK, it may bug a small majority, but not most. Your reasons may be solid, but your execution may still need work. Go back to the drawing board, hone your craft, and try again.