Wednesday, May 12, 2010

More proof that Outstanding Writers Have No Rules

We all know there are rules that writers are never, ever, ever supposed to break. Don't use adverbs. Don't start with your character alone in a room. Don't use dream scenes, flashbacks, or prologues. Seriously, the list goes on and on (and on and on). But the truth is, writing rules were made to be broken - as long as you do it well, and are awesome.  

Rule: Don't Start Your Story With the Weather!!
Broken in: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive. Cars that were usually gleaming stood dusty in their drives and lawns that were emerald green lay parched and yellowing; the use of hosepipes had been banned due to drought. Deprived of their usual car-washing and lawn-mowing pursuits, the inhabitants of Privet Drive had retreated into the shade of their cool houses, windows thrown wide in the hope of tempting in a nonexistent breeze. The only person left outdoors was a teenage boy who was lying flat on his back in a flower bed outside number four. 
Why it works: Aside from the fact that this is J.K. Rowling who we're talking about, the references to the weather are intermingled with other excellent descriptions of parched lawns and the like. What's more, Rowling makes the outdoors sound so unappealing that you instantly wonder why anyone - including Harry - would bother staying outside in such heat. She also manages to let the misery of the intro reflect the misery that's to come in the rest of the book. This definitely isn't a perfect execution of the weather-as-opener, but in general it does what weather openers need to do - have a character interact somehow with the weather.

Rule: Don't start your story with dialogue!!
Broken in: Don't Let's Go to The Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
Mum says, "Don't come creeping into our room at night." 
They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. 
She says, "Don't startle us when we're sleeping." 
"Why not?" 
"We might shoot you." 
"By mistake." 
"Okay." As it is, there seems a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. "Okay, I won't."
Why it works: The reason you may have heard people say not to start with dialogue is because there's no context. It's hard to establish who is talking (narrating), where they are, or what their situation is if you open with just dialogue. But here, even though I didn't give you the next line (which is brilliant, but it mentions spiders, which I don't talk about on this blog), you know that the narrator is a child, probably living somewhere rural or lawless, and the voice is fabulous. Don't you want to keep reading? I do.

Rule: Don't start with your MC falling asleep or waking up!!
Broken in: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping. 
Why it works: Mostly because The Hunger Games brings the awesome. It's really the last sentence of that paragraph that works, and knowing that Prim had bad dreams. What's going to happen today that would cause bad dreams? I want to know, so I keep reading. (For two days straight, right through two books, bringing them with me to meals and the movies and thoroughly irritating my husband...until he gets the sense to read it, too. Now we're arguing over who gets to read our copy of Mockingjay first when it comes in.)  

Can you think of any examples of writing rules that were broken well? (Or not well?) Share them in the comments!


  1. That opening from The Hunger Games works, too, because it establishes right there in 4 sentences that we are in a DIFFERENT world from ours. Why is the narrator sharing a bed w/ her sister? Why do they sleep on rough canvas? WTF is the reaping that would cause such bad dreams?

    Oh man, we learn so much from those few totally works.

    ::bows down to Suzanne Collins::

    I've had several margaritas, so I'm not really thinking writing right now. But I'm sure there are a lot of rules that have been broken well. ;-)

  2. just goes to show, if you're going to break the rules, then do so spectacularly.

  3. Just goes to show that the better you write the more rules you can break

  4. Yup, good old rules. Created to be bent and broken. Great examples!

  5. First, thank you for not talking about the s-word here (just the thought of the word sends shivers down my spine - ew!). I think Twilight breaks just about every rule there is. New Moon starts with a dream. Every book starts with a preface. There are pages and pages that read like a to-do list, especially in Twilight... Even though a lot of writers (and others) tear apart the writing, storyline, etc., no one can argue that readers love it. I'm not saying that any of these were done well or not. Just saying that numerous rules were broken and people still read it. Lots of them.

    As for The Hunger Games - I made the mistake of convincing my husband and boys to read them. By August, there will be five of us fighting over MOCKINGJAY. Guess who will have the book first, be locked in her bedroom, not to come out until she's done? Because I know if I put it down for a second, someone will snatch it up and I MUST know what happens before they do! LOL

  6. Excellent examples. I remember thinking about that when I started Hunger Games. And about Order of the Phoenix --- By that point, JK Rowling could've started with a prologue of a character waking up and talking about the time when he had a dream of blisteringly hot weather ... and I would've eaten it up.

  7. These are excellent examples, Heather! It just goes to show that we can get away with anything, as long as the writing draws readers into the story!

  8. I can't think of any specific ones right now, but I know Cormac McCarthy breaks all kinds of rules in his stuff and it works for him.

  9. Astute observations. I like these examples you find. I had to laugh at The Hunger Games. It committed the ultimate taboo. And it worked beautifully.


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