What We Mean When We Say You Can’t Break the Rules Until You Can Follow the Rules
One of the pieces of advice I often hear about writing is that you need to learn to follow the rules before you can break them. All writers do it. Choppy sentences, passive voice, fragmented sentences, consistent point of view, infodumping, starting with a character waking up, use of adverbs. Bestsellers and classics like Jane Austen, James Joyce, John Green, Suzanne Collins, Stephenie Meyer, John Scalzi, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King. There’s no work where at least one of the basics isn’t twisted.
Now one could say that it’s because, in any art form, there are no rules, only guidelines. Suggestions. Good advice. They’re smart plays, but not written in stone.
I think part of it is that, if the rest of the work is good, you’ll be able to ignore or forgive the occasional bad. Like they say on the YouTubes, there is no movie without sin. Same for any story. There is no work that doesn’t have some flaw, either in mechanics or execution. A plot hole, an inconsistency, an error in geography, or anachronism.
But I was thinking of a way to explain this to younger, newer writers (like myself). How do you know when to break the rules? How do you know when it’s all right to use passive voice of if you’re using it too much? How do you know when it’s okay to make a bad sentence when the good sentence sounds awful?
Remember when you were learning how to drive? You probably followed all the rules to a T. Any law you broke was due to mistake, not purpose. You drove under the limit, stopped two feet behind every stop sign before crawling forward, stressed about how far was 100 feet, 200 feet, 500, etc. When you follow all the rules, everyone passes you. They ignore you. And knowing which way turn the wheels up or down a hill is made a lot more important than it really is.
I remember when my sister was learning how to drive, and we all went up to my grandparents’ cabin, 114 miles. It’s usually a 2 to 2 1/2 hour drive. She drove the whole way with her learner’s permit and it was SO SLOW. I thought I was going to go insane, start banging my head against the window like a padded wall.
Then you get comfortable. You get used to driving. You’re no longer using your hands to turn a wheel to turn a car–you just turn the car. You become the car. Like how you don’t think about pressing a button on a controller to make your character move left.
You learn how to use cruise control, you forget where your four-way flashers are. You follow other cars closely. You speed through a yellow and only mildly worry about cops. And most importantly, you never go the speed limit.
But you also don’t go very much faster than the speed limit. About ten miles over or so, probably (depending on where you are). Because you go faster than the rules, but you never go faster than you can control the car. Cause that’s the key–are you in control. The moment you’re not in control, that you don’t know what you’re doing, you return to the rules.
It’s experience that gives you that control. Knowing what you’re doing, knowing what your car is capable of (like how fast it can accelerate down the ramp, whether you’re going to be able to merge behind this car or that car). So yes, when they say the first rule is that writers write, remember that metaphor. Drivers drive. They learn how to drive by driving. They learn the rules by driving, and they learn which rules aren’t so crucial by driving.