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Creative Writing Fiction 2017-12-13 00:00

How to Break the Rules of Fiction

Break the rules of fiction

Have you noticed how many rules you must follow when writing your novel? Some of them, like having a strong beginning, engaging middle, and exciting conclusion, are good advice. Then other rules, like how to format your novel for submission and checking submission guidelines first, are pretty strict. Finally, there are rules meant to be broken.

First, a warning: you must know and understand the rules before you can break them. Only when you have that foundational knowledge will you know how you can circumvent and create something new. Consider Picasso’s paintings. He had a good foundation in traditional painting when he experimented with abstract. If it worked for him, it’ll work for you, too.

Let’s look at some rules that just scream "break me."

  1. Write what you know
  2. Your protagonist must be likable
  3. Reading will make you a better writer
  4. Conclusion

Write what you know

Who hasn’t had an English teacher in life pound this axiom down your throat? This universal statement is based on the fact that you really shouldn’t make stuff up and pass it off as truth. First, your readers won’t believe you and will throw your book in the trash. Second, if your made-up stuff is about a real person, it could get ugly, with libel lawsuits and everything.

This is my favorite rule to break. Why? Because half the time I don’t know what I know or think about something until I write about it. The other half of the time, I’m so interested in a topic that I’ll research it, and then want to use it in a piece of fiction.

Have you ever read something interesting and thought that would make a nifty hobby or career for a character? Or perhaps you read about a beautiful new vacation spot that’s wildly popular—or exclusive and private—and instantly wanted to use it for your next murder mystery?

How do you break this rule? A couple ways come to mind:

  • Research. Isn’t that what research is for, to make sure you understand what you’re writing about? If you wanted to write a novel set in another country, you must do research.
  • Use a different voice. If you’re a white, Western, woman, try writing in another voice different from your own, like Asian Pacific or eastern European. And when you’re not sure how or what to say, research it.
  • Eavesdrop. It’s not nice, and it’s sneaky, but you can gather so much fodder by listening to conversations around you. And it’s the uncontrollable curiosity to know that all writers have which make us excellent eavesdroppers, right?

Your protagonist must be likable

Are you afraid your readers won’t like your story if you don’t have a likable, sympathetic, good-guy hero as the main character? Balderdash. Too many successful novels, movies, and TV series feature less than moral, narcissistic protagonists who are absolutely fascinating.

A better rule is “Your protagonist must be interesting.” When readers see some darker side of themselves in your main character, it might make them uncomfortable. But they love to hate—and hate to love—fundamentally bad protagonists who occasionally do something good. And they’re as fun to write as they are to read and watch.

We have an excellent article you should read about anti-heroes and how to create them.

So how do you break this rule?

You learn how to create 3-dimensional, deep characters, and then you give them not so elegant character traits. Don't forget to throw in a few (very few) semi-noble traits so they’re not complete degenerates.

Watch the movie Deadpool to see an example of a fantastically crafted anti-hero. And plenty of other examples you can study will help you see how these fascinating characters work.

Reading will make you a better writer

It’s just not as simple as that. There are plenty of readers out there who wouldn’t have a clue how to write a novel. What obsessive reading gives you is an ear to hear a good turn of phrase. That’s about it.

Rather, you must read like a writer. When you come across a good book, read it for pleasure first. If it truly is a good book, take the time to deconstruct it.

Read with a highlighter and a trusty notebook and pen or pencil. Try to find literary devices used. How did the author pull them off? Did they work or not work? What did the author do differently from other works you’ve read?

Highlight all the phrasing you like. How did the author construct those musical sentences you liked so much? Did the author use any literary devices like alliteration or rhyme to create these amazing passages?

Learn how to read with a critical eye to understand how great writers go about their craft. In fact, this should be another blog post, “How to read like a writer.” Watch for it soon.


Rules were made to be broken. We’re taught the rules so we understand the foundation on which good writing should stand. After that, we should use our knowledge and understanding to create something new and exciting.

Many say you can’t create something new and exciting because all story plots have already been done. Balderdash again. It’s new and exciting because your creative brain sees it differently from anyone else.

Learn your craft. Then experiment. Have fun with it. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

What’s your favorite writing rule to break? Join the discussion in the comments below.

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