Key Points: Rules are really guidelines. There is a cost to breaking the rules. Rules make it easier for the reader to follow the story. Before you break a rule, know what the effect on the reader will be! Sometimes you break the rules for comic effect, or for parody. Hang a flag on breaking the rule.
[Mary] Season Eight, Episode Five.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Breaking the Rules.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And I don't have to say this if I don't want to.
[Brandon] [chuckle] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm not telling.
[Howard] I'm a boy.
[Brandon] [chuckle] Okay. That went a weird place real fast. Okay. Breaking the rules. We want to talk about... A lot on this podcast we say, "Learn the rule before you break it." It's time to break it. Let's talk about famous examples, places in your fiction where you'll want to break the rules... Any rule we've talked about on Writing Excuses is fair game.
[Mary] The thing is, we always talk about the rules. But usually these are actually guidelines.
[Brandon] Yes. That's right.
[Mary] Rules of thumb.
[Brandon] That's right, that's right. Just like in that movie with the pirates and the ghosts. More like guidelines. One rule that I broke, I've mentioned this one before, but it will kick us off. I was told constantly, "Keep your first book short."
[Brandon] Try and be shorter with it. They won't look at it if it's long. Elantris was 250,000 words. That's short for me, but it was... Sending it out, it was a very long manuscript to have on submission. This is where I learned the lesson of "If you break some of the rules, it's going to make people raise their eyebrow at you." It's going to make them...
[Mary] There's a cost.
[Brandon] Yes. There's a cost. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I feel... Which is a wonderful book, breaks some of the rules in that it jumps into these perspectives all told in flashbacks, it jumps into present tense perspectives that do really weird things, literary things. It does all these sorts of things that if a new writer were doing it, I'd be like, "Oh, be careful about doing that." Yet the book is brilliant. A lot of times, brilliance comes from breaking the rules.
[Mary] One of the other examples of the rules that she breaks is that... The whole "you have to sort out your magic system before you..." She is very firmly in the camp of magic is magic, and it just does its own thing.
[Brandon] Yup. There are many who are like that. That's breaking one of my main rules, which is the first law of magic by Brandon, that magic systems basically do certain things. But anyway, we won't get into that right now.
[Mary] So basically, what you're looking at when you're deciding whether or not to break a rule is if there is... There is a cost involved in breaking that rule. Usually these rules are there because they... They are things that people have discovered make it easier for a reader to follow the story. Which is what all of this is about. But there are times when the cost of following the rule is greater than the cost of breaking it. But you have to understand what the two things are. You need to know what the effect of the reader is on doing this. So let me use an example from Ender's Game. So, one of the rules that I had been taught, actually ironically by Orson Scott Card, is that you should not start with unattributed dialogue. The reason is because starting with unattributed dialogue means that you are in a white room, you don't know what's going on, and that as soon as the dialogue is finished, as soon as you start giving the reader something else, that they have to reevaluate everything, and it will take them a little bit longer to get into the story. If you look at the first page of Ender's Game, it starts off with a half page of dialogue with no description tags, no... Nothing! It's just unattributed dialogue. What that does, in this particular case, is it says that the people who are talking are not important. That the subject of the conversation is the important part. That causes you to have some curiosity about who they are talking about. The cost that he's paying is a little bit of disorientation, but what he's gaining is piquing the reader's interest. Part of the reason he can get away with that, I think, is because it's only half a page long and you can see that the attributed dialogue... That the normal stuff is coming up.
[Dan] Well, I think the other thing that that does, and those are some of my favorite parts of the Ender books... The other thing that that little section does is it says these characters are hidden and they're secret. That stuff that they are doing is stuff they don't want anyone to know about. Which immediately sets you up, without even telling you who they are or what they're doing, you know, "Oh, they're kind of underhanded people."
[Mary] Yeah. Also, I'm probably listening to a government transcript.
[Brandon] This is actually... This is a screenwriting method that Scott is adapting. You'll see movies occasionally and things. The most recent one I can think of is the Mass Effect videogame that I played, that will start with a focus on a character, and they're not the one talking. Other people offscreen are talking about them. It lets you zoom on the character, while they discussed perhaps this character or something related to them.
[Howard] The keyboard conversation at the beginning of the movie The Matrix. That little bit of...
[Brandon] So, I do feel, by the way, listeners, we are going to be using a lot of examples for you. The reason being the rules are there as rules of thumb for a reason, and the only time we can say break them is to say, "Well, this person broke them. Here's the reason why it worked." So we're just going to be piling on you all kinds of examples of places to break rules. You're going to have to learn to do this by instinct. You're going to have to learn to say, "This is the rule. This is what breaking it gains me." So let's see if we can talk about a few character rules. What are character rules that we have talked about on the podcast? That character should be sympathetic? Yet there are times when you don't want a sympathetic character.
[Mary] Well, there's also times where your sympathetic character is... I mean, that you have an incredibly unsympathetic character, and I'm thinking... Oh... Stephen R Donaldson.
[Brandon] Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever.
[Mary] Thomas Covenant. That is an unsympathetic character if one was ever written. Yet those are incredibly compelling books.
[Brandon] Yeah, they're very... The cost of that is, some people hate those books. In fact, a large segment of the population hates those books. The fantasy reading population. Because the character is not sympathetic, does not become more sympathetic, kind of slips down a slope for a lot of the books. There are times when he kind of dips upward and things, but it's... He's loathsome. In the first few chapters, he rapes someone. This is what happens. It's not even a good... There are no good reasons for rape. But it's not even a normal reason for rape. Does that make sense? It's not like... It's just like he's going to prove how bad of a person he is to himself in a lot of ways by doing this.
[Mary] So what do you think that gains? Like why does that... Why do they work? Because for an also sizable portion of the population, they work really, really well.
[Brandon] I would say that there is... Excellent question to ask... A lot of these rules, the reason to break them is because so many people have become comfortable with these tropes, that if you can in a very intelligent way go counter to the trope, you can drive home points and tell a story no one has told before.
[Howard] I think with regard to Thomas Covenant, what it allows you to do, if you've got a character who begins despicable, and they are protagonist, the arc for the character can be bigger. You have a larger dynamic range.
[Brandon] But the difference there is, he doesn't give really one to Thomas Covenant.
[Mary] I think sometimes...
[Brandon] The books are not about Thomas Covenant becoming a better person.
[Mary] Yeah. I think sometimes... One of the things is that sometimes we are fascinated by the train wreck.
[Brandon] Yeah. This is the classic antihero. Someone who does not have an arc to become better.
[Dan] Well. A counter example of a bad character who does become a better person is Jaime Lannister in the Game of Thrones books.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Dan] Who begins the books as an absolutely horrible person. He's in an incestuous relationship with the King's wife, he kills a little boy or tries to, and then by the third book, you are totally rooting for him and he's become one of the most honorable people in the series.
[Brandon] Now, I will ask you, does he become that or has he always been that?
[Mary] See, I think that that's one of the things that Martin does really well, is that he has... That he allows you to see the fact that people are the hero of their own story.
[Brandon] As I've had explained... I haven't... I've only read the first one. It's less that Jaime...
[Dan] Oh you've got to read the third one. It's the best one.
[Brandon] I'm not reading anymore George R. Martin novels. They're too brutal for me. I've explained this. I think he's a great writer. I do not want to subject myself to that. But as I've had explained to me, Jaime, who he is later gives context to the first book, where you're like, "Oh, he always was this person."
[Dan] He does. There's actually a lot of flashbacks to... His nickname is the Kingslayer, and when you realize why he did that. He's famous as being the worst traitor ever, and you realize he did that for incredibly good reasons.
[Brandon] Let's stop for the book of the week. We actually have one that breaks a lot of rules, and Dan is going to tell you...
[Dan] Yeah. We're going to talk about Holes by Louis Sachar. This is a young adult book that has flashbacks. That is riddled with bizarre historical flashbacks, which you're not supposed to do in most fiction, let alone in a young adult fiction. It breaks all kinds of other rules that we will let you find out. It's a very cool book, and you should all go read it or listen to it as the case may be.
[Howard] So head over to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30 day free trial membership, pick up Holes by Louis Sachar for free and pick up something else rule breaking that perhaps we will mention to you during the course of this cast for 30% off.
[Brandon] Let's talk about some setting rules.
[Howard] But use your own credit card, because that's not a rule that...
[Brandon] That we advocate breaking.
[Howard] That there's a good reason for you to break.
[Brandon] Yeah. Setting rules that have been broken. I can talk about one of these for a minute while the podcasters think of another one. I recently started reading Fire upon the Deep again because I'm trying to get my wife to read it. I've promoted that book before on Writing Excuses. I hit a broken rule right off the bat. He has an alien creatures who speak like Americans from... In almost every way. Like they're the very, very alien creatures. They're these dog creatures that have a group mind. Five of them will make an individual together. When they talk, they could just be guy on the street in 90s America, chatting with their friends. They come from a preindustrial society mostly. It might be right on the cusp of hitting industry. Yet they talk like this. I'm like, "Wow. I think that any student in my class that would have written this book, I would've advised them you really want your aliens to feel very alien. You want who they are... You want their speech patterns and their culture and everything to be very distinctive. So you should go back to that." Yet reading this book, the aliens are already so alien to us in the way that their form is. I mean, they use their five mouths like hands and things like this. They're already so difficult to wrap our minds around. By making them just people, he... It makes it much easier to connect with them, and beyond that, for us to characterize like the different individuals... Because the individuals are so fluid, and one will lose a dog and a new one will come in... Having them talk like people forces me to see them as characters and individuals and see their personalities and not the fact that they're just dogs. It gets rid of the Wookie problem, right? Every Wookie is the same character in Star Wars. Every elf is... Or every dwarf is Gimli in a lot of bad fiction. By forcing me to see them as just speaking like normal people, if you strip away the orf... You take the dwarf and you make him talk like a normal person, you strip away all of the stuff, you're forced then to characterize them in other ways. I think this is what Vernor Vinge did.
[Howard] Yeah. The eyebrows in Schlock Mercenary. I've talked about those a lot. If I were drawing aliens, doing actual alien design for a video game or a feature film, human eyebrows would not be included. But regardless of how I build alien heads, there's a pair of eyebrows in there, because I need to be able to tell jokes with these characters. It's a story trade-off. Mary, when you mentioned the white room feature at the beginning of Ender's Game... The... I don't remember if it was Nebula winning or Nebula nominated... Terry Bisson's made of meat story...
[Mary] Yes. I was thinking of that one too.
[Howard] Is totally white room, and it's not white room because you want it to be secret, because you want their identities to be secret. It's white room because at the end of the story, you want to feel like you have been left out. You are a human whose brain is made out of meat, and these aliens will have nothing to do with you.
[Brandon] Yet, he has them talk just like normal people.
[Howard] Yes. You're right, they talk just like us. But the white room thing, what it accomplishes is you as a human reader don't get any insight into the wondrous world that they live in, and you just never will, because you're made out of meat.
[Brandon] Right. That's a great way to point it out. That's a great thing to point out, how about that? Dan?
[Dan] Another really good reason to break the rules is like Howard was saying, to tell jokes. Specifically, if you are going to parody something. I'm thinking right now of any number of satirical horror movies, like Tucker and Dale versus Evil, where the characters make the classic stupid mistakes that you never want to put into a horror movie, because they're so incredibly cliché. But a parody relies on the cliché. So then, you want them to be making the dumb decisions.
[Brandon] That's true. I just warn you to be careful. That rule is a good one to break for parody, but when you do, you risk... You need to have your payoff be very close to the rule breaking. I would suggest, as maybe a rule of thumb for rule breaking...
[Dan] [laughter] Very meta of us.
[Brandon] Is to give the payoff soon. I've mentioned before the problem of having the epic fantasy story that is generic until the ending, which then twists on its head.
[Mary] You don't want your story to be a shaggy dog story.
[Brandon] Yeah. Okay. Tell us... Shaggy dog story? You don't want it to...
[Mary] No. That's... I mean, I was agreeing with you.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah. You don't want to have...
[Mary] You don't want to have a story that is just the story going along and then...
[Brandon] Yeah. It's boring until the cool part. Well, you're going to lose people at the boring part. Or it's clichéd until it's not. That's okay if your payoff is soon. And if you're... The payoff for the rule breaking. Conversely, or on top of that, if you're going to break a rule, break it in a spectacular way and show off that part of it.
[Mary] For instance, your giant crustaceans which are...
[Brandon] Breaking laws of science.
[Brandon] Blatantly breaking the laws of science. I've talked about this before on the podcast. I have giant crustaceans. In order to... I break it and say, "There are giant crustaceans. Deal with it." If you want to come talk to me about the science that we worked out in the background, I'll be honest with you, the science pretty much doesn't work. But we at least put nods to it. It's a .7 gravity, high oxygen environment so that the... But at the end of the day...
[Howard] But you can make a single crab claw feed a whole family for a month. All you need is the butter.
[Brandon] Yes. That's a rule that I broke.
[Mary] Yeah. But that's one thing that you do, is that you hang a flag on it. You're like, "Yup, we know that this is a rule that we've broken."
[Brandon] Yup. There are giant crustaceans, deal with it, or things like this. Like Elizabeth Moon when she shifts between present tense and past tense. She... It's very much hung a lantern on it, when... She does it early on, when she does it, she italicizes it, and she does a viewpoint break and says, "This is how it's going to be."
[Mary] Yeah. Let me talk about a viewpoint break that fascinated me, because we're always... "Do not head hop" is one of the key rules. I'm going to use Ender's Game again. There's a couple of points actually where the man who wrote Character and Viewpoint totally head hops. One of them works so well. Ender and... It's when Ender is getting ready to go off to Battle School. Not Battle School, Command School. We're in Ender's POV very solidly, and Bean is in the room. Commander Graff comes in to take him away, and Ender walks off, and we stay with Bean and the rest of the scene is in Bean's POV. There is no scene break, and it's completely seamless. What he's doing essentially is having the Ender passing through the door act as the scene break. What that... The cost of that is that you risk potentially bumping the readers out as you transition.
[Brandon] I... Okay. Go ahead.
[Mary] But what you gain from that, is that if you had had... If he had had the scene break, there would have been a loss of momentum in the scene. This keeps the scene going.
[Brandon] I would argue also that Ender's Game was written with a lot of this was in flux. Back before third person limited became as strict as it did. Okay. Dan's up...
[Howard] Well, it wasn't just momentum. Sorry.
[Brandon] Last thing before we end.
[Dan] Well, I was going to say, the other really neat thing that that scene does is it kind of passes a torch. Because the end of that book, we become very distant from Ender. We start... We spend a lot more time with Bean in with the rest of the Battle School kids. That scene is a... Doing that, changing POV in the middle of a scene is a way of saying, "Okay. Say goodbye to Ender. He's walking out the door. You need to change who you're rooting for now."
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] So you have the last thing before the writing prompt? Because I was going to say exactly what you were saying.
[Brandon] Okay. Well, give us a writing prompt then.
[Howard] I've got a writing prompt. Writing prompt. Here is a rule for rule breaking. The best format for experimenting with rule breaking is the short. Short fiction. Okay? So pick your three favorite, most sacrosanctish rules of fiction, and break all three of them in a short story.
[Brandon] Man, we're going to get like a bunch of stories of... Second person stories told as if you were a book traveling backward in time...
[Dan] Looking at yourself in a mirror.
[Howard] Second person... Second person...
[Brandon] Inanimate object...
[Howard] Second person... Was it omniscient?
[Mary] Second person omniscient?
[Howard] No. Second person omnipotent mirror scene.
[Brandon] This is been Writing Excuses. We hope we didn't give you any excuses. Go write.