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Rules are Made to be Broken

In my sophomore year of college, in a mandatory grammar
class, students would often ask the professor, “Well what about [example of
something that very obviously broke whatever grammar rule we’d just
discussed].” Her answer was always, “Once you know the rule, you can break
it—but it has to be purposeful.” For example: grammar tells us we shouldn’t
start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘because’. Because it’s a sentence fragment. And
conjunctions are supposed to follow a comma and combine two compete thoughts. And
technically, ellipses are only meant to represent the omission of words from a
quote. But sometimes… breaking these rules to achieve a particular feeling or
effect, like hesitance, or a disjointed thought pattern, is necessary.

The same goes for literary rules. 

Every writer—especially the very famous and successful
ones—seems to think they’ve figured out the secret to perfect prose. Make sure
you include this, don’t ever do that. And there’s a pressure to follow these rules because these
authors have been published before, so they must know what they’re talking
about, right?

Wrong.

Alright, maybe not completely wrong. Some of these “do’s and don’ts” have a kernel of accuracy to them, but I don’t think they’re as black-and-white as some authors make them seem.

One “rule” I saw said to never include detailed descriptions of the characters physical appearance or of the setting around them. I immediately scoffed. Don’t describe your characters? What kind of sense does that even make?     

Another tip is to never use adverbs with “said” when it
comes to dialogue. The reasoning is that there are plenty of other words that
would mean the same thing, and why use two words when you can use one? Instead
of “she said softly,” use “she whispered.” She didn’t say something “angrily,”
but maybe she “shouted.” Adverbs, they say, are unnecessary; not to mention
that “said” itself is boring.

What’s the problem with that, you may be asking. Seems
like pretty solid advice.

Ironically, I see just as many people condemn using anything other than “said” for dialogue. Their reasoning is that readers don’t pay attention to these dialogue tags anyway, and the dialogue alone should be enough to show your character’s tone and feelings about what they’re discussing. In other words, they tell instead of show. Again—when you think about it, it seems like pretty good advice.

So if you aren’t supposed to use “said,” but you’re also not supposed to use anything but “said,” what on earth are you supposed to do? In my opinion—absolutely whatever you want.

At the end of the day, your writing should be for yourself, first and foremost. Yes, as writers we want to share our story, but I’m a firm believer that you should always be writing the book you would want to read, not the book you think will sell the most. You may worry that no one else would want to read that, but to that I say: relax. You’re not the only one with that seemingly strange, very niche interest, I promise. And if you write your book with enough love and care and excitement, it will show, and that, more than anything, is what makes a book good.

In the words of Neil Gaiman, whose “8 Rules for Writing” are the only rules I actually wholly agree with:

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs
to be written. Write it ­honestly and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

But (there’s always a but), like I said before, these tips authors give out do have some solid foundation to them.

Thinking about the rule for descriptions a little more, I think what that particular author likely meant was don’t include unnecessary detailed descriptions. It’s a thin line for sure; you know what your character looks like, you know what their bedroom looks like, you know why their bedroom looks like that, and all of this is very important because it’s key to your character and you want to make sure the reader knows your character the way you do—but sometimes that isn’t really necessary. Sometimes it can detract from the story at hand. But you also don’t want to suddenly mention an element and have the reader say, “What? Since when was that there?” and make them re-read the entire section again.

With adverbs and dialogue tags, it can get tricky. You want to make your characters’ tone clear, but too much of anything is going to become stiff and awkward, and your writing won’t flow. But if “whispered” isn’t quite right, there’s nothing wrong with saying something “softly.” What’s important is that, whatever you choose, you do so purposefully. You don’t want unnecessary words, but you ultimately get to decide what is and isn’t necessary. As long as you love what you’ve written, no other arbitrary rule anyone tries to tell you matters.

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