Saturday, January 7, 2012

Breaking the Rules

We all speed, right? Okay, well, most of us.

But we know what a speed limit is, right? It's a rule, and it's there for a reason, even if we only treat it as a guideline. And we know what it's for. It's designed to prevent deadly accidents, as a reminder insisting we should only go a certain speed (or lower, not higher).

We follow other rules that are even more important:

Drive on the correct side of the road.
Stop completely before opening your car door.
Don't leave your car running when you are filling it up with gas.

It isn't just cars that come with rules, either. We have rules at work (wear clothing), rules at home (place your dishes in the sink), rules governing writing (use commas where appropriate).

Yet there are also times when one must break the rules. Or when one can break the rules, and get away with it. Rules schmules, one might say. But one would be wrong. Technically, to break a rule, one should know what the rule is and why one is breaking it.

Two requirements for effective rule breaking, in life as in writing.

"Why?" you might pout, stomping your feet. "Why can't I just break the rule without these?"

Let's handle the first requirement: To break a rule effectively, one must know what it is. Now let's imagine you attend high school one day wearing nothing but your underwear. But this is the first time you've been to a real high school, and when your mother home schooled you she let you wear whatever. So all the other kids are staring at you, and you don't know why. You are promptly called into the office and then sent home to change, and when you realize what you've done--the rule you broke--you know you can never return to that school again. Too embarrassed.

Why? Because you didn't know the rule... and broke it in front of everybody.

Now imagine that your principal has restated the dress code over the intercom lately, and you decide he's just a bit too rigid with his skirt length requirements and banning of shirts with decals on them. So you create a shirt that has a hangman on it, all but one leg, with the blanks below saying "F_ _ _ You," and wear it atop a super mini skirt--which you've torn five inches from that morning on the bus--that shows off your cheeks when you sit down.  Now you're sent to the principal's office, and maybe you're even given suspension, but the rest of the school idolizes you for such an act of rebellion. You are forever cool. You are a hero, or at least an anti-hero, and people will talk about you even at your 25-year reunion.

The difference? You broke the rule because you knew what it was and deliberately wanted to create the effect by breaking it.

The same goes with writing rules. Rules have a reason for being, but many writers make mistakes because they don't know the rules well enough. Suddenly, they put, commas, everywhere they can, because they have, no, earthly, clue where to put them. Or they run on and on with no end in sight they can't figure out the proper end mark they wonder whether similar thoughts all belong in the same sentence they think if they put too many end marks in the writing will be choppy or they don't read it aloud and see how horrible it sounds when it's all mushed together.

Not understanding the rules makes it hard to write anything effective. The errors, rather than emphasizing something cool, drive readers crazy. And when the writer figures out what he or she has done, it's extremely embarrassing (or should be).

When one chooses to create a fragment, or to explode a scene in an unusual way, or to make the villain into the hero, or to break any number of writing rules, that choice is made for a reason. (Note: Laziness is not a reason. Or at least not a valid one. And you'll notice that this sentence, the one before it, and several others above are also fragments. Completely intentional. Not lazy. That's two more fragments.)

Go ahead, break the rules. However, if you don't know the rules, find them out first. READ. Find a grammar book and go through the exercises. Learn to find your verbs and make them more vivid. Practice, practice, practice. Did I say READ? Yeah, do that. And once you know the rules, and you discover that breaking one of them--or a few--can add to your narrative voice, could shape an entire scene, might change how readers view a character, THAT is when you can break them. Knowingly.

Don't go in for involuntary rule-breaking. Have your eyes wide open. Do it with knowledge and forethought. Plan it out. And if anybody asks why your underpants are showing, tell them why.

You might just become a hero yourself.

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