This post was originally set out to be published during IndieAthon last month, but due to circumstances you’ll be able to read it now! Charles Harris is best-selling author and award-winning writer-director for cinema, BBC and Channel 4. His debut satirical thriller novel The Breaking of Liam Glass has been an genre best-seller and finalist for a Wishing Shelf Book Award for fiction. It also breaks many of the rules.
Whatever you set out to do in indie publishing or self-publishing, there’ll be people who are only too keen to tell you the rules. Yet, history is full of people who’ve broken the rules and succeeded brilliantly. Who wore the wrong clothes so well that they became the right clothes. Or served strange-tasting food and won Michelin stars for it. How do they get away with it?
I’ve studied the rules of writing for my whole career, first as a screenwriter, then an award-winning director, then a best-selling author.
As a beginner, I broke the rules thoughtlessly, because I didn’t yet know them. As a result my writing sucked. Then I learned the rules, and started selling my work. But something was missing.
So I started looking more closely at successful books, plays and films and I discovered something that surprised me. I found that they all broke the rules. To be precise, they each broke some of the rules — and kept others. But another thing stood out: they never broke rules thoughtlessly. As I explored further, patterns began to emerge: as if there might be some rules about how to break the rules! After further study, I found I’d discovered six recurring patterns:
Most rules are there for a good purpose. If you’ve broken an important rule, the chances are that you’ve made a mistake. Your first instinct should be to see if you can put things right.
I see far too many stories that would work much better if the writers simply had a better grasp of the craft. Sometimes the question is one of knowledge – sometimes lack of discipline.
Too often, indie writers rush to print before the book is ready.
It takes hard, hard work to make a structure work or a character come to life. To be sure, there’s a matter of magic – some things just fall into place. But for the most part, you need to apply sweat and tears.
However, sometimes fixing it doesn’t work. Sometimes, in making the writing “correct” you lose something important.
It could be that your story simply doesn’t fit a beginning, middle and end. This often happens with true stories. In real life, things rarely fit conveniently into a dramatic form, and making them do so only bends them out of shape.
Take the Napoleonic Wars, say, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Too big and rambling to fit into a standard novel form.
At other times, there may be personal reasons for not wanting to follow the norm. Suppose you want to write about an unashamedly nasty person who doesn’t learn – such as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho – a man obsessed with killing all those who annoy him?
In such as case, you might decide it’s better to break the rule.
If you break an important part of your car, you’d better know what it was there for. Similarly, if you break a rule, you’d better know what job it was doing.
The structure of a novel, film or play is there to help guide the reader, stimulate interest and keep us hooked in until the end. Break that rule and you could easily lose the reader in the resulting shambles.
Similarly the main character is our entry point into a story. An unlikeable character can act like a door slammed in the reader’s face.
Once you know what it was there for, you can replace the broken rule with something that will do the same job.
If structure draws us through the story, then in writing War and Peace Tolstoy needed to find another way of ensuring we kept on reading.
This he achieved by, among other things, creating strong individual storylines with high stakes and gripping cliff-hangers. A page-turner, which remains a classic to this day.
Similarly, in creating the thoroughly evil Patrick Bateman, Brett Easton Ellis needed to find other ways to engage us.
This he did through the quality of his writing, and by making Bateman complex, insightful and often very funny. At the same time, he ensured that he was surrounded by people who were shallower, greedier or otherwise more flawed. We find ourselves siding with Bateman’s view of them, even against our own moral judgement.
This one is easy to understand. Every rule you break, makes the book harder to read and a good writer will find ways to compensate the reader for her extra work.
Anything that adds to her enjoyment will help: from a stronger plot-line to high comedy or aesthetically pleasing writing.
Tolstoy compensates for the size and shape of his epic with vivid descriptions, fascinatingly driven characters and brilliant insights into human nature, to name but a few.
Similarly, Brett Easton Ellis rewards us with a dramatically enthralling panorama of life among the Wall Street elite, darkly satirical humour and, again, a cast of expertly drawn characters.
Finally, prepare the way by warning the reader or viewer what to expect.
First up is the title. The very words War and Peace prepare you for an epic, while nobody opens a book called American Psycho expecting a fluffy chicklit romance.
Other warnings can come early in the text.
If you are concerned that the audience may be disappointed when the hero dies at the end, start with his death and then flash back to the main story. This has been used in thousands of books and movies from Sunset Boulevard to American Beauty.
Look out, too, for dialogue such as “This is not going to end well” or “Many murders go unsolved.”
Or even “I’m just the kind of guy who breaks the rules!”
A special thanks to Charles Harris for writing this amazing post! If you’d like to know more about Charles or what he has written, you can find his website here.