When Can I Break Rules of Fiction?
Updated: Aug 22, 2021
Twenty years ago I had to attend a driving safety course because I had broken a traffic law. The instructor, a retired police officer, presented to the class the following vignette:
If you're the only survivor of a world-wide apocalypse, and while driving a vehicle you approach a stop sign at an intersection where you can see no other vehicle for miles in all four directions, you shall make a full stop at that stop sign.
It is not possible for me to forget such imagery.
The first (and only) law of fiction
There are thousands of rules governing fiction. They are broken routinely without consequence by famous authors.
Notice I refer to such regulations as rules and not laws. This is because I believe there is only one law of fiction. This law shall never be broken without severe consequence:
Fiction must entertain.
When fiction does not entertain, it fails. If you disagree with me, tell me of an exception. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rules of fiction may be broken. But never the One Law.
When is it okay to break rules of fiction?
Unlike the One Law of fiction, well-established rules governing grammar, sentence structure, and style rules can be broken so long as the infractions make the story more entertaining.
The title of Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451 is much more entertaining than the technically correct 451 Fahrenheit.
The late Nadia Boulanger, who was one of the most renowned musical teachers who ever lived, taught many of the world’s leading composers of the 20th century, including Leonard Bernstein (composer of West Side Story and On the Waterfront). Leonard Bernstein considered Nadia Boulanger a musician, while referring to himself as only a “student of music.”
Nadia Boulanger refused to teach George Gershwin, fearing her rigorous classical teachings would ruin his style. This was because George Gershwin was a master of the rules governing jazz, which he broke routinely.
Before you can successfully break a grammatical or well-established rule of fiction, you must first master the rule. Otherwise, your transgression will make your fiction less entertaining.
Correctly broken rules add flavor and personality to a story.
Here are the first two sentences of my second novel, Hanover:
It was dusk when Gary looked up at the dark cliffs that enshrouded both sides of the Johnson Valley along its course to the Pacific Ocean. The five-hundred-foot-high vertical walls were said by the valley’s residents to be unscalable.
Do you see the broken rule? “Were said” in the second sentence is passive. The more grammatically correct version is,
The residents of the valley’s towns said the valley’s vertical walls were unscalable.
How lifeless by comparison!
The passive version focuses the readers' attention on the vertical walls instead of the residents, which is the author's intent. Furthermore, "were said" hints of tales whispered in dark alleys after midnight.
How about the following famous phrase spoken at the beginning of every Star Trek episode (original series):
“To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
The infraction is a split infinitive. The grammatically correct phrase is, “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” Giving top billing to the word boldly instead of go sets the tone of the entire TV series.
I learned of Ogden Nash when I was introduced to poetry as child. His poems attracted me because they were generally short, and because--I was told--he broke the rules. Those sorts of things got the attention of ten-year-old boys. Consider the following poems by Ogden Nash:
Tell me, O Octopus, I begs Is those things arms, or is they legs? I marvel at thee, Octopus; If I were thou, I'd call me Us.
A girl whose cheeks are covered with paint
Has an advantage with me over one whose ain't.
Reflection on Babies
A bit of talcum
Is always walcum.
I don’t mind eels Except as meals. And the way they feels.
Children aren’t happy with nothing to ignore, And that’s what parents were created for.
Why did he get to break rules? I think because he knew what he was doing. And he was famous. (Quiz: What is the broken rule in The Parent? Answer: The word "for" is a dangling preposition.)
Two-step process to breaking rules
If you wish to break a grammatical or well-established rule of fiction, first complete the following two-step process,
Learn everything you can about the rule you intend to break. Find examples in fiction where the breaking rule is advantageous.
Make sure that breaking the rule makes your fiction more entertaining.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the entire universe were governed by one law? Scientists around the world have spent the last seventy years and billions of dollars years looking for it.
Luckily for authors, we already found ours.