Breaking the rules

Today, on my travels around the web, I read an excellent piece by Charlie Jane Anders over at io9, “10 Writing ‘Rules’  We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break.” The rules addressed both themes/plot setups such as “No portal fantasy” and techniques, such as “Avoid infodumps.” Anders went on to explain each one, discussing why this might be a convention (or a rule) and providing examples of authors who had done it well.

I’ve been editing a few fantasy novels lately, and have seen authors do all sorts of literary backflips to avoid a whiff of exposition or seeming to have an infodump. It can definitely be much easier and less jarring to a reader for the author to just give a few paragraphs of background and move on with the story.

The piece as a whole has me thinking about the rules of writing. My hardest and fastest rule about magic or any out-of-the-ordinary effects in novels are that an author can do anything he or she wants–build any sort of world, give her characters any sorts of powers–but those powers or effects should remain consistent throughout the book. Gabriel Garcia Marquez creates a bizarre, otherworldly place in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next, or whether something actually happened, or whether a character just perceived it that way. That said, the book has its own internal logic, or if not logic, then at least it’s joined together by a similar sensibility, so things that happen on page 200 seem to be part and parcel with what begins the novel in the first 20 pages.

I believe that once you set up your world and its rules, you should really stick with those rules, with one caveat. If the effect produced by breaking the rule is so valuable that it outweighs the disruption to and confusion of your readers, then go for it. For example–if there is a revelation halfway through the book and your character discovers something about himself or his world, and the rules change from there on out–great! That works for me.

I’ve always been a little baffled by Murakami, because his worlds (such as the one in Kafka on the Shore) seem to be deliberately without an internal logic. Things happen because they happen, and the reader is expected to go with it. He’s a writer with a lot of talent, but I’ve never been able to fall in love with his work because of that.

What are your rules for writing?

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