Friday, February 15, 2013

Breaking the Rules: When to Add, When to Take Away

"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
-W. Somerset Maugham
English dramatist & novelist (1874 - 1965)
A recent discussion about "historical discrepancies" in historical novels started me thinking how how far over the "line" some authors go, and how some never cross it, or even flirt with it. Are these "discrepancies" done by choice, or on purpose? Did the author have a reason for omitting the details--perhaps because they contributed nothing to the story? Do authors not know about period behavior or do they take artistic license for the betterment of the story?

For example, some of the ladies in my books don't always behave as nineteenth-century ladies would have behaved. They don't follow all the rules all of the time, but that's all right because people don't follow all the rules all of the time. If they did, we'd become bored with them. Everyone would be the same, which means our characters would all be the same. So I asked myself, "how do we know what to add, what to take away, and when to break the rules?"

To be completely honest, as I was having this discussion, I mentally scrolled through a list of my favorite historical romance authors (most of them have been writing for decades), and surprisingly, I couldn't think of one who didn't "break the rules" at some point, or with every book. What made these authors my favorites? Is it because their characters did everything they were supposed to do? No. It's because "breaking the rules" allowed the characters to be likeable, unique, and to perform actions that had nothing to do with rules. 

I came across an article written by Anne Marble, where she says "After you've read a lot of writing articles, you'll notice one thing. There are a lot of rules out there. Many of these rules are absolutes. Yet when you're writing a novel, absolute rules don't always apply. The trick is deciding when to follow a rule, when to bend it, and when to run screaming from it." You may read the full article here

Does accuracy matter? Yes, especially if you're writing about a real historical event or personDoes research matter? Yes. Does realism matter? I believe it does. Should that stop a writer from stepping "outside the box?"

When it comes down to the final choice, what's most important is the story. Though some may not agree with this, I firmly believe that the story, and the characters, are what matter. If you wrote a book following every single "writing rule," you'd end up with a jumbled mess, lacking personality and individuality. 

Should you break the rules? That depends entirely on what rules you're following. It's not always easy to make the call, but that's one of the jobs of a writer--making the choice, but don't be afraid to ask for advice if you're not sure. In the end, not everyone will agree with you, but if you were true to the story and your characters, then chances are you made the right call.

Do you write following all of the "rules"? Do you read a book and notice, or care about, every possible rule and whether or not it's been followed? 


  1. MK, I enjoyed this post. As you and I discussed, the author must decide what rules to follow and what rules to bend. Each of us tries our very best to write an article readers will love. Certainly, your characters are memorable. I love to let your books carry me away on a new adventure.

  2. I enjoy when conversation sparks ideas, and yours sparked some great ones! :)