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I came across several disciplines of writing which one must know while writing (especially beginners), concerning narrative conventions and the rules of story logic.

Some of the sources for this include On Writing, some internet articles and precious advice from Writers SE answers. I noticed that these focus on giving advice to beginners. Answers explained the exceptions (made by the expert writers) of what they had really asked and at the same time advised that they should go with the traditional rules only. Some include:

  • The "Rules" of writing

    experienced writers will respond by saying "there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing", or "rules are made to be broken"

  • When is it okay to tell?

    If you look at the great authors, they break the rules all the time

Why does one really need rules of logic and narrative convention? If there is a discipline that is often broken by the experts themselves, then why should a beginner follow it?

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Welcome to the site, Alpha. Can you be a little more specific? For example, are you talking here about grammatical rules, narrative conventions, or rules of story logic? –  Neil Fein Aug 13 at 15:04
Here I am specifically searching for the 'narrative conventions' and 'rules of story logic' –  Alpha Aug 13 at 15:54
Thanks, Alpha; I've updated your question to reflect this. –  Neil Fein Aug 13 at 17:05
The bottom line is like this: you, a writer, can do anything you like. The question isn't whether you're allowed, but whether it's worth it. Every narrative 'rule' comes with pros and cons. As a beginner, you don't yet have the experience to weigh these pros and cons against each other. You don't yet know how to assess your own strengths and weaknesses. The only way to gain these skills is time and experience. There are no shortcuts. –  lea Aug 13 at 19:53

7 Answers 7

up vote 6 down vote accepted

When to break the rules? When you know what you're doing.

Breaking the rules "the good way" always serves some purpose. It's never done "just because". Writing is all about eliciting certain moods and feelings in the reader, and the rules prevent jarring, unpleasant surprises, breaking of immersion, and countless other errors that simply take away from the experience.

But sometimes you want to shake the reader out of the comfort zone. Sometimes you want to convey some message on subliminal level without ever alliterating it in the text. Sometimes you want to surprise the reader. If a rule stands in your way to do so, break it.

For example, there's the rule about giving good, detailed descriptions of locations when they are new scenes of the story. You're writing in first person perspective. Your protagonist steps out onto balcony overlooking the street, to take the city in. You should follow the rule to the dot. Dynamics, sounds, colors, people and their clothes, smell, lighting, little scenes of slice of life playing out down in the streets. The scene serves presenting the city and the protagonist takes time to observe it. Your description is equivalent of a detailed oil painting of the scene.

Now, your protagonist is wounded, exhausted, possibly concussed, and on the run, escaping onto a balcony. It would be entirely silly to describe it in such deep detail. Yes, there's assault of color, people milling many floors below, maybe downpour - but the protagonist is definitely in no condition to pay attention to details. Your description will be skeletal, a stick figure sketch. It would be completely unacceptable in general storytelling contexts, but here you break the rule to emphasize the urgency, the bad condition of the protagonist, and how the scene below simply doesn't matter right now.

Now a beginner will likely present such a stick figure sketch regardless of context; they want to go on with the story and just lack patience to write out what is so vivid and obvious in their imagination they deem it doesn't require detailed description. As result, the world lacks depth, the reader grasps for detail trying to imagine the scene, often misguided into believing it to be something entirely different. It's a beginner's error resulting from negligent violation of the rule resulting from laziness or ignorance. As opposed to the above - purposeful violation of the rule for specific effect.

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Thank You very much. This is perfect explanation. –  Alpha Aug 15 at 6:33

This is what I learned the hard way.

The rules are there to support you in getting from A to B and do a decent job regardless of skill level. Following a set of tried and trusted rules allows you as the author room to concentrate on the aspects of a story that you find interesting. Following rules is like a less restrictive form of re-telling an established story, re-tellings give even more support as you already know who the characters are and the events that happen in the story. Sometimes this is a big help if the story itself is weird, obscure or unhelpful, for example I recently completed a project to retell the story of Taliesin and was surprised how much challenge was left despite having full knowledge of the shape of the story's events. Retelling Snow White may not give you so much latitude (although lord knows Hollywood's had a good old go at it over and over recently).

People moan constantly about formula plots, tired characters and obvious plot points. What this tells you is that even writing a story that follows the rules is hard. Hollywood films almost exclusively follow formula and genre approaches but rarely do we get a Star Wars, a Back to the Future, a Matrix or an Iron Man out of the sausage factory. Stories that deliberately flout the rules or work hard against them tend to take a long while to find an audience, if they do at all.

Like a lot of writers I started out by tearing up a rulebook I'd never actually read, just heard tell of as some sort of strait-jacket for creativity. This hypothetical rule book isn't any such thing. Don't get me wrong there are strait jackets for creativity, for example feeling you should, as a writer, be trying to produce a clone of the current genre-fic flavour du jour to please an audience perceived to be highly intolerant of any thing that isn't a melodrama crammed to the gills with soap operatic vampires. These scenarios are creatively restrictive and artistically questionable. Writers rules are no such thing, they are, rather, a bank of accumulated wisdom intended to add a smoothness to your working process until a time where you instinctively know all the rules and so departing from them always fulfils a specific artistic agenda of which you, the artist, are fully in control.

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You answered my question in very friendly manner. I really appreciate that. Thank You. –  Alpha Aug 15 at 6:34
+1 for several excellent examples of good formulaic movies. –  lea Aug 18 at 6:01

The rules are there to give a pretty good outline of what is good writing and what is bad writing. Breaking a "rule" typically requires doing something else to accommodate it, and this web of complexity typically requires an experienced writer who knows these connections.

For example, one rule you might hear would be to stay away from cliches. But there are things you can do to use cliches well, like turning it into a cliche storm, or injecting self-referencing humor that pokes fun at the cliches you are using, or making it a homage into the original cliches.

Another rule might be to never start a sentence with "and", but when you're trying to invoke a certain feeling in the reader, you may find short, staccato sentences have the best rhythm for representing a heated moment, and in those cases it's perfectly acceptable to start sentences with and, rather than appending to the previous statement.

Typically, you'll follow most of the rules, and just find a few to break to make the story yours.

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This is a very difficult topic. But this is something that I've noticed over the years: when a beginner breaks a rule you feel like he has broken a rule, when an expert breaks a rule you feel like he wanted to break that rule.

The best example I can come up with is the movie Adaptation.

In the movie, the protagonist (Charlie Kaufman) says:

Okay. But, I'm saying, it's like, I don't want to cram in sex or guns or car chases, you know... or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end, you know. I mean... The book isn't like that, and life isn't like that. You know, it just isn't. And... I feel very strongly about this.

But then the movie includes every single of those elements!

But it's made in such elegant and "self-aware" way that you know the screenwriters was intentionally doing it. Breaking his own rule.

So that's how following the rules and breaking them can coexist with each other. By making it apparent that you are breaking them, and not just becoming a victim of them.

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"Adaptation" is a great film, and an excellent example of breaking the conventions of narrative logic. –  Neil Fein Aug 13 at 17:06
Thanks for providing me an example. It'd surely help me. –  Alpha Aug 15 at 6:34

(a) Short answer: There are no rules. Read and write a lot to build your intuitive understanding of narration.

(b) Long answer:

To understand the rules of writing, let us look at language.

People learn and speak their mother tongue without ever consulting a grammar or dictionary. In fact, language existed before any grammar was ever written.

Now how did the first grammar come into existence? Did God give the First Linguist a sacred tablet with stone carved grammatical rules, warning that you will go to hell if you break them? No. Linguists observed the verbal behavior of people and tried to the best of their ability to deduce the underlying rules that they suspected must govern a language.

The important words here are: "tried", "deduce" and "suspected". It is really, really important to note that not all linguists believe that there actually is such a thing as "grammar". It is equally important that those linguists that believe in grammar or find the concept of grammar helpful in analysing human verbal behavior do not agree on how this grammar works. The first grammars were created for Classical Latin and Ancient Greek, and the grammatical systems derived from those languages where then imposed on other languages that have little or no relation to Latin or Greek. Recently linguists have proposed grammatical systems that have a fundamentally different structure from Latin grammar (with its cases, declensions and so on). For example, is one linguist, Ulrich Engel, who claims that German does not have a tempus system (past, present and future)! What he means with this need not concern us here, but it serves to show that grammar is a model for how people think that language might work, and that there are several competing models. All, we should note, for the same observed linguistic behavior.

So what role does grammar play in the actual production of language by its speakers? The answer is: none. People who speak English or any other language do not know grammar. They do not understand what they do, and attempting to understand it does not make them better speakers. In fact I have found that completely ignoring grammar and vocabulary when you want to learn a language helps you to learn it better! I tried to learn Latin by learning Latin grammar and lists of Latin words with their German translations, but I never learned Latin. On the other hand, I stopped learning English grammar when I was 14 years old and instead started reading English novels, listening to English songs, and watching English tv. What you read here today is the result of that immersion. English is my second language, I have absolutely no idea of English grammar, but I still speak and write it reasonably well.

Now what does this have to do with the so called "rules of (literary) writing"? I'm sure you already know: The rules of writing are not God given, but were deduced from written texts in an attempt to identify the underlying "narrative grammar". This attempt was lead by the modernistic belief that there actually is such a set of rules governing writing. Post-modern theory, fluent since about the middle of the 20th century, on the other hand believes that such rules do not exist. Neither in narration nor in grammar.

Of course texts are not random and it is not true that "everything goes". There are unreadable texts, there are annoyingly bad texts. But still, what makes good, readable, fun texts, is not the result of following a set of rules.

But why? To understand this, let us look at how you learn to draw.

There are many books and courses that attempt to teach to anatomically correct figure drawing by teaching you about proportions and how the human body can be simplified to geometrical forms such as balls, tubes or angular blocks. Students are supposed to learn that the body is 8 heads high and then construct the body by following certain rules of construction. The result of such attempts is invariably boring and stiff. The figures look correct, yet lifeless, like puppets.

Now there is another way to learn to draw. This involves the student drawing, without any rules, what he sees. Over and over and over again, for many thousands of hours. His first drawings will be abominable, and many will be discouraged and either give up drawing or switch to the other system, which gives quicker results. But for those that stick to this method, there will come a moment, when things suddenly "click". Almost from one day to the next their drawing look lifelike and true-to-life.

The same goes for speaking a language. Children (or adult learners) try to repeat what they hear, and they make many mistakes. But suddenly something "clicks" for them and they stop making those mistakes.

Writing is the same.

You can try to learn writing by following the rules (the grammar, the proportions), but what you write will be lifeless and stiff.

Or you can simply read and write, read and write, read and write, over and over and over again, until things suddenly "click" and your texts start to be literature.

It is said that experts need to train 10.000 hours. This is independent of the discipline. There is no shortcut.

Of course, sometimes a gammar book, proportion sheet or creative writing course can give you a feedback on your speaking, drawing or writing that helps you see in which direction you might want to practice. But beyond that, they are not necessary and largely a distraction.

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Thank You very much. This was probably a brief report to my question. However, don't get me wrong I am just suggesting, It have much better if you'd tried to explain all that in fewer words. But still Thank You. –  Alpha Aug 15 at 6:39

I don't think this is in any way specific to writing. For example in physics, there are many wannabe-Einsteins who think that if you just claim the previous physicists were wrong and dream up your own theory, you can revolutionize physics. The result are crackpot theories, because unlike Einstein, those people didn't really know the physical theories which they tried to replace, nor did they have a clear idea of where those theories have their shortcomings, and where the new theory has to reproduce the old theories instead of completely replacing them.

Similarly, modern music has violated many principles which have been considered essential before. Yet you'll make no good music by just putting one note after the other while completely ignoring all the rules.

Maybe a good metaphor is a swamp, where some safe ways have been marked. If you just go astray in the swamp, you're likely to sink in and die. Slavishly following the known safe ways will make you survive, but restricts yourself to the same ways lots of others have gone before. But initially, it is certainly a good idea to keep on the same ways, but at the same time observe the swamp, figuring out why those ways are safe, observing others who leave the way and yet cross the swamp without problems, and learn also from those who left the way and didn't succeed. Over time, you'll learn to understand the swamp, to recognize how to determine safe ways even if they are not marked, and how to pass less safe ways without sinking in the swamp. Eventually you'll be experienced enough that you don't care any more about the marked ways, because you know quite well how to survive in the swamp without them. But if you had not cared about those marked ways in the very beginning, you'd at least have had a much harder time learning how to safely cross the swamp on your own, if you ever managed it at all.

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We teach children not to cross the street on a red light. If they follow this principle, and wait for the green light, they will cross the road safely every time (assuming the drivers keep their end of the deal).

As you grow older, your senses develop, and you can tell when it is safe to cross the road, even when the lights are red.

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