A Writers Exploration: The Rules are the Rules are for Breaking

The concept of rules in writing has circulated in my head this past semester, some thoughts seeing the light of day on a previous blog post. My obsessive nature makes me want to be a purist, following all regulations on grammar and sentence structure to the extreme. But the proverbial devil on my left shoulder, who’s persuasion over me has been quite successful in recent months, has helped me deviate quite effectively. Taking risks in my writing has become my normal, sometimes it works well, leading a short on its way to publishing soon, and other times it falls flat on the iced-over concrete resulting in a few bruised ribs and a shattered ego. But that’s okay; “live and learn,” as someone once said before it was repeated a billion times.

I recently read a few stories written outside of the mainstream when it comes to point-of-view and tense that jarred my attention. These stories felt odd, foreign beyond earthly limits, stimulating my imagination as I prepare to work on my current pieces.

The first story was written in second person in the present tense. Yes, you read that correctly. How often do you find yourself reading about yourself placed in a life that you never lived? Fiction is traditionally written in either first or third person, generally dependent on the author’s preference and intent, but second is a whole other world. Check out the following published story, “Sacrifice,” written by Jenn Powers, a peer in my MFA program. Whether or not it was intended, the story plays off the double portrait concept, in which the author paints a portrait of another person who is connected by some type of relationship and thereby creates a self-portrait through responses and interactions. I highly recommend reading the brilliant essayist Philip Lopate to learn more on this subject. Moving back to the story, the reader assumes the role of the protagonist’s ailing and embittered grandmother, grieving the loss of her long-time husband. It is a tragic story conveying a lot of emotion. As I read, I learned about the protagonist’s strong bond with her grandmother and the endearing sadness caused by the current situation. I got to know the protagonist as a result.

A second story that transported me into in another part of the animal kingdom was Tim Weed’s “Snarl.” Tim is a writing mentor in the Western Connecticut State University Writing MFA program. It’s written in the first-person present tense with an additional twist – from the perspective of a hyena. The story moves in real time as it is read, time lapses represented by extra line breaks. Humans are seen as strange and foreign creatures called “skin-monkeys” with their “fire machines” and “false suns.” Essentially, Tim has created a sci-fi story resembling the enslavement of humans by an alien race; only the humans are the aliens here. I fell into this story in the first few paragraphs; the vivid sensory elements placed me in the head of a hyena with his mate on the run from a fenced-in enclosure, presumably a zoo – a sort of Bonnie and Clyde scenario only ore visceral than bank robberies.

The rules exist to provide structure and guidance as we develop ourselves as creative beings regardless of our chosen discipline. Traditional methods, such as writing in past tense and third person exist to provide stability and a level of comfort while exploring the craft. When you have mastered the craft, you must master undoing all of those rules and traditions to find your voice, to let your nature shine through your art. In other words, break the rules when you know how to do it well and with intent. Show no fear.


2 thoughts on “A Writers Exploration: The Rules are the Rules are for Breaking

  1. Excellent points, Dave. Thanks for the review!All too often in workshops and critiques we hear something to the effect of, "you can't do that!" This is especially true with POV, which is admittedly a complex and delicate aspect of the craft. But the only real rules are, whatever works for the story, and whatever you can make fly with the reader.


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