Creative Writing and Consistency: Embrace a Style that Breaks the “Rules”

personifying the rules of writing

personifying the rules of writing

Today’s topic is creative writing and the rules that come with being with an author. You know the rules I mean: we’ve all heard them. I’ll reference each one by one later on.

Don’t feel like you have to obey the rules. All you have to do is to know the rules. Once you do, you can break them if you want to, as long as you break them consistently.

Consistency is the key. I got the idea for this post after I wrote yesterday’s, because yesterday I talked about point of view and characterization. Specifically, I talked about how to characterize secondary characters when your point of view doesn’t allow you to “head hop.”

  • Don’t head hop. This is one of those rules people like to throw around for a reason. You shouldn’t head hop if you’re limiting yourself to a limited POV. When your narrator only follows one person, you’re stuck with that person. But your narrator doesn’t have to do that. Your narrator can be omniscient and jump from host to host like your dog’s fleas do, even in the middle of a scene. If you head hop consistently, and with a plan and purpose, it becomes part of your style. Readers expect and accept it. It’s not an “error” or “bad writing” in that instance.
  • Don’t use contractions. Some writers say blanketly, “Don’t use contractions with a third person narrator.” But I do. (Horror of horrors!) Outside of dialogue I use contractions, and I’m okay with that. My beta readers were okay with that: one even told me he really liked my informal, approachable style. It fit the piece. Why? I used them consistently to achieve the flow I wanted in my narration.
  • Don’t use semicolons in dialogue. I used to obey this rule, and then I tossed it out the window. What’s your other option, a comma splice? You can use those in dialogue. But sometimes my characters need a pause between two connected ideas that’s shorter than a comma indicates, but not quite period length.
  • Don’t use fragments. Can you overuse fragments? Yes. Should you always know when you have introduced a fragment into your writing? Yes. Can you use fragments from time to time, rarely but regularly, to punch a point home, draw attention, and make effective use of the idea that “less is often more”? By Ernest Hemingway, yes, yes you can.
  • Don’t write in the passive voice. See “fragments” above.  Rewording a sentence to make it active can also make it wordy, clunky, and jarring. In these instances–of which you will have a few–you do better to consistently choose the passive voice. This is a point I really drive home in the chapters on style in “Writing for You.”
  • Don’t write one sentence paragraphs. For me, this is another rule to take with a grain of salt. First of all, depending on your style, one sentence can take up 8 or 10 lines. There is nothing wrong with an  8 or 10 line paragraph. Secondly, one sentence paragraphs can be a consistent way to emphasize a point and increase tension, as long as you don’t have one every other page. And even if you do–maybe you write horror, or action-adventure, genres that need a lot of tension–it becomes part of your style, and chances are that if you go that often to that device, you can make that device work for you.

So, those are my thoughts on consistency and writing. If you know what you’re doing, you’re purposely crafting a specific effect, and you develop your style through employing the same devices consistently without overdoing them, disregard the rules.

They’re more like guidelines, anyway. *Captain Barbossa nods in approval behind my shoulder.*

Do you break any of the rules I mention above? Do you abide by one of them religiously? Why?

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60 responses to “Creative Writing and Consistency: Embrace a Style that Breaks the “Rules”

  1. Jorge Luis Oyola

    Nice ideas…read my post if u ever have a chance….

  2. I’m sure I break a few of those without realizing it.

    • I think we all do!!! Even through multiple editing passes. The good thing is, I think, if it’s not something ungrammatical and it flows well so we don’t notice, one example or two isn’t a bad thing.

  3. Great post. These are common faux-pas but, as you say, there’s a time and place for all of them. We all need to be wary of fragments, adverbs and the passive voice in our writing. While none of these are inherently wrong, misusing or overusing any will mark you as an amateur. Every word, device or piece of punctuation should serve a purpose. If it’s appropriate to the style you’re writing in and you can justify it’s inclusion, then you’re all good. Breaking rules for the sake of it can be problematic.

  4. Great article! I’m sensing a trend in well done topics. Thanks.

  5. I agree completely, with one caution (which I’ll get to). Definitely know the rules, know WHY they’re rules, and then if breaking them serves some purpose for you, by all means do it! Language is alive and fun, and the magic comes in when we use our skill to manipulate it to create the best effect. I use semicolons in dialogue; I use them when I speak, why wouldn’t my characters? I use sentence fragments in dialogue when they make sense for a character, or in narration if it suits the perspective. I hate unintentionally repetitive sentence structure/word use, but I’ll use those, too, if they help drive home a point. Might even open with that, if it’s effective. 🙂

    The caution I would add is this: to thine own story be true, but be aware that you might lose readers over it. Seems like a reasonable price to pay, for me; I know my style doesn’t and won’t suit everyone. Some readers won’t get past the rules we break. For example, I as a reader have a lot of trouble with head-hopping unless it’s done seamlessly and almost invisibly, which is rare. A story has to really pull me in for me to stick with it long enough to adjust. (I have other examples, but I don’t want to leave an essay here in your comments… 😛 ) Other people might feel the same way about passive voice (I’m fine with it when it’s used for effect, but when it’s used all of the time, I find it incredibly boring), or any other broken rules, especially when they’re huge parts of our style.

    So I say break the rules if it works for you, but have a good reason for doing so, and know whether it’s worth having readers pick at you over it, or even pass on your story. I agree with toconnell88 that letting these things slip in without purpose can make a writer look like an amateur, but when it’s done properly and purposefully, there’s no rule we can’t break. The English language is our sandbox! If I want to decorate my castle with rocks and feathers, or even garbage, I’ll do it. 🙂

    • beautifully, beatifully said, Kate. Thanks, especially for the reminder that no matter how you write, not everyone is going to enjoy and appreciate your style. And that’s all right. That’s part of the game.

      Being true to the story is so, so important. And I love how you specify knowing WHY the rules are rules. I’ve always considered that part of knowing the rules, but it’s something different and should be said explicitly. I hadn’t done that. 🙂

    • Got to agree with Kate on this. Too many beginning writers “break rules” because they are unaware rules even exist and it hurts their writing. After you understand a rule, you can make an informed decision on whether or not to discard it.

      Victoria, I wish you had included examples for each of your bullet points. I’m having a hard time imagining a character ever speaking a line of dialogue with a semi colon in it. I can’t help but believe this is very unnatural and I imagine, as I reader, I would find it very jarring.

      • That’s a good point, Karen, about the examples. I should have thought of that! Here’s an example of one in dialogue.

        “I don’t know, Kate. I guess we could go to the movie later. We’ve nothing else to do; I’d just be going home and watching tv.”

        Not the best example, for sure, and you could use an ellipsis there. But I feel that the semicolon indicates a shorter pause than the periods and breaks up the monotony of the style.

        If I remember right, that’s something I picked up from Jane Austen. I think she uses TONS of semicolons, including in dialogue.

  6. Because when I started writing my novel, I never intended to get it published, I just did what I liked.

    I think that gave me a lot of freedom to do what felt right. Some things have had to be changed, (a lot of things, really,) but there are things in my novel that contradict those rules and others.

    Sometimes there are very good reasons for breaking those rules.

    • There definitely are good reasons to break the rules. I could not agree more. And I love so much how you said you wrote your novel because you liked it, and you did what you liked.

      That’s amazing. I’ve always thought that’s the mark of a true artist.

  7. One sentence paragraphs? Yes. Absolutely, if you’re trying to control pacing.

    I never use semicolons in dialogue. Instead, if I want to indicate a pause in a character’s speech, I’ll use a short “blocking” sentence like, “Hannah lit her cigarette.” I feel that the intended pause is achieved and now your characters are doing things while they’re talking. Works for me, anyway.

    • that’s a great strategy too!!!! I use that from time to time to…. just not cigarettes, haha! There are no cigarettes in Herezoth 🙂 My characters shift their eyes. One in particular tugs her hair as a nervous habit, so that allows me not only to create a pause but show what her emotions are.

  8. We almost never use semicolons in dialogue…but we do use ellipses. After being a professional film/TV actor for over forty years, My study of characters showed me that virtually no one actually speaks continuously and rarely use complete sentences. To achieve that split-second pause, use an ellipses. We use them in screen/teleplays, so we carried the pattern over to novel writing. My experience as an actor gave me the habit of saying all the dialogue out loud after we write it to make sure it sounds right.
    Excerpt from our newest WIP, “Legend of Aurora”.
    “He’s a very good judge of what’s in a person’s heart…Bone, you and Loraine can ride as long as you like. I see you’re both wearing your police weapons.”
    “Yes, ma’am…never know when we might come across a snake…of one kind or another…We solved that case I told you about and my partner and I…well, kinda need a break. Hope you don’t mind?”

    A rule of thumb (meaning it is not carved in stone): A pause is two seconds; a beat is one second and an ellipses is a half second or less. ‘Nuff said.

    • I definitely turned to ellipses in dialogue when I stopped using semicolons. Sometimes, I think I use them too much. 🙂 Ellipses definitely are fantastic. Thanks for bringing them up!

      And how cool that you are an actor! That has to give you lots of insight into character to bring to your writing.

  9. I feel it gives me enormous insight to not only creating characters, but also hearing them talk. I also teach acting once a week and will jump all over one of my students when they ‘recite’ the dialogue. I always tell them, “You, the actor will know all the dialogue…or better. The character does not. You must allow the character the opportunity to ‘create’ the dialogue as it happens. It’s called creating the illusion of the first time. The character should never decide the outcome of a scene before they do it…hasn’t happened yet.
    If someone recites, there are no gaps or pauses…unless the writer puts them there with ellipses, ‘beat’ or Pause. However, as the character, I always put hesitations, hitches and beats in anyway. My favorite example of an ellipses that I use of someone changing the meter of their speech is Paul Harvey: “And now you know…the rest of the story.”

  10. I am a huge rule-breaker and proud of it! It allows me to explore and open up my story before the editing begins.

    • Yea!!! Exploration and a no-holds-barred take to creativity is so important in writing a first draft. you can always edit and change things that end up not working out. I’ve always thought that…. Glad you feel the seame way, J.G.!

  11. I agree with your views on all of these. It’s good for an author to step back every once in awhile and realize that readers have a good deal more tolerance for “mistakes” than writers do. As long as the writer isn’t sloppy, I think they’re free to break many of these rules.

  12. I love using contractions. It feels more informal–more like the character is a friend relaying a story and I like that.
    Fragments and one sentence paragraphs can be so effective when used correctly and intentionally.
    It’s great to hear that it’s okay to break the rules sometimes. 🙂

    • It definitely is okay to break them! I”m so glad you feel the same way I do about contractions and one sentence paragraphs, Kaela!!! It’s always nice to find support that way. 🙂

  13. I like to use fragments. I think depending on your style and the way you are telling the story, they can be really effective devices. I don’t think everything necessarily has to be written in full sentences.

    I’m not a fan of the one-sentence-paragraph, though. I usually get lost in all the commas and semi-colons and have to reread, which is not a fun. 🙂

    Great article as usual, Victoria. Glad I signed on to your bolg.

    • thanks Dyane! I don’t generally use one sentence paragraphs either. Mine are always short short short when I do, because my style tends to be pretty simple in nature. Fragments though, can be amazingly useful. Amazingly.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! It’s always nice when someone backs you up.

  14. Reblogged this on Dropped Pebbles and commented:
    I reblogged this article because I think there is a lot of truth here. I think to write well, you have to know what the ‘rules’ are. But once that’s integrated, I think each writer needs to develop their own style and their own Voice. That comes, I think, by using the rules (or breaking them) in a way that fits with who we are and what it is we want to say. I hope you all enjoy this article.

  15. Pingback: Creative Writing and Consistency: Embrace a Style that Breaks the “Rules” | Tales From The Fifth Tower

  16. In High School English I was taught that two sentences make a paragraph. Never heard of a one sentence paragraph but I suppose if a sentence is really long, and an intentional run-on sentence for emphasis, I guess then it is possible. Thanks for the article and now I have to save up for your book!

    • Authors use one sentence paragraphs all the time…. even short ones. It really carries a punch, but it can definitely be used too much, which ruins the effect. Best used in moderation.

      I hope you’ll find “Writing for You” a worthy read! I’m having fun putting it together and am really excited about it.

      • Rules, rules, rules. Gag, Puke. It’s all about telling the story. Yes, we use one sentence…one line paragraphs when necessary for the flow of the story. Couple of examples:
        The muscular dog lifted his right paw. Loraine knelt down, took it and ruffled his ears as he smiled for her.
        “Well, aren’t you something?”
        Tyrin jumped up, spun around, sat back down and kissed her hand.

        “Two-Eyed Tippy. Grand daughter of Two-Eyed Jack, the leading sire of World Champions in all of quarter-horsedom.”
        “I’m impressed.”
        “Just stay out of her mouth or you will be impressed…She’ll put your butt in the dirt.”
        Loraine’s eyes widened at that thought.
        Bone came around to her side, opened the front saddle compartment and pulled out a cutting saddle and blanket. He placed the thick saddle blanket with the front edge over the mare’s withers, flipped the saddle on top and lifted a bubble in the pad up into the gullet.

        Just tell the damn story.

        • I do ask that my community maintain a respectful and cordial tone on my blog. I want this to be a place where everyone feels comfortable sharing their concerns and problems where writing is concerned without fear of being shot down by anyone else.

          “Rules” when writing are always more like guidelines, and they can certainly be broken. Authors should know what is standard, so that when they veer from that unofficial standard, they do it in a way that they tell their story in a more effective and more engaging way.

          My blog has many followers who are beginning writers, and sometimes beginning writers need assurance that breaking all the rules they’ve learned is okay. That was the point of this post. I’m sorry this discussion didn’t fit your opinions.

  17. I’ve broken all of those rules. I think authors sometimes box themselves in because they don’t want to go the omniscient route. But you’ll find head hopping in the Discworld books.

  18. I break most of these! I use sentence fragments far too often (trying to work on that, to reduce them though, not eliminate them), use one sentence paragraphs for emphasis (particularly at the end of a chapter, and write in passive voice when it is the clearest way to get the information across. I don’t head hop, but I agree that if you are doing it deliberately, in omniscient POV, then it’s fine.

    Interesting about the contractions. I tended not to use them, but my editor suggested I should, so I’m working on changing that style. Not using them sounds so formal, and while that might work for some books, I don’t think it does for others.

    • I love everything you say here. You point out that the rules are all about balance. You talk about breaking them for a purpose. (I use one sentence paragraphs at the end of chapters too.) And you are so right…. whether or not to use contractions in narration can have a lot to with the tone you want to use and the subject matter of your book. More formal indicates fewer or no contractions. 🙂

      Appreciate your thoughts. You break it down so clearly!

  19. This post is informative. I’m working on an eBook, which will be my first publication. Thank you for the information.

    I’d love your feedback on some of my character dialogue.

  20. Oh, this is a wonderful post! And a nerve-calming one, too. I write the way I think it works within my story, but I often worry about forms and rules. For instance, I head-hop a lot in the novel I’m working on (my narrator usually is in two different heads per chapter) and I’ve always been insecure about that, but damn, I like it that way 🙂
    By the way, this is the best creative writing blog I’ve ever had the pleasure to read!
    Rock on 🙂

    • I’m so glad you like the blog! 🙂 Aw, that made my day!

      You have to write what you like, I say, for sure. Headhopping once a chapter is fine. You can transition into it so it’s disruptive or confusing, and if you do it regularly, for sure your readers will come to expect it.

      If you do it that often then that trick works for you. I would try not to worry about it if I wrote that way 🙂

  21. Can I tell you how much I love you? Thank you for validating my instincts!

  22. Pingback: Creative Writing Reflection: Suspense Gimmicks to Avoid | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  23. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links | No Wasted Ink

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