Following the Rules

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

I’m currently reading P.D. James’ first Adam Dalgliesh novel. I’m a British mystery/crime aficionado and have been trying to mend the gaping holes in my familiarity with key authors. Earlier I read James’ Austen tie-in novel, Death Comes to Pemberley— loved it. Next I Β read one of her Cordelia Gray novels because I especially enjoy amateur female detectives. but then I realized I won’t know P.D. James until I dip into Adam Dalgliesh. So I’m currently reading her first,Β Cover Her Face.

I’ve had to chuckle as I noticed so many broken fiction “rules” as I’m reading. Here are a few:

Point of view— We talk about avoiding “head-hopping” by staying in one viewpoint until an obvious break when it is made very clear we are seeing the story from another character’s viewpoint. It’s a great rule and calls for real strategy in being able to introduce information important to the plot.books
Baroness James flagrantly ignores this rule. From paragraph to paragraph we are in different heads. In the same paragraph she has several characters notice things about other characters. In another scene, she moves around the room giving each person’s thoughts in quotes like this: Deborah thought, “I ought to dislike her less now that she’s dead. . ..” Next paragraph begins the same way: Felix Hearne thought, “They can’t be much longer. The thing is. . ..” She goes on until she has let us see each person’s thoughts.

Use of adverbs— the author thinks nothing of adding an adverb to a dialogue tag. He spoke reluctantly. She said shortly.

Elaborate setting descriptions— These days we’re told to avoid spending pages on descriptions of rooms, gardens, towns, unless they are key to the book. We’re told that readers want a quick read and James Michener-esque descriptions will no longer work. P.D. James doesn’t have us enter a cottage or a stable without sketching every detail and every corner for us.

So, does that mean our novelists of today are that much better writers? Or, as many a newish writer will claim, does it mean you are a far better than P. D. James or any of the others who don’t follow the strictures of 21st century fiction writing?

No. Despite noticing these quirky techniques– because I can’t help reading with a critical eye– I’m thoroughly enjoying this book. For the genre, it’s a satisfying read. I’m more than two thirds into the book and I have no idea whodunnit. She’s built the characters with skill and I can see the foibles and strengths of each one. I can sense murder motivation for a number of them. For a mystery fan, it’s exactly what we expect. Plus she’s drawn the village, the manor house, the stables and the town with such skill that we see character clues in each garden, sitting room, tea service and chapel. Those of us who read British mystery expect to be charmed by the setting.

So does that mean that modern-day novelists can break the rules as well? Yes and no.

No, because Cover Her Face was written in 1962– more than a half century ago. Styles change and modern readers do have an expection of a quicker read. Omniscient viewpoint is definitely out of style. We expect a stronger word choice and that rarely includes adverbs. (Remember, if you have to use an adverb chances are you’ve just chosen the wrong verb.)

But yes. You can break the rules if you know what you are doing and have the skill to carry it off. Writers serve the story. If the story can best be told by bending or breaking the rules– go for it. Only the reader will know if you’ve succeeded. The risk is that the first reader to judge whether you pulled it off or not might be the agent or editor reading your submission.

I’m not finished with the book yet but I have to say it’s a delightful read, despite my eye catching the now-quirky techniques. They actually add to the charm of the book.

So what about you? Have you tried to break rules judiciously? Can you name other authors or books that break our sacred rules? Do they do it effectively? Does it bother you when someone criticizes a successful classic author or Β bestselling author based on current tastes?


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  1. This sort of reminds me Richard Hughes’ “The Shock of the New”, about the development of modern art from Impressionism to the late 20th century.

    The “style of style” (i.e., omniscient POV going out of style)says less about the writing craft than it does about how we as readers, writers, and indeed a society view ourselves.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with the omniscient POV, with the use of adverbs, or with elaborate descriptions.

    * You can’t effectively describe a complex and fast-moving event without resorting to multiple POVs. It’s like the blind men and the elephant.

    * I’ll disagree that use of an adverb signals the use of the wrong verb. You can either say that a person draws out an answer, giving up words like teeth being pulled, or say he said it reluctantly. Which do YOU prefer? Reluctantly IS a legitimate word.

    * Good descriptive writing isn’t in favor because it’s hard to do. I’m terrible at it, and use crutches to avoid the issue, but that doesn’t absolve me of the need to try to improve that aspect of my profession.

    Point being, we’ve changed in tastes because of an idea that we live in a world of Tweets and Chats and Sound Bites and Scrawl Crawls moving across the bottom of the TV screen. We think that this has really changed a fundamental aspect of how we process creativity, and it’s simply not true.

    If we think we need it fast and now, it may be that we’ve just gotten used to not having to take time to understand something complicated. It’s not a fundamental thing. It’s just an adaptation.

    It’s a matter of preferred self-image, level of customary interpretive effort, and even reaction to authority – our parents were patient with lush writing, and we want spare and efficient, darn it! Move aside, old fogies! We’re new, we;re young, we’re fast! (Which is what they thought about their parents…)

    Circling back to Richard Hughes, think about this – when you go to an art museum, are the crowds hanging out in front of the Rothkos and the Kahlos and the Pollacks, or do you have to wait until the Monet-human-wave parts to catch a glimpse of the Japanese Bridge at Giverny?

    What do you see as prints, reproduced in houses and offices?

    Classic is classic for a reason. It works.

    People will be reading P.D. James and Herman Wouk and Nicholas Monsarrat a hundred years from now, but I rather doubt that we’ll even remember the name of the dude who wrote “The Road” and “No Country For Old Men”.

    Even if he was interviewed on Letterman.

  2. Wendy, glad to see others notice when established–even famous–authors break the rules. I’m not sure at what point one can declare, “A pox on rules, here’s what I’ll write,” but I’m pretty sure I’m not there.
    I’ve noticed head-hopping, frequent use of adverbs on conversation tags, even blatant errors in research in novels by authors whose work I enjoy. I’d ask them how they did it, but most of them are dead. : )
    Thanks for the reminders.

  3. This was perfect timing for me. There is nothing wrong with adverb use, in my opinion. There is something wrong with over using anything. But that doesn’t mean we have to omit them altogether. Balance. My girls learn about adverbs every single year in school … for a reason, I’m assuming. And they don’t learn to avoid them. Why do we?

    And POV … in my middle grade novel … I have two main characters. They go through this journey together … conversing “sarcastically” and “lovingly” to each other as all people do. Ha! Is it okay to reveal each of their POVs as I go along … as long as I separate by paragraphs? Can’t two people think at the same time, when they are together? Divided by paragraphs, of course! πŸ™‚ And as long as we just specify who is doing the talking and thinking. We do in this in our household! Sometimes we take turns talking, and sometimes we don’t. πŸ™‚ (I have much to learn yet in this area.)

    The main thing is to make our writing clear to our reader. No confusion.

    I think guidelines are great. As long as we remember that balance with all things is great. I do have a hard time with someone telling me I can’t use this or that AT ALL … it’s sort of like telling me my kids can’t wear white shoes past Labor Day when it is 100 degrees outside in Texas. πŸ™‚

    • My girls’ grammar book says adverbs with “ly” are more vivid, but to be careful choosing the best descriptive one. Poor Adverbs. Adjectives get all the breaks. πŸ™‚

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Back and forth POV paragraphs are frowned on these days. And in middle grade– at least ten years ago– single POV was preferred if I remember correctly. I haven’t read as much middle grade of late.

  4. The authors of the classics wrote in a different time and a different market. I’m a huge Jane Austin fan, but if she wrote in today’s market, she (or Dickens or Hemmingway) would probably have collected rejections until she learned the modern rules. I’m not offended by this fact. It doesn’t diminish the value of their voices. They helped shape the literary culture of their time and their stories are still resonating today.
    On the other hand, I’ve seen modern authors find creative ways to break the rules. For instance, Susan May Warren’s You Don’t Know Me includes a prologue and an epilogue in a POV that is never included in the body of the story. I’m sure Warren would advise the aspiring authors she teaches against this technique. But, for this particular book, including this outside POV greatly increased the emotional tension of the story.
    I think it takes experience and skill to know which rules you can get away with breaking and how to craft a story modern readers will follow anyway. Breaking a rule for a good reason that honors the story can some times work.

    • I’m not sure they did write for a different audience. Austen’s in print today, not as an act of cultural largesse on the part of the publishers, but because a lot of people are buying her books – and reading them.

      They’re not being read because they’re Great, or because it’s cool to be seen carrying around a copy of “Pride and Prejudice”. They’re read because they’re good stories, expertly told, that allow the imagination both refuge and adventure.

      Austen and the like would collect rejections today because of a perception that people would not like their style. But the refutation is in the number of units sold, the film adaptations, and the enduring additions they’ve made to our culture through the years, and which they refresh with every passing generation of readers.

      I’d add Tolkien to this list, because there’s no way you can force twelve-year-old boys to read anything, and legions have worn their copies of POTR to floppy, page-dropping ruin, in my generation, and today.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      It also takes a certain level of confidence to knowingly break “the rules” but if it works. . .

      It’s risk and one that an author breaking in probably can’t afford to take because it would take an equally confident agent to present it to editors and a bold editor to present it to his team, etc. Sometimes an author has to earn the right to bend the rules. Or he has to write so brilliantly no one even thinks of rules.

  5. I tend to not be a rule-breaker. When it comes to writing, I try to follow the rules I’m aware of for the most part. I’m thinking that as an author becomes multi-published and has a strong following, it might be easier to get away with breaking the rules. As long as they don’t break reader expectations of said author.

    It’s important to consider the time a successful author wrote in before dismissing the book. As someone else mentioned, even if the writing style is different from today’s, they were successful for a reason. Even if the writing style is different, we can learn much from them.

    I loved your example of PD James’ writing. She broke lots of today’s rules, but she kept your attention and used other timeless methods to capture a reader’s imagination. That says a lot.

    Thanks for making me think this through, Wendy!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Right, Jeanne. And nothing is a bigger turn-off than someone who’s breaking the rules just to be a literary bad boy, so to speak. There’s something arrogant about breaking with tradition just to be different. If someone breaks the rules to accomplish a better telling of the story, we’ll hardly notice if they’ve done it well.

      • Wendy, that’s it exactly. Story is as much about voice as it is about plot. A meager plot can be infinitely enriched by an interesting character’s voice, but even the best plots will suffer if told poorly. Narrative is thought translated to the page. Omniscient POV muddies the waters stylistically. Being in all heads at the same time ruins the fun of surprise and greatly reduces the tension in a scene. Better to let one person guess what the others are thinking than to telegraph to the reader what’s going on through omniscient. However, in all cases, the story and it’s best telling are reason enough to depart from any rule.

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        Well said, Kathleen!

  6. Lori says:

    Does it bother you when someone criticizes a successful classic author or bestselling author based on current tastes? Yes it does! I wish today’s mystery authors would break the rules more. Today’s mysteries (few exceptions but that because rules were broken or the author was more inovated) are not as good as past authors. Some of today’s mystery authors (even other genre authors) seem to me to be cookie cutter authors. It’s usually the same old same old even if it is technically written well. I’m sorry, I want to be wowed. Today’s mystery authors and many other genre authors for the most part are not doing that.

    Sorry for the rant.

    • Jim Lupis says:

      I agree, Lori. I wonder how many great writers from the past even knew there were rules? It is hard to imagine Victor Hugo struggling with the decision to cut some adverbs. As some have already said, balance is important.

    • With what Jim said about Victor Hugo, I’m beginning to think that the ‘modern rules’ are the Emperor’s New Clothes.

      • Jim Lupis says:

        Speaking of Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew, I love his quote: “Every person’s life is a fairy tale written by the hand of God”.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Rant away. It’s an interesting discussion.

      I hear what you are saying but I’m not sure I agree with you totally. I’m a huge Dorothy L. Sayers fan but I think Anne Perry writes a mystery every bit as satisfying. My own client, Julianna Deering writes in the Sayers tradition and does a superb job of it. I really enjoyed the early Laurie R. King, like Beekeeper’s Apprentice and A Monstrous Regiment of Women.

  7. I’m not one to break the rules either. One reason is that I don’t want to do anything that might immediately lessen my chances of publication or mark me as an amateur. The second reason is that when I read books where the rules have been broken (excluding the classics and older books), it distracts me from my reading. I suppose if I weren’t a writer, it might not be such a distraction. πŸ™‚

    • Jennifer, I try to read with a less critical eye, but it’s near impossible. The point is not to criticize, but to better define my voice by improving my craft.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Jennifer, I think that is wise. An obvious breaking of the rules by a debut author would jump out at an agent or an editor. In a commercial novel it would hurt an author’s chances in a tight market.

  8. Jim Lupis says:

    Wendy, I’m curious. If I’m writing an historical novel set in 1933, do I use 1933 rules? Or 2014 rules? πŸ™‚

    • Lori says:

      If you want me to go out and buy it and then read it, I would prefer that you use 1933 rules.

    • I agree with Lori.

      Writing and spoken styles are intimately linked, and to try to get the ambiance of 1933 using the writing style of 2014 will inevitably spill over into characterization and description; the way we speak and write simply reflects the way we see and interpret, and they did it differently back then

      It was a different world. Be part of it, and tell us about it.

      (BTW, loved the HCA quote!)

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Hmmm. Interesting. I think you’d have to play with it a little. Write some of it in the fast-paced style of today and then rewrite it in the more languid style of the thirties. Have several knowledgable readers give an opinion.

      But much of it has to do with your own voice and where you fall. We are always looking for distinctive voices so you don’t want to mimic. Play around and see what develops.

      I do hate reading novels set in ancient or medieval times where, say, the women are assertive and as inventive as a 21st century woman or where children are allowed to rule the roost. It feels jarring historically.


  9. I didn’t realize how much I dislike omniscient point of view until it went out of style. Because so much of what I read is a deep point of view from one character at a time, when I read the occasional book that isn’t like that, it drives me crazy.

    As for my own writing, I don’t break a lot of rules. I just don’t feel I’m experienced enough to be a rule breaker. I might end a sentence with a preposition or two, but that’s as risky as it gets.

  10. One rule I break, at the cost of word count, is the use of contractions in dialogue. My MC’s first language is not English, so in order to separate his dialogue and voice from everyone else’s, I had to find a way to make him distinctive and removing the use of contractions in his speech was the perfect way.

    I did have someone suggest I write the MC’s dialogue “more authentic to the time period, more choppy, and less like he spoke English”, in the style of “Me not like white me, me brave, me kill you.”
    Umm, yeahhhh, about that? Goodbye career, credibility, and at least ALL of my friends and family members with really great tans, and shall we start with my dad?!

    When people are learning English, they do not immediately start with perfectly contracted words. My dad, who has been speaking English since he was in high school still drops contractions all the time. So, perfect solution, and completely viable, to a character who otherwise speaks perfect ‘Arizona in 1894’ English.
    Oh, and here’s a RULE for writing about a non-Westernized, desert dwelling culture prior to expanded contact: you cannot, CANNOT use words like, minute, second, hour, electric, shocking, angel, halo, divine, costume, button, zipper, elastic, spent, zero, sub-zero, negative, linen, silk, steel, glass, tide, wave, orbit, match, pocket watch, clock, lawyer, judge, court, state, ocean…get the idea?

    • What a wonderful way to differentiate your MC’s voice, Jennifer.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      My first book was set in restoration England, before the use of modern contractions. The first contractions were just coming into vogue like ’tis. by using this in dialogue I was able to set the tone without overdoing it.

      I think that’s what you are saying. It takes real skill to figure out how to suggest a speaker’s distinctive voice without falling into stereotypical vernacular. We hate reading dialogue with cliched dialect.

      And yes, I’m with you on reading modern words or inappropriate-to-the-culture terms in a historical novel. Pulls you right out of the story.

      • Yes, that’s most definitely what I’m saying. In most cases, dialect is fine. But imposing a stereotypical dialect on a people group who’ve struggled to be seen NOT as dialect spewing cartoons has been a case study in ‘careful’.

        The ONLY time a Native American should say “how” in fictional dialogue is if he or she is asking what happened.

        One book that mixes 21st century English with Middle Ages setting is Tamara Leigh’s Dreamspell, a great time travel/period piece. She does a perfect job of using, and showing why, a thousand years of language development can’t be combined without a few confusing and humorous encounters.

      • I’d love to see a post on the effective use of dialect.

        Some have suggested that it be introduced early in a character’s ‘life’ in the story, and is then gradually cut back to allow the character speak more conventionally, preventing it from becoming both distracting and irritating.

        Jennifer makes a really good point about using period-appropriate vocabulary. One also has to be careful about words that change meaning over time. The word ‘holocaust’ is a good example – before The Holocaust, it meant the process of making a burnt offering, but I doubt that the average reader would get past the WW2 reference.

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        Andrew, that’s an interesting idea. It would be more fun to do a round table discussion on dialect and how to do it, with everyone bringing in samples– both good and bad.

        I think the important thing in good fiction is that each character has a distinctive voice. We should ideally be able to tell who’s talking without tags.

  11. I read P.D. James in college…many years ago. My memories of that book are fuzzy, but I do remember being mesmerized by the uniqueness of the plot. Thanks for the memory jog, Wendy. I need to revisit a few authors.

    Your post reminds me of a summer job I had in college sorting and delivering mail for the local utility company. The first day, I received training, and then I was expected to carry on according to their usual methods. I quickly discovered several ways that the process could be made more efficient, but I didn’t say anything because that wasn’t my place. Had I accepted their offer of a permanent position, done the job well, earned their respect, and moved up in the ranks, I would have suggested those changes. Right now, in the writing world, I’m still sorting and delivering the mail from the basement. As I progress to the offices above ground, maybe I’ll suggest some new rules. πŸ™‚

  12. I can think of many books that did well in the context of the time they were written, and also resonate today.
    Laura Ingalls Wilder’s detailed descriptions of tools, tasks, and the natural world ignited my love of history when I first read them in the fourth grade.
    Anne Shirley’s delightful habit of waxing poetic for page after page gave voice to my own inner lyricist.

    Regarding POV preferences, I believe Jan Karon did a great job of painting with broad brush strokes, as well as exposing the inner workings of her characters through omnipotent POV.
    I’ve read numerous titles recently with deep first person POV. One of the most memorable of these included a male protagonist that I could relate to, and even felt that we would’ve been good friends had I lived in New York City in the 19th century.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I agree with you about the children’s classics. Apart from homeschool kids, do you think today’s youngsters are still reading them? I know I’ve been lending some of the classics to my young friends.

      Funny, I didn’t remember Mitford being omniscient POV. I do love the technique of broad stroke POV opening settling on MC. That technique was demonstrated so powerfully with the feather in the opening scenes of Forrest Gump.

  13. Angela Mills says:

    I read American Heiress, a current bestseller and the head hopping was so distracting. For me, it didn’t come across as omniscient, but maybe I just didn’t pick up on that.

    Sometimes I feel as if learning about writing has ruined books for me πŸ™‚

    As a writer, I read differently. I can’t even escape into TV shows or movies, because I’m always wondering what the writers were thinking and how they made the decisions they made! Same with books. I know when I forget about the writer that I’ve found a great one.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Oh, Angela, isn’t that the truth. It takes a great story to make me forget the analysis and just start madly turning pages.

  14. Wendy, I appreciate this particular topic today since I’m in the process of self-editing my mystery novel. The comments by you and others are helping me to weigh out just how strict I should be with the rules.

    I love the charm of older books; however, I’m not crazy about pages and pages of description.

    Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      With a mystery it’s even harder because you have clues and misdirection, secrets and quiet reveals– you need to get outside eyes on your manuscript and have them keep notes as to what they sense at what page in the manuscript. A good mystery leaves us guessing until the surprise reveal.

  15. Allison Duke says:

    I spend too much time thinking about rules. They interfere with the way I write my story. If we can’t bend or break rules, is there any room for innovation? A few years ago it was considered appalling to even consider writing in first person present tense, and now it’s done all the time, in many genres. So much so that in some genres, writing in third person is unthinkable, and most likely unpublishable. That’s just one example of how the rules can change, often based on the success of one or two hugely successful books.

    Personally, I love rules. I am a rule follower. As a reader, if the writing and structure are sound, I don’t mind a book that bends some of the rules. As a writer, I know that there is no way I can follow all the rules and write a book that sounds like me. I like my voice, and I need to like my story, and if I have a break a few rules in order to be happy with it, then I will. I just keep in mind that I might have to rewrite or tweak some things later on if critique partners, agents, or editors insist that I must.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      We can’t get away from expectations. After all we are writing for the reader. If we don’t give him what he expects, we’ll lose him.

  16. I’m a STORYTELLER – not a rule follower.

    I guess when all is said and done . . . STORY RULES !

  17. Sydney Avey says:

    I was headed to the bathroom to slit my wrists when I saw Andrew’s comment. Having grown tired of writing in close first person I was enjoying playing God in omniscient third person writing my complex, multiple POV new novel. Andrew, you saved a life!

  18. Leon says:

    I agree with Andrew’s comment.

    I’m not convinced that publishers know what readers want, as much as they know what readers bought last year, and perhaps, will buy next year, according to what sold last year.

    Most readers are not writers and I’m certain they will excuse adverbs and the odd broken rules. I know I do when I’m reading a great story.

    Imposing rules and pounding them in until you write like established authors, defeats the thing that agents are all looking for: fresh, raw and creative.

    Agents are in a position where they must give publishers what they’re asking for because if they don’t, they’re out of a job. There’s probably very little room for new and different. The agent is at the mercy of the publisher, just as the writer is at the mercy of the agent.

    To follow the adverb rule and to omit them altogether seems preposterous and counter-productive. It would be similar to taking a painter’s hand and guiding his brush strokes.

    ‘Do this or you won’t get published,’ is the message I’m hearing, ‘and be scared, very scared.’

    I believe in hard work and doing the time, and watching and observing. But I don’t believe that working in the mail room is going to get anyone anywhere except for perhaps the supervisor’s position in the mail room.

    Those who get promoted do so because they follow the rules, not because they have original ideas.

    The rule still stands:

    Give them what they want, until you get what you want, then do what you want.

  19. Jane Risdon says:

    Bravo. I write and I do it for my own enjoyment and if someone wants to read my work and enjoys it, I am happy. I don’t like too much description or flowery writing but I do need to know certain things about characters and places and so having some descriptive hints helps me picture what the writer sees. I don’t care if we tweet, text or scan what we have to deal with in day to day life; if the readers doesn’t like it, read a comic, watch TV or sit in front of a computer game. Let life wash over you – you cannot be a real fan of the written word.