When you start writing, you learn that there are certain rules you’re not supposed to break.
The rules vary depending on what genre you write in, but there are always rules, many unwritten, that writers are warned to follow.
Then you read something that completely ignores all those rules. Did they not apply to that particular writer? Do they really apply to your writing? Maybe…
Or maybe not...
So, what's the deal with writing rules?
Yes, they are breakable. But you can’t just break them from the get-go. You have to ease readers into it.
I’m going to use a webpage for comparison. (Odd choice for a metaphor but designing websites is my day job so stick with me.)
Think about how websites used to look back when the Internet was new. They were messy with tons of text or images or tiny moving gifs that were distracting and not fun. There were links everywhere. Basically, there were no rules.
Fast forward to today, and websites have the same basic elements usually presented in a similar manner. Why? Because humans crave familiarity. It makes us feel comfortable and not stressed. I bet if you stumble upon a website that’s poorly designed or doesn’t follow the usual style guides, you get frustrated and click the X button very quickly because you don’t know how to interact with the page.
You don’t want readers to X out of your story either.
If you start your story by breaking all of the conventional genre rules, (like a website with tons of links and gifs and text in no order) then readers will not know how to react. They will get frustrated because nothing is familiar. When everything is strange, readers can’t react because they don’t even know what to feel. Which is a stressful state for most humans.
Instead, you want to hook readers in with something that's familiar first.
Let’s take the chosen one trope. Normally, the chosen one doesn't want to be involved in whatever the plot is. They want something else and they usually don’t want to be the chosen one. That's familiar to readers.
How do you break the rules with the chosen one trope? First, you establish the norms (like the things I mentioned above) and get people comfortable. THEN, you throw a twist at them that breaks the rules that they were expecting. (Not all plot twists have to happen at the end or in the middle of a book. Sometimes, you can twist things fairly early!)
Example: Guess what, the main character that everyone thought was the chosen one is NOT actually the chosen one. Twist! Their best friend is and they’ve been kidnapped and it’s up to the main character to save them.
Now we’ve broken the chosen one rules but readers are hooked. They have questions like, how will the main character deal with this change? Will it cause a rift between them and the best friend? How will they save their friend if they’re not the chosen one?
While that example was made up, there are plenty more in books and movies.
Take a YA sci-fi classic, The Hunger Games. Readers totally expect Katniss to be chosen to compete in the games. She's our main character and the book is about the Hunger Games. It does not take a genius to see where the story is going. But then SHE ISN'T PICKED. Her sister is. We're all surprised! (At least, we were when the book first came out 13 years ago).
Another sci-fi plot twist that broke rules (at least it felt like it did) is one of the most famous reveals ever -- when Darth Vader confesses he was Luke's father in The Empire Strikes Back. Up until that point, Darth was the evil force bad guy. We'd watched him chase Luke and company through almost two whole movies. But then, suddenly, the world tilts. He's not just the bad guy anymore; he's Luke's father. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? It was a great way to break the rules, rock your expectations, and set up questions for what comes next.
So, while you’re out there drafting your story (or making your website), break rules with purpose, don't just break them to break them or because you're trying to be different. Whether your book is sci-fi or a mystery or something else, learn the rules and use them to make readers familiar before you go and upend things. This way, when you do, we’ll all be on the edge of our seats, waiting for more.
A version of this story appeared in Wolves and Wonder, my monthly newsletter that includes no-nonsense writing advice along with book updates and sci-fi inspiration. Get it in your inbox; you'll love it.