Breaking the Rules of Writing

Should an author ever break the rules of writing?

How would mystery/romance author Jenna Harte answer this question? Is she a rule follower or a rebel? Read on and find out!

Welcome, Jenna.

When it comes to writing, not only are authors expected to adhere to the rules of grammar, but also to the rules of plot and style expected in the genre. The question is, are they rules, or, like in Pirate of the Caribbean, guidelines? What rules should be followed and which can be broken?

Readers Should Be Able to Solve the Crime…Or Should They?
Mystery readers have certain expectations of the novels they read. One is the ability to solve the crime, which means getting all the clues and meeting all the suspects alongside the sleuth. Personally, I think this rule is paramount. Mysteries are like puzzles, and to put them together, the reader needs all the pieces. It’s frustrating and unsatisfactory to get to the end and realize the author left out a key piece of information.

And yet, I recently read a cozy mystery in which we met the murderer 85% into the book, and learn he’s the murderer in the next scene. All that the author provided was a possible motive for the murder, but no clues.

While this annoyed me, clearly the publisher and most other readers didn’t mind. The book has 120 reviews with an average of 4.5 stars on Amazon. And the few negative reviews don’t mention the fact that it’s impossible for the reader to solve the crime.

Mysteries are Told from One or Two Point of Views, and No Jumping POV from Within Scenes
Most mysteries I read are told from one point of view, usually the sleuth’s. Occasionally, I read one that might have two or more points of view, but almost always, only one POV is used per scene. In fact, in all fiction writing, the rule is to not head hop; jump from point of view to another point of view within a scene. The reason for this is that it can get confusing on who is doing the thinking or giving us (the reader) the narrative.

Last month, I read the first book in a popular mystery series because many people have been gushing and buzzing about the author’s writing. Imagine my surprise when the author would use three or four points of view within a single scene. This book has over 3,200 reviews with an average rating of 4.5 stars.

Cozies Don’t Have Intimate Bits
All mystery subgenres have rules, but the cozy mystery has the most. Technically, a cozy mystery involves a small-town amateur sleuth solving a crime. The story doesn’t have any swearing, violence, or sex. For die-hard cozy readers, this formula is exactly what they like. And what’s not to love? It’s fun to follow the antics of an ordinary woman who is thrust into an extraordinary situation (murder), without having to deal with harsh language, gore, or sexy bits.

I have to confess, I’ve broken one of the cozy rules. I’m a big fan of crime solving couples, ala Nick and Nora Charles, but part of what I love about couples is the romance. My books in the Valentine Mysteries involve Tess and Jack Valentine, who are an ordinary couple that keep falling over dead bodies and into bed.

What’s Wrong with Breaking the Rules?
Inherently, there is nothing wrong with breaking the rules. Writing a story outside the lines can bring something new and fresh to the style. The success of indie authors proves that readers are willing to read stories outside of what traditional publishing will take as long as the story is good and well-written.

With that said, there are some reasons to stick with the rules. For one, many of the rules provide clarity, as does the stick-with-one-POV-at-a-time rule. Most importantly, readers have expectations, such as the ability to solve the crime or there won’t be any swearing, violence, or intimate scenes. In my case, I’m upfront on what readers will find in my sexy cozy so they’re not surprised. Do I lose some readers? Probably, but also, I’ve found readers that, like me, enjoy sexy cozies.

My upcoming cozy mystery, Death of a Debtor, follows all the rules. While there will be a love interest, there is no swearing, violence (well…she does whap someone with a frying pan, but in her defense, he’s trying to kill her), or sexy bits.

To Break the Rules or Not?
There is an adage that you can’t please everyone all the time. This is especially true for writers. Sticking with the rules may increase the chance of getting published or making readers happy, but then again, it might just make readers feel they’re getting the same old thing. Breaking the rules can offer something new and different, but depending on what it is, might annoy or put-off some readers.

Ultimately, interesting characters and a great story are the most essential components of a novel. The rules offer structure to craft a great story, but can be broken if it will make the story better.

Have you ever loved a book that broke the rules?

Jenna Harte Bio
Jenna Harte is a die-hard romantic, writing about characters who are passionate about and committed to each other, and frequently getting into trouble. 

She is the author of the Valentine Mysteries, the first of which, Deadly Valentine, reached the quarter-finals in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award in 2013. She is also the author of the contemporary romance series, Southern Heat. She has a new traditional cozy mystery, Death of a Debtor, which involves fairy tales, golf clubs, airplane repo, and murder, coming in February 2019. She’s a member of the Virginia Writers Club and Sisters In Crime.

When she’s not telling stories, she works by day as an online entrepreneur. She’s an empty nester living in Central Virginia with her husband and a wacky cat.

Get free books and excerpts, updates and more at Jenna’s website: http://www.jennaharte.com.

Links
Website: http://www.jennaharte.com

Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Jenna-Harte/e/B008SYXEZ8

Valentine 3-book Box Set: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07998MDQG

Death of a Debtor (page and pre order are there, but no book cover yet): https://www.amazon.com/Death-Debtor-Sophie-Parker-Coupon/dp/1603817565/

Southern Heat Romance Box Set: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B074L82D4C

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jennaharteauthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/jenna_harte

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jennaharteauthor/

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgBosMCckiLpyXoprNBPmbQ/featured

Comments

Breaking the Rules of Writing — 7 Comments

  1. I firmly believe that if you are going to break the rules, you had better know them before you do. Writing is art and all art must push the envelope or it’s not very interesting.

    Like the POV thing. I am not getting that. It seems like it’s a relatively recent rule. I’ve read tons of books with shifting POVs and have never been bothered by it. Seriously. Hasn’t anyone read Dune (Frank Herbert)? Two-thirds of that book takes place in everybody’s heads. All at once.

    I try not to push that envelope too often and several of my mysteries are in first person, anyway. Although I did take my time dropping the body in Bring Into Bondage, which is mostly cozy, and is about marriage as much as anything else.

    • Thank you for your comment Anne. I agree that breaking the rules can be okay. I do struggle a bit with shifting POVs within scenes if there isn’t a clear cue about the shift. I also find that the more rules of writing or tips for quality writing I learn, the more I notice them, and it has impacted my enjoyment of reading sometimes. But in the end, I think compelling characters and a great story is paramount, and often breaking the rules makes the book even better. Thank you again, Anne!! ~ Jenna

  2. I believe writers should learn the so-called Rules of Writing, then keep them by an open window so they can be tossed out when breaking them is the best thing to do. There’s only one Rule of Writing that is set in stone, engraved in iron, and cast in cement: Whatever works best. If you can write it and make it work, it’s right.

  3. Thanks Earl. I think you’re right. I think publishers (who often insist on rules) underestimate readers. I think most readers don’t notice or care about rules (except certain genre rules) as long as the story is great. As a writer, rules can offer guidelines, but if the story works best by writing outside the lines, then the rule should be broken. Thanks again Earl!

  4. Thanks for exploring this interesting question, Jenna. You make many good points and I particularly agree that all the puzzke pieces should be presented— even if disguised a bit — so a reader has a fair chance the solve the mystery. But as for breaking many other rules, as a writer and also teaching fiction writing, the final question for jumping out the box, seems to be — does it work?
    I’ve often switched the POV or bent some other dictum just because the story seemed to call for the twist. If it reads well and makes the story more interesting and original, the writer gets away with all kinds of rule breaking. Sometimes however, such departures can result in a big mishmash. But it is important to express your unique voice, even in a niche like cozy fiction.

  5. Hi Anne. Thanks for your comments. I completely agree. Sometimes rules need to be broken, but one needs to beware that they don’t make a mess of things. Thanks again! – Jenna