Breaking Writing Rules / Chekhov's Gun

There is a difference between a rule and a law. In theory, rules apply in most cases but not all. Laws always apply.

(As an aside, this distinction includes an element of myth, since it’s impossible to know for sure if something is a law or a rule – science fudges it and claims more certainty, but it’s a fundamental flaw based on limited human perspectives.)

New writers are often given "rules of writing" or storytelling. But if we followed every rule then storytelling would become as static and formulaic as a Holywood thriller, where certain events and twists have to happen at certain times in order to please focus groups. To avoid staleness and predictability, some of the rules have to be broken. The end result may not always work, but it might lead to new things and freshness. It’s a risk any good writer must be willing to take.

A key element: you can break rules, but you still need to understand them and be experienced at following them first. You break them with intention and understanding of the effect, not randomly.

I’ll illustrate this with one example. Chekhov’s Gun. I know many writers swear by this. It's the rule that, if you introduce an element into a story, then it must have relevance. If it isn't used in the plot, it should be excluded as extraneous. In general, it helps lead to tighter writing and plotting, a way of cutting the flab from a story.

Can you see the problem, though? If all writers follow it, then it becomes predictable and boring. Stories become childish puzzles where the key pieces are obvious, rather than being immersive experiences.

Recently I listened to the audiobook of Alien Covenant (I haven’t seen the film, which may be different). Because I know about Chekhov’s Gun, it means when I am presented with writing that follows such rules, I have a key to predicting some outcomes, since I have both data and a formula. So, at one point in the story, a synthetic changed his hairstyle so he was identical to another. The incident passed without much comment, but I immediately thought "that’s a detail presented, so it must have some plot significance later". I guessed that there would be a scene where there was a confusion of identities between the two synthetics. And when one of the two appeared later, and the other characters studiously avoided even considering the 50/50 possibility that the synthetic they spoke to was not who he seemed to be (the kind of sleight of hand authors do to distract their audience, even though it defies internal logic), I immediately knew for sure that I was right. I knew it was the other synthetic; there would be a twist later where he was in their trust and could betray them. And yes, it happened just like that.

So you see, following all the rules can end up destroying the effect of the creation because it means unpredictability is lost. A rule is a formula, and a formula fed the same data will lead to the same results. Audiences nowadays consume so much storytelling in books and film and TV that – even if they can’t consciously formulate the rules being followed – they instinctively feel them through repetition. The more a story follows rules to fit the formula sold as successful, the less effective the end result is through repetition and predictability. And so the “rule” that some thought might even be a law, turns out to be less than a rule. Or rather, its definition reverses. Instead of “follow this rule in order to create maximum satisfaction”, it ends up being “follow this rule in order to create predictability”.

Thus it is for any rules that state something which seems inviolate. Smoking gun moments. Character arcs. Requirements for character development. Mid-book reversals. Denouements. Rations of dialogue to action. Order of events. There are always examples of successful works which threw those rules out, and seemed all the fresher for it. And I say that as someone who reads a lot of contemporary fiction, and has judged international fiction competitions. The two biggest problems with the bulk of things that get submitted are problems of bad writing, and problems of predictability and overfamiliarity. The latter problems come from following all the rules, all the time.

So rules are things a writer needs to understand and have experience with – but then the real fun can begin. Because with that understanding, the rules can be reversed in surprising ways, to avoid falling into the rut of sameness.

If you think I'm talking nonsense, feel free to tell me in the comments. :-)

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!

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