Rules Are Made to Be Broken
I just had the pleasure of reading The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. It’s the recipient of a Newbery Honor and a book that’s been recommended to me many times, but for some reason I’d never picked it until now. It was worth the wait! The story of an imprisoned boy thief who is offered his freedom in exchange for stealing a sacred stone from a neighboring kingdom, it’s a gripping tale of adventure sprinkled with rich invented mythology. Anyone who loves Greek mythology will like this book. I believe it’s classified as a fantasy, although it’s certainly far from the kind of fantasy I normally read and edit. There’s no magic. There are no monsters. To me, it felt more like historical fiction set in classic times.
What was most interesting to me in reading this book was the style of storytelling the author uses—third person, rather distanced, in some ways a “generic” narrator voice. It’s a style I normally don’t like as a reader and a style I recommend writers avoid. In general, I advocate that when something important happens in your story, you must show it, don’t tell it. And you must find your own voice unique to the story; not mimic a children’s book “storytelling” voice. Yet somehow, for this book, all those rules fell away. The story worked just as it was. It worked really well.
In my Writing for Children class each year, I give a lecture on point of view. One piece of advice I like to give is to avoid switching points of view midway through your book. It’s a crutch some writers use when they can’t figure out how to tell a key piece of the plot through the point of view of the character they’ve chosen to focus on. But it can do real damage to your reader’s ability to connect to the characters. When you write in a limited third person voice (or first person), readers become very attached to that character. Suddenly jumping into a new person’s head is jarring and distancing.
After I make this statement, someone inevitably raises a hand to tell me I must be wrong. They point out in Charlotte’s Web, one of the books we read and study in our course, there’s a huge switch of point of view. We start off in the point of view of Fern, and then a few chapters in suddenly we’re inhabiting the head of a little adorable pig who desperately wants nothing more than to live. And it works. It works really well.
I have nothing to say to this except: Rules are made to be broken.
Rules are an inevitable part of life—and of writing and editing. You can’t teach a writing class, without pronouncing a list of principles of good writing. You can’t be an editor without having a few guidelines about what makes books work for you and your publisher. And yet, I’m the first to admit, these rules aren’t set in stone. Some writers, master writers, find a way to take these rules and purposefully flaunt them.
For The Thief, perhaps Turner chose that “generic” storytelling voice because it just perfectly fits the tone of the book. A book that hinges on mythology, even though it’s invented mythology, needs a classic narration, a “read-aloud” voice.
In the case of Charlotte’s Web, we know from his notes that E.B.White struggled with the opening of the story. He wrote it a total of eight different ways. In the end, he knew that that he needed the book to start with action, and children needed to sympathize with the characters’ goals right from the start. The threat of Wilbur’s death, the core conflict of the story, could only be conveyed most convincingly through the eyes of Fern, the daughter of the farmer intent on killing the runt pig. And so he wrote the most famous first line in children’s literature “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Ultimately, though, to tell the rest of the story, he needed to get into the barn and into Wilbur’s head. It breaks the rules but he gets away with it because Fern and Wilbur both have exactly the same desire, clear as a bell, through the entire book: Wilbur must survive.
If you’re a writer, don’t allow these examples to justify some shortcut you want to take, to get around a tough spot and avoid doing the work that will make your book shine. Instead if you think you need to break a rule, first make sure you’re doing it for a reason. Study those rules breakers, try to understand why their rebellion works. Only then can you call yourself a master writer too.