When to Break Literary Law


When to Break Literary Law

In the last post, I featured another author, Muriel Spark, whose novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie thumbed its nose at literary law. Having already discussed why to be wary of Breaking the rules, I now want to discuss when you might want to.

Unfortunately, I fear this post is going to be pretty wishy-washy. I can’t tell you with certainty when to take the plunge or what form it should take. I may not even be able to give you examples from other writers. Because this is an idiosyncratic and personal phenomenon.

But I am pretty sure of (maybe) that sitting down, thinking, Right, I’m writing an iconoclastic novel, doesn’t work. The result is likely to be forced and false

Breaking literary conventions

I think the time to break literary laws is when the fracturing is required because of the needs of the story or because it is the nature of your voice as a writer.

You may get to the point that following the normal story arc just doesn’t suit or support where you want to take the novel. You might want to interject fantasy elements in an otherwise reality based tale, the significance of which will only become evident at the end. You might have drawn a protagonist who is so out of touch with who he is that the most effective way to show it is to omit any kind of inner life. These might be times when you dump conventions and go with what best serves the story.

I also accept that some writers can best express who they are, i.e. their voice, through elliptical, non-linear, and even chaotic novels where the joy comes from going along for the ride and not from following a strict story line. So ignoring rules may be what is needed to truly capture your spirit on the page.

So, if either of these (and probably others I haven’t thought of) fit you, then by all means, give it a go.

Some caveats

There are, however, some issues which might arise from these approaches which are worth paying attention to.

As I have discussed before, in order to feel true and realistic to your audience, writers must know that the readers’ expectations from fiction which are largely unconscious but which you ignore at your peril.

You might decide that your ending should be vague and even confusing in order to fit with the rest of the novel. However, since readers by and large expect some kind of resolution, you may confuse and even anger them. While you might be going for the latter, do you really want to confuse them?

I’m not saying don’t do it but I think you need to be cognizant of the possible outcome. Because not only are you violating their normal expectations, you are asking them to conform to your new rules, however unspoken. Even if that rule is that there are no rules.