This makes me smile– maybe some people understand intuitively what makes a compelling 90,000 words, but I’m not one of them.
Deconstruction helps me to understand not just what’s inside a novel, but why it’s there. I’m searching for the spirit of the outline, not marching orders.
Over at the blog Blots and Plots, Jenny Bravo wrote a post on “How to Break Writing Rules,” where she highlighted some famous writers with unique styles. She explained:
These writers set their own style from subject matter to word choice to punctuation. And guess what? People love them. Because they’re interesting. Because they make no apologies.
This inspired me to think about how the authors of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight break traditional writing rules. As much I hold these bestselling authors on a pedestal for their exemplary novels, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t making “mistakes” themselves.
So today, let’s look at some rules that J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and Stephenie Meyer chose to break. (I’d like to emphasize that I point these out with the greatest respect, and not to criticize or poke fun.)
Broken Rule #1: Always be consistent with point of view
You’ve probably learned that you can switch point of views all you want, as long as you are consistent. Guess what? J.K. Rowling doesn’t care.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone starts off from the view of Mr. Dursley, but after the first chapter, the narrator moves to Harry’s point of view, never to return to Mr. Dursley’s.
- Why it works: J.K. Rowling pulls it off because Harry was only a baby in the first chapter, so his third-person limited view would have been gibberish. Also, since the first chapter is more like a prologue, the leap forward in time makes the change in views less jarring.
Broken Rule #2: Never start a story with the character waking up
In my undergraduate writing seminars, I had a professor who would hand back any story that started with an alarm clock going off.
- Suzanne Collins unapologetically begins The Hunger Games with Katniss waking up in the morning.
- Why it works: The boring variations of the “wake-up opening” take the reader through a brushing-teeth/making-coffee routine before any action starts. Suzanne Collins succeeds because every detail of this morning is the tip of an essential iceberg in already brewing action: Prim’s fear of the Reaping Day, their mother’s worn down appearance, and the value of food.
Broken Rule #3: Never use adverbs, and especially not with speech tags
Maybe you’ve been taught that speech tags should be the invisible “he-said” and “she-said.” Or maybe you’ve heard that the rule is to only use speech tags if it’s impossible to tell who’s speaking from the context.
- Well, Stephenie Meyer could care less. She especially loves to clarify the tone of questions in Twilight: “he asked incredulously” (p.39); “he asked sarcastically” (p.186); “he asked condescendingly” (p.207); “he asked casually” (p.207); “he asked innocently” (p.222); and “he asked skeptically” (p.228).
- Why it works: Twilight gets away with this because the flowery style suits the voice of a teenage girl. It sort of makes sense that Bella would over-analyze how her conversations with Edward played out as she tells her story.
Broken Rule #4: Never give main characters names that begin with the same letter
If you have three plain-Jane characters all named Jean, Joan, and June, things get confusing. Which one is Joan, again? The secretary?
- J.K. Rowling loves her H’s too much to abide by this rule. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is populated by Harry, Hermione, Hagrid, Hedwig, and they all go to Hogwarts and Hogsmead. Some wizards are in Hufflepuff, some receive Howlers, some learn to fly from Madam Hooch, and they all want the House Cup. (Should I count He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?)
- Why it works: Does anyone ever ask “Which one is Harry and which one is Hagrid again?” Nope. If the characters sparkle through the page, they become more memorable and no one will get mixed up.
Broken Rule #5. Never info dump
Weaving in backstory can be difficult when you need the reader to quickly get up to speed with all the elements of an imaginary world. It can lead to a lot of awkward dialogue where not much happens except for characters starting conversations with “As you know…”
- In the The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins informs the reader about the history of Panem, the state of life in District 12, what a Reaping Day is, and how the Hunger Games are played, all in the first few pages.
- Why it works: Suzanne Collins pulls off a creative info dump. First Katniss makes relevant observations as she walks, noting that the streets are empty now but that “[o]ur part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners…” (HG p.4). Then, Katniss paraphrases a speech about Panem’s history: “… the mayor steps up to the podium and begins to read. It’s the same story every year.” (HG p.18).
Broken Rule #6. Kill your darlings
You’ve heard it over and over again: delete all your crutch phrases. As writers, it’s easy to lean on our favorite words without even realizing it– (I am always deleting the word “just.”)
- Stephenie Meyer uses a variation of “incredulously” 12 times in Twilight. Luckily, the book’s long so that’s only once every 11,000 words or so. 🙂 Another clutch phrase is Edward’s dark chuckle: “He chuckled darkly.” (p.184); “He chuckled darkly, and finished his sentence.” (p.338); “He chuckled darkly, and leaned away.” (p.500).
- Why it works: I think Stephenie Meyers pulls off the frequent use of “incredulous” because Bella really is going through an unbelievable, other-wordly experience– it warrants reinforcing. As for the dark chuckle, Twilight has one goal and that’s to get teen girls to swoon over Edward. A dark chuckle is a surefire way to make him sexy, mysterious, and magnetic.
Choose your broken rules wisely
By understanding the hero’s journey and the master outline, we’re better equipped to know why we are breaking rules, and to do so with a purpose and a vision.
We are studying the great bestselling authors to see what they all had in common– and we shouldn’t ignore that one common feature is that they made mistakes.
Of course, the real genius of a bestselling novelist is knowing which mistakes to keep.