Breaking the Rules

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by Laura McClellan

Any novelist who studies craft reads a lot about the rules: Show, don’t tell. Avoid adverbs. No head-hopping. These rules have developed to help us create fiction that welcomes the reader in, with no barriers to the reader’s participation in the story.

I recently reread Francine Rivers’s Redeeming Love, one of my favorite novels ever. The characters are real, believable, living and breathing on the page. The plot draws you from page to page with its unflinchingly honest, yet sensitively told, portrayal of the worst (and best) in human behavior. It’s an absorbing, life-changing piece of fiction.

But this time I realized that this novel breaks one of the cardinal rules. She changes point of view frequently, and in the midst of scenes. For example, in this scene near the end, Angel is confronted by Paul, her husband’s best friend and her nemesis. The chapter starts in Paul’s point of view and stays that way
to this point in the middle of the chapter:

“I didn’t want to interrupt anything,” he said. “Do you still go by ‘Angel’?” He couldn’t get the edge out of his voice, and he couldn’t understand the look in her eyes, as though every word he said grieved her deeply. Why should it? Nothing had ever grieved her before. It was another act.

“I still go by ‘Angel,'” she said. “It seemed appropriate.”

Again that directness. Straightforward, to the point, yet gentler in some way than he could ever remember her being. “You look different,” he said and glanced around. “I expected you to be living in higher style than this.”

“Lower, you mean.” She looked amused, not defensive.

He let a sneer show on his face. “Nothing changes, does it?”

Angel studied him. He was right, in one sense. At least where his hatred of her was concerned. Not that he didn’t have enough reason. Still, it hurt. “No, I guess not,” she said quietly. “It’s understandable.” She had so much to answer for. She looked away. She couldn’t stop thinking about Michael. She was afraid to ask about him, especially from this man who loved him so much and hated her with equal intensity. What was he doing here?

Paul didn’t know what to say. He sensed he had hurt her. She sighed and looked at him again, and he wondered if she was as calm as she seemed, if anything really touched her. It was one of the things he had despised about her. No arrow he shot had ever drawn blood.”

In that short passage we go from Paul’s point of view to Angel’s and then back to Paul’s. A violation of the rule against head-hopping. But still it works. This sort of POV change occurs throughout the book, but the whole novel works.

I’ve seen the same rule broken in bestselling novels by Nora Roberts. Yes, her plots are predictable and she head-hops regularly, but her characters come alive and her dialog is fabulous. And readers buy her books in the millions.

Seeing this has made me realize that it’s not following all the rules that makes you a good writer. If your story is spectacular, if you create characters who live and put them in situations that draw your reader in, you can break the rules and it will work.

I’m not recommending it. I’m not going to do it. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves: if we do this, it probably doesn’t work. Unless we are Francine Rivers. Or Nora Roberts.

Knowing the rules, and the reasons for the rules, is a crucial part of being a good writer. But maybe the most important thing is to focus first on making those characters live, that setting sing, that plot compel.

Laura McClellanLaura McClellan has been married over 35 years to the same man (she says she was a child bride). She’s mom to five, grandmother to six, and a partner in a large Dallas law firm. During her “spare time” Laura is polishing her first novel, a winner in several fiction contests.

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