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When to break the rules in writing

I wrote a nonfiction piece recently that blended elements of essay with elements of narrative nonfiction. I took it to my writing group for their critique and one person expressed concern that my piece was blending two genres that shouldn’t be blended.

I thought his comment was interesting, considering he’d only read three of my five pages and didn’t know how the piece ended. In his mind, essays were one type of beast and narrative nonfiction another.  In a way, he’s right. They’re both nonfiction but with different intents and purposes.

Writers have been blending genres for years and are still coming up with new combinations. When is it okay to try something new, to blend elements together that aren’t normally seen together? The answer is—when it works. As you mature as a writer, you’ll know when it works and when it doesn’t. In the meantime, get feedback from others.

I’ve heard many successful authors say you have to learn the rules before you can break them and I agree. One writing mentor once told me that a writer needs to be conscious of every choice they make and why they made it.

I know the “rules” of essays and narrative nonfiction, and I had very specific reasons why I blended the two. After finishing the work and having others give me their feedback, I can say I achieved the effect I wanted.

But not every combination or rule breaking works.  A few years ago, I wanted to combine poetry and memoir. I remember one of my advisors saying, “Don’t do it!” He thought my poetry would distract from my prose and vice versa. Now that I have more experience, I can see he was absolutely right. That doesn’t mean you should never combine the two, but, in my case, the combination would have diluted the entire project.

When you find yourself confronted with “the rules,” don’t let that stop you from trying something new. To keep yourself on track, ask these questions:

  1. What is the rule I’m breaking?
  2. Why do I want to break the rule?
  3. What effect am I trying to achieve?
  4. Is there another way to achieve what I want?
  5. What is the payoff? Does it work?

As mentioned in my earlier post, “How to Create Fiction that Moves Readers,” agent and writing teacher Donald Maass believes that the greatest 21st century fiction will be that which transcends genre. The most successful books will be those that tell a good story beautifully. It doesn’t matter so much how you get there, just get there. And if you need to break the rules along the way, go for it.

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