25 February 2017

Know the Rules You’re Breaking (THE most controversial post you’ll see from me)

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

The rules, the rules…

Always, in my Crafting a Novel college class, beginning students are alarmed to find out there are rules to writing.

I’m not keen on rules in general. After all, I became a writer so I could thumb my nose at reality, right? Control the world of my fiction in a way I can’t control my real life.

All that said (and I could make a blog post out of just that line above) there ARE rules to writing. A bunch of middle-aged guys behind a baize door didn’t make them up for no reason (double negative – Ha! Rule-breaker, you.)

The rules are there for a reason. They’re all about logic. Here are two that are perhaps least understood. Let me make this clear:  You don’t have to follow them (more on that later.) But you do need to know them first, so that you know when you are breaking them. Here goes:

Present Tense:

This isn’t a rule. It’s more about savvy marketing. Most novels are written in past tense. Did you ever wonder why?

The trouble with present tense is it defies logic. If what I am reading is happening NOW, then how did it get written down on this page?

Approximately 60% of people (stats from a publisher) have trouble with this. Big trouble. I’m one of them. Our brains can’t accept it. Every time I hit a present tense verb, I’m thrown out of the manuscript. My reading is disrupted every paragraph. Ergo, I will not read present tense books.

Some students tell me they like to write in present tense because to them it ‘feels more immediate.’ (The classic way to do that is by increasing tension, I subtly remind.)

Here’s what I tell students: if you are writing your first genre novel, it might be wiser not to write it in present tense. Publishers know that present tense reduces the potential market because of morons like me who can’t read it. Why put another obstacle in the way of getting published?

(Publisher story: one popular YA dystopian fantasy novel was written and published in present tense. The publisher instructed her to write the second book of the trilogy in past tense.)

First Person Viewpoint Switches:

Many, many people don’t know the rules to first person viewpoint. So here goes:

The rules of writing in first person are simple: The protagonist becomes the narrator. As a writer, you make a promise to the reader. The person telling you the story is telling their story to you directly. No third party writing it. You are in her head.

I love first person. I *become* the protagonist, when reading or writing first person. But first person has huge limitations for the writer: the person telling the story must be in every scene. Otherwise, they won’t know what is going on in that scene (unless you employ a second person to run back and forth, telling the protagonist. Note the use of the word ‘tell.’ Telling is ho-hum. You won’t want to do that often.)

If your story is in first person, you can’t be switching to another character’s viewpoint. Ever. Nope, not even another viewpoint in first person. Why? Because your reader thinks this: “What the poop is happening here? The book started in first person. The protagonist is supposed to be telling the story. Now someone else is telling it. What happened to my beloved protagonist? Are the original protagonist and writer number two sitting next to each other at twin desks writing the story at the same time and passing it back and forth?”

In a phrase, you’ve broken your promise to the reader.

The rule is simple. If you need to write the story in more than one viewpoint in order to show every scene, then write the whole novel in third person. That's the advantage of third person, and why we use it. You can use multiple viewpoints.

One additional first person restriction: if your protagonist is telling the story directly, then he can’t die at the end of the story. This should be obvious: if he died, who wrote the darn thing?

Should you break the rules?

If you want to break the rules, have at it. You can write what you want. That’s the delight of being an author.

But in my class, you will hear this: The rules are there for a reason. Of course you can break the rules, but if you do, you will lose something (usually reader continuity and engagement.) It’s up to you to decide if you gain more by breaking the rules than you lose by doing so. BUT: If you break them in your first novel, publishers (and savvy readers) will think you don’t KNOW the rules.

So at least go in knowing the rules. And then do what you damn well please.

Final words: Don’t publish too soon. Take the time to learn your craft. And then…be fearless.


  1. I like your last sentence- it is so important in any writing from the simplest PR release to the most complex sonnet to know the expected format. Learning to reproduce formulas is the first step to being able to modify and break them for artistic reasons.

  2. Great post, Melodie.

    I agree, you have to understand WHY the rules are rules before you have any business trying to break them. They're rules because they work.

    When I taught, I always insisted on rules, too. You have to understand how to do the basics: plot, character, etc. Besides, aren't publishers' guidelines rules, too? If you can't match the word count or theme, you're not going to sell much.

    Having said that, I've written seven of my eleven novels in present tense. I know many editors don't like it (didn't know the percentage until you gave it here), but my logic is somewhat different. When I was growing up and playing sports, we used to listen to baseball games on the radio and early TV, and sports announcers give the play-by-play in present tense. I guess it feels natural to me. I've also acted and directed in theater, which is always in present tense.

    I actually started one of my early books in past tense and got blocked. Just as an experiment, I tried changing to present and it worked.

    Good post for a Saturday morning over my coffee.

  3. Amen, Melodie. Personally, I'm one of those who hates present tense novels (sorry Steve). Just irritates me. I like past tense. But I have no problem with first or third person narration. I've used both, more first than third, to be honest.
    But yeah, know the rules you're breaking. Picasso sure as heck did. Check out some of his early work...

  4. Thanks for commenting, Janet! I wrote this thinking about all the aspiring authors I've met who don't think they need to learn the craft. Sadly, they think that by just having an original idea for a plot (and it's often not original) publishers will fall all over them, and 'fix anything that's wrong.' Sigh. Those days are long gone, if they ever existed.

  5. Thank you, Steve! I think I set out with the post simply to explain why the conventions of writing fiction were established as they are. Most of my students have no idea there are reasons. And absolutely, the delight is the complete freedom we have as writers to do exactly what we want - to tell a story the exact way we wish to. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Eve, if given a choice, I ALWAYS write in first person. I like a story told from one viewpoint. Same with reading. As long as the writer follows the rules, that is, and doesn't throw me into someone else's head when they've already made that first person promise to me.
    But that's the joy of being a writer. We can tell a story the way we want to.

  7. Interesting post, Melodie! Like Eve, I really don't like present-tense fiction, so I never write in present tense. I will now and then READ a story or novel written in present tense, but it never really "feels" right. As for POV, I like to read fiction written in either first- or third-person (it truly does depend on the story, to me), but I tend to write more in third person than first. Maybe because, in certain kinds of stories, it's sometimes easier to generate suspense. I'm still fascinated by the rule-breaking technique of including both first-person chapters and third-person chapters in the same novel--it's the kind of thing that shouldn't work, but sometimes it does. I just finished reading one yesterday: Revelation, by Robert Knott--it's a continuation of the Virgil Cole series begun by the late Robert B. Parker.

  8. But the narrator/protagonist can die if the story is written in first-person present tense. Right?

    I learned a trick to using a mix of first-person and third-person while reading James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels, and that's how the author transitions from one to the other. I'm over-simplifying, but the transition from first to third goes something like:

    I didn't know then, but I later learned [and then the third-person section, which might be one or more scenes, begins].

    Of course, there's a similar transition back to first-person narration.

    I've used this a few times in short stories, but it must be done carefully to be effective.

  9. I enjoyed your post, Melodie. Like you, I don't care for present-tense narration--I never use it, and I generally don't enjoy reading it. To me, it feels a little bit too precious, a little bit too self-conscious and artsy. The present tense makes it harder for me to get absorbed in the world of a story or novel because it's a constant reminder that it's an artificial world created by a writer. I use both first-person and third-person POV, but even when I'm using a third-person narrator, I tend to put the protagonist in every scene and always present things from his or her POV. I did write one story that didn't have a single protagonist and hinged on having three people see or talk about the same group of objects from three very different perspectives, but usually I stay inside one character's head for the duration.

  10. Michael, I did a similar type of 'handover' in a fantasy series I write. I think that's fine, because you are warning the reader, and the protagonist is 'in on it.' In Rowena and the Dark Lord, I separate the protagonist from her sidekick Kendra, and at one point, a section from Kendra's diary is given.
    What drives me nuts is being in the protagonist's head when she is telling the story in first person, and then suddenly I find, next chapter, I'm in the villain's head. Where did the storyteller go?

  11. John and BK, thank you for commenting! It's strange that present tense has become trendy. I wish I could read it, but I simply can't. Every time I hit a present tense verb, I'm pitched out of the story. Maybe too many years as a college prof marking papers? grin

  12. The first example of present tense I can cite offhand--too lazy to research a mere matter of taste--is Charles Dickens in Bleak House. Several chapters are in present tense. Chas doesn't satisfy my requirements for either "modern" or "trendy."

    Macauley and Lannon called it a "frequent cliche" in 1987. I'm sure I could find many examples of it in major fiction besides Toni Morrison if I cared to, but why bother. Toni's got a Nobel Prize.

    Taste is personal. I use present tense and it works for me. I also dislike avocados, decaf, and new age music.

    On the POV thing, don't both Robert Crais and Laura Lippman occasionally use both first and third in the same novel? Can't remember. Again, if it works, don't screw with it.

  13. Absolutely, Steve! If you are a bestselling author breaking the rules, have at it!


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