Thursday, June 9, 2016

When a Maxim is Just a Maxim

By Kim McDougall
Some rules of writing seem to be carved in stone. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Show don’t tell. Write what you know. Don’t split infinitives. Use capitals and periods. Blah, blah, blah. 
I’m writer, dammit. If I want to split my infinitive, I am going to happily, earnestly, spitefully split it!
So when is it alright to break the rules? I’ve been mulling this question for the past week, since I finished a new fantasy book with rampant head-hopping. I won’t mention the book or author because this isn’t a book review. For convenience’s sake, we’ll just call it “The Epic Swordsman,” by Johnny Rulebreaker. 
There is a big difference between head-hopping (when the point of view jumps from character to character) and an omniscient narrator. Omniscience is often the excuse touted by head-hopping authors to justify it. “Tolkien did it. Why can’t I?” Well, no, Tolkien didn’t head-hop. The Lord of the Rings was written with an omniscient narrator that stands back and looks at the story as a whole. Rarely, does he get right inside a character’s head to tell the reader what that character is feeling. Think of is like a Greek god standing on Mount Olympus and telling the story of the people he sees living below him. That’s omniscience. 
Johnny Rulebreaker is a blatant head-hopper. The point of view (POV) bounced around from character to character within the same section and often within the same paragraph. And these POV’s were quite deeply rooted to the characters, showing thoughts, feelings and observations.

Head-hopping is normally a big pet-peeve of mine. If a book is poorly written, I won’t finish it and head-hopping is a big determining factor for me. But, for some reason I really liked “The Epic Swordsman.” Somehow, the head-hopping worked. I didn’t get whiplash from the jerking points of view. I wasn’t taken out of the story (a big complaint about head-hopping) when the POV switched. It didn’t feel cheesy. 
So I ask the question: Is rule breaking bad if the reader still enjoys the story?
I have to go with no. Story is the only thing that matters. If you have a really great tale, with terrific characters and you can tell it in a way that engages the audience, go for it. Jonny Rulebreaker did and it worked for me. 
I decided to analyze why the head-hopping didn’t bother me in “The Epic Swordsman” like it did in other books. I came up with this:
A. The story depended on a misunderstanding between the main character and his friends. It was interesting to see how each character interpreted events differently. There was a purpose to the head-hopping.
B. The character voices were distinct. Each character was well-defined. So following the head-hopping train wasn’t difficult. That being said, I would have still preferred that the POV’s didn’t switch in mid paragraph. That took a bit longer for me to get used to.
Thinking about head-hopping got me thinking about two other writing “truths” that can be broken.
Show Don’t Tell
Anyone who has taken even an introductory course on the craft of writing has had this idea tattooed on their brain. Show don’t tell. Make the action happen now rather than relate it from a later date. Don’t tell me how the character felt or reacted. Show me the physical effects. Doing it right brings on the much lauded Deep POV, a state every author strives for.
That’s great most of the time. But once in a while, short and sweet is more important than deep POV. Sometimes, “Joe felt sick” can have more of an impact than “The room spun and Joe’s stomach clenched.” Just like in an action scene, short sentences can speed up the narrative, so can ‘telling.’ Used sparingly, this technique can add a sense of drama or urgency.
Write What You Know
This is one rule that I think should just be chucked right out the window. I have an odd rant on this topic here: But here’s the gist of it: 
Don’t write what you know. Write what inspires, terrifies or thrills you, what makes you clench your teeth or cry out loud. Write words you wish you said and about characters you wish you knew.

That’s all I got. Now get back to writing!
Kim McDougall is the co-founder and video producer at Castelane. She's coming up on her 500th video. Get in on the fun at Castelane - For the Prose.

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