There are hard and fast rules of the writing industry. A story must… a poem must.. We are fortunate enough to live in a time when many of those rules can and perhaps even must be broken. Sure, you still have to follow basic grammar and spelling structures. An “i” must always precede an “e” (except for those twenty or so times when it doesn’t). A story must have a beginning, middle, and end. It must have characters. It must have a plot. Flash fiction defies most of these. A single fragment of a sentence about unworn baby shoes can convey an entire story. Poems once needed to rhyme in order to be considered poetry. Should you break the rules? It is a calculated risk. Breaking the rules merely for the sake of breaking them achieves little. Breaking the rules in order to showcase facets of your story is far more rewarding. Language isn’t permanent. It changes and bends. So which rules should be broken?
Ending a Sentence in a Preposition, are you going to?
I’m from the Midwest. We drop prepositions at the end of virtually every sentence. They are often entirely superfluous. Otherwise, they require a sentence structure that is entirely too formal. It isn’t that we don’t know this rule, its just a regional vernacular pattern. We also say, “Do what?” which means “Huh?” and drop our g’s like we’re sellin’ em.
“Where are you going to?” (Where are you going?)
“What did you talk about?” (About which topics did you converse?)
and my favorite, “Whadjuh do that for?” (Why did you do that? or For what reason did you do that?)
Now, I’m not advocating that your prose be full of sentences that end in prepositions. That would be tiresome. Instead, embrace your character’s vernacular. If your protagonist isn’t an old school grammarian, they probably don’t speak like one. If your prose does occasionally end in a preposition and the alternative is too weighty or formal, just run with it. Your personal writing style can be looser than your professors taught you.
And Beginning a sentence with a Conjunction or Additive
Thou shalt not begin a sentence with “because”. Why? “Because I said so.” It isn’t often appropriate to begin a sentence with an additive or conjunction. The definition of these terms almost precludes you from doing so. An additive is also known as a copulative conjunction, which sounds sexier than it is! The function of a conjunction is to add together words and clauses and phrases. This usage seems to insist that something came before it. It can be a powerful stylistic move to break this rule. Using it yanks your reader’s attention. It is unusual. It stands out. Use it sparingly and wisely. It is especially effective in a climactic moment. Breaking this rule feels delicious. It’s a flagrant word foul and my seventh grade English teacher would be appalled. It isn’t wrong, just frowned upon.
The will they/won’t they couple finally gets together? “And then she kissed him.” The use of the copulative conjunction here connects it not directly to the sentence before it, but to everything that came before it. All of the tension and angst builds to this powerful little additive. “Or she would have if not for…” The oppositional conjunction here set us up against what came before it. Its use can pull a reader out of a character’s fantasy or daydream and back into the real action. Other good additives to begin with are “moreover” and “plus.” These are easier to pop into dialogue than into your prose.
Use Small Words (not Infinitesimal Language Constructions)
Don’t say saffron if you mean yellow. Don’t say ambulatory if you mean walking. This rule can easily be broken. Be wary of breaking it too much. I like some descriptive language as much as the next person, but overly poetic sentences that run on are pretty much guaranteed to annoy the reader. A man doesn’t always walk, sometimes he struts, slinks, or creeps. A woman sometimes puts on lavender eyeshadow with teal eyeliner. Use those bigger, more descriptive words to draw attention to where you want your reader to focus. A cream colored horse in a herd of white ones draws a picture in the reader’s mind. If every horse is described in great detail, nothing sticks out. Try to keep the landscape in your mind. What features do you most want to highlight? Place your descriptors there and leave the rest in plainer language. Finding that exact word that precisely captures what you were looking for can be exhilarating. So, if your character is obsequious and that’s exactly right, let them be. Just make sure they aren’t an obsequious boniface enjoying vespertine recumbence. No one likes garrulous loquacity.
Middle, End, Beginning
A story has a beginning, middle, and an end. True. Does it also follow that you must read them in that order? Some of my favorite books have teased the end first and made me work to find out how we get there. Sometimes the prologue is the last page of the book. I read a popular very long series where the last sentence was the same as the first. It was intensely disappointing and satisfying at the same time. I know a woman who always reads the last few pages before she begins a book. It saves her getting immersed in a story that won’t pan out. Flashbacks are also a great way to jump around in the timeline of a story and reveal bits and pieces that become important later. The beginning of the story doesn’t always begin on the first page. Often, the beginning of the story happened before the novel even begins and the reader has to catch up to where you are in the action. There are lots of constructions to make this really work for you. Remember, though, that just because they aren’t in order doesn’t mean you don’t need all the pieces.
Show, Don’t Tell
Of all the rules, this one is the big one. Don’t say that the man is compulsive, show it in his actions. Don’t say that it was an important day, make it obvious. That’s all well and good, but sometimes it is necessary to just tell your reader something and move on. I’m not advocating the detested “info dump.” However, it can be better to add a line or two that answers some questions than to write a whole page showing it. Not every small fact about your fantasy world must be fleshed out in agonizing detail. There is a fine line between showing and swimming in verbosity. Again, this is a violation of the rules that you want to do judiciously.
Most rules of language can be broken if you break them wisely and with purpose. To break a rule just for the sake of breaking it may be satisfying to you as an author, but if you alienate your reader it achieves little. Overusing adverbs is as bad as using none. Writing a cliché metaphor is bad, but creating a new metaphor that makes no sense is worse. For every writing rule, there is an author who broke it well and beautifully. You can be that author so long as you approach it with caution and determination.