What to Use, What to Discard by Patty Blount

 November's topic is RULES and one thing I've learned during the past decade as a published author is that rules exist for a reason. 

They're a promise we make to our readers; break them as you need to, but understand that you may anger readers in the process. 

Here's what I mean. In romance fiction, our guiding rule is a romance must end HAPPILY. It doesn't need to be a happily ever after. It could simply be happy for now. But it has to end happily. Killing a main character is not happy. Breaking up the primary couple is not happy. If you promote your novel as a romance and break this rule, you did NOT write a romance and your audience is going to be angry. 

In writing Young Adult fiction, other rules exist. For example, YA is typically about characters who are ages 13-18. If your main character is 20, it MAY NOT fit YA. Could you have 20-year-olds in a YA novel? Of course, but understand that it may create confusion. If you're writing romance, perhaps one of the characters is 20 while the other is 18. If you're writing fantasy, you have even more latitude. 

However, you CAN break certain genre rules when you're clear on what you're writing. For example, in Women's Fiction, go ahead and break up your primary couple -- as long as it's the right decision for your heroine (or any woman character). 

Rules are promises. Every industry has rules; publishing is no exception. 

But...sometimes...unexpected brilliance can result from breaking rules. Look at Gone, Girl, as an example. Neither main character is particularly nice or even reliable. In fact, the book angered me! But it sticks with me. It was negative in so many aspects, but I've never forgotten it. It broke a role; Always Write Likable Characters. 

Can it work? Yes, of course, if your goal is to write a story that sparks anger or fear, etc. 

So how do you know when it's cool to break a rule? 

Start with the STORY. What themes are you exploring? How do you want your readers to FEEL? 

Next, you have to know the rules of your genre and sub-genre as well as what promises those rules make to readers. 

Finally, know that by breaking the rules or ignoring them or flipping them on their heads, you COULD be risking your readers' enjoyment. Weigh the risk. 

For example, if you choose to kill a primary character, identify the various risks and decide if you can make it work AND if it's worth the resulting fan fury. 


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