Tuesday, 13 September 2011

When You Know the Rules, Feel Free to Break Them

One Day by David Nicholls is a great example of rule breaking.  Two viewpoints throughout, swapping between paragraphs, sometimes her, sometimes him, back and forwards.  It's against all the rules and shouldn't work - but it does.  The book I read before - Family Album by Penelope Lively - did just the same, skipping between all the characters in the large family.

But but but, you splutter.  The Rule says No headhopping!  The Rule says Stay in one character's viewpoint in each section.  These books break the rules.

Yup.  The Rules are there, and writers break them all the time.  But that doesn't make the rules less valid.  You need to understand the reasoning behind the rules, and then you can merrily break them.  

The rules are there to make life easier for the reader.  That's all.  Readers often find headhopping (ie switching from one character's viewpoint to another within a scene) confusing or distancing.  Confused or distanced readers stop reading. That's why it's inadvisable.  

However, if you set up a multi viewpoint scenario from the beginning (as both Lively and Nicholls do) then the reader is prepared.  For example, the opening page of Family Album alternates viewpoint from paragraph to paragraph: ABABA.  Once the reader has realised this they can follow the story.   

The trouble comes if you are starting out as a writer.  The chances are you don't understand why the rule is there.  I've come across many new writers who can't see that they're headhopping,  They're confused, the writing is confused, the reader is confused. 

Exactly the same is true for flashback.  Many new writers don't realise they're doing it, many don't understand why the rule is there.  They're confused, the writing is confused, the reader is confused.  Plus, it often slows down the action, doesn't add new information, goes over old ground. 

Learn how and why the rules work, and then, when you know what you're doing and the reader isn't getting confused, you can do what you like. Headhop at will.  Flashback away.  Readers don't read with a checklist beside them, but they want a smooth journey through your story. If they have to fumble around to check on who is speaking or where exactly the characters are in time then they'll stop reading.  

Serve the reader. That's the ultimate rule.  

PS Mind you, there is another reason why I advise unpublished writers to follow the rules.  Nicholls and Lively are both established writers.  They're not sending off their first 50 pages and trying to find an agent, or sending short stories out to competitions or magazines. You probably are. It's a very competitive world (in case you haven't noticed). You don't want to give anyone reasons for rejecting your story and, like it or not, headhopping or misplaced flashback could easily be a reason.  

Anyone in St Ives for the September Festival?  I'm giving a talk on Friday 23rd September at 11.00 am.  Go to the website for more info.


JO said...

When I was going to St Ives, I met a man . . . sorry, I'll be back home by then.

As for the rules - i think you can't begin to break them until you know them like you know how to walk - without thinking. Then it becomes possible to break them - knowing exactly what you are doing, and able to show that this is the very best way to tell your story.

Sarah Duncan said...

JO - it goes against the grain to say it, but there are a few writers who have no idea of the rules, just rattle out the words regardless and it magically works. They're very lucky. Most of us have to work harder and learn 'how to' before we can start playing, like learning scales and arpeggios before we can improvise.

A Confused Take That Fan said...

I'd read so much about One Day before I actually read it, and wished I hadn't. It ruined it for me a little. Especially as I knew the main twist. Also, I knew David Nicholls was a screenwriter, and I think it did read a little like it was all set and ready for a movie. I do also remember thinking about the head hopping, and not being sure at first, but then you soon get used to it. I really liked the book, the concept especially. I have friends who wept over it and couldn't get it out of their heads for days because they were so involved with the characters. A sure sign of a great read.

Sarah Duncan said...

ACTTF - I liked the concept too - I had been worried it was going to be v contrived, them meeting up each year but of course wasn't like that at all. I cried buckets at the film, but not with the book - tho I was v surprised by the twist. Normally I see them coming so it obv worked for me.

Fiona said...

Well, now you've made me want to read One Day, which I've been debating about for a while now.

I've read a few stories that head-hop, and it doesn't bother me when it's done well. Most rule-breaking doesn't bother me when it's done well.