Writing Excuses 8.5: Breaking the Rules

Oh yeah, it’s time to break some rules! We’ve said that you’ve got to learn the rules before you break them, but here, eight seasons in, you probably already know them. So let’s make with the breaking!

We talk about some of the rules we’ve broken, and some of our favorite broken rules in other people’s work. We also talk about why any of us got away with it.


Here is a rule for rule-breaking: The best format for experimenting with rule-breaking is the short. So! Pick your three favorite rules and break all three in a short story.

Holes, by Louis Sachar, narrated by Kerry Byer

34 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.5: Breaking the Rules”

  1. I’ve been discussing this recently with a “writing rules lawyer” – your timing could not have been more perfect! Thanks for another awesome episode!

  2. Huh, I always interpreted the Stormlight Archive crustaceans as..mammals or reptiles or whatever – something that has a heart and such. (My explanation for this will involve Way of Kings spoilers, including a really big one, so skip this comment completely if you haven’t read the book.

    (I learned in my Bio Honors class that giant spiders (or insects or whatever – stuff that doesn’t have a closed circulatory system) won’t work because their method of circulating blood can’t generate enough pressure to raise the blood more than a few inches above centreline – basically, anything bigger than a Goliath Bird Spider probably needs a closed circulatory system to live on land – marine critters can do a bit better because of buoyancy, hence the enormous clams and octopuses).

    The shell is an evolutionary addon to the mammal due to the survival issue of highstorms. This could explain things up to around the chull size, which are roughly the size of an elephant. Greatshells aside from chasmfiends aren’t really shown on screen, though they are mentioned; it’s hard to tell if the term means “monsters that are enormous” or just “very dangerous shelled things.” Axehounds are an interesting aside, with their epidermis somewhere between mammalian skin and crustacean carapace, which reinforces this concept – it provides a transitional stage between complex shelled creatures and mammals.

    The chasmfiend they fight in the beginning of the Dalinar/Adolin chapters is big enough to fall under the “too big to be natural” realm. It seems unlikely, in general, that any circulatory system would work for something _that_ big. Jasnah’s big secret about the Parshendi helps there, though – given the association between the two, I suspect that “chasmfiend” is the modern term for what the Heralds called thunderclasts in the series prologue, which are, as I recall, awakened from the rock itself in some manner. This seems likely that it’s a magical beast of some kind, thus natural laws don’t have to apply. (As yet, it’s far too early to draw a conclusion as to what the limits of magic are. We know Szeth’s and Kaladin’s power, and we know Soulcasting, somewhat, but there are still a number of other powers out there. (Some of the comments in the book lead me to suspect that the endcovers are some manner of diagram relating the Radients to the 2 powers each group used, and those diagrams show 10 things. (It could also be relating the Radients to the Heralds, since there’s 10 of each of those, too…or it could be relating to some other 10 of significance one one end or the other) We _do_ know there are things that can be done that are not known now – the existence of Shardblades and Plates is clear proof of that, and we don’t know the exact limits of Soulcasting (whether or not it’s possible to Soulcast a life form into existence), so there’s enough openings there that chasmfiends have alternate explanations.

    The plants are also evidence of the highstorms acting as a survival stressor in evolutionary terms. Plants move away from harm. and they move faster in lands closer to the Origin, where highstorms are worse. It is possible for plants to move – venus flytraps and pitcher plants both use that method to claim extra nutrients – who’s to say that if there was a weather system with tornado-like wind speeds and hurricane size every few days on Earth, plants would not eventually develop a similar defense mechanism? (Shin provides the relatively mild earth-like conditions to prevent complete extinction and provides a base point for plants and animals to slowly increase their range by developing increasingly effective defenses against the highstorms).

    All of this assumes that highstorms arose after the development of mammals – if they are a constant feature of Roshar dating back to the beginning of life, it’s quite reasonable to suggest that, in places where the highstorms were serious, it was not the half-legged fish things that flopped up to begin large life on land as in earth, but rather it was crustaceans developing into a completely different phylum that retains the shell characteristic from crustaceans (as amphibians and reptiles preserve the scale characteristic of fishes), but developing other characteristics necessary to survive on land.

    There are, however, two fundamental problems with either of these rationalizations: One is the assumption that highstorms have been extant for a very long time. If they only date back a few hundred or thousand…or even only a few million years, there would not yet have been enough time for such significant evolutionary effects. The other is the assumption that the laws of evolutionary theory apply in Roshar. Mistborn spoiler: Hero of Ages directly states that that world is at least partially a creationist construct – humanity is created, and Preservation gave up a part of itself in doing so, and Ruin at least strongly implies that they had created the rest of life as well. Certainly the remaking of the world is purely a divine effort. I’m not really one to draw too many parallels between the worlds in Brandon’s books (I know they’re all connected, but until that starts playing a role in the books in a manner more significant than Hoid’s worldhopping, I prefer to treat the books as mutually exclusive settings.), but the fact that Brandon, in the one world that he _has_ chosen to reveal how life and humanity came to be, chose creationism over evolution suggest that the assumption that evolution applies in his worlds is not a given.

    Short version: I think that, given the data from Way of Kings, it’s possible to account for most of the unusual life forms in Stormlight Archive based on evolutionary principles, given long term highstorms. Chasmfiends are the exception, and it’s tentatively possible to connect them to magic.

    (I’m not even going to try to account for spren based on natural principles. They are clearly magical, and I suspect their nature will become more clear as the series progresses.)

    On a different topic, I finished reading A Memory of Light. An excellent conclusion to the series, though I’m curious: why the 190 page chapter? Every other chapter in the book is less than 25 pages. It seems somewhat out of place, especially given that the battle it covers continues to rage for many more chapters. And finally, which part of the ending is what Robert Jordan wrote? Whatever it was, it’s quite well integrated with the rest of the book.

  3. How odd. I’ve read two other articles in the past week about breaking the rules. It seems to be the in thing right now.

  4. Funny, I swear Holes was the book pick another time too. Or maybe it was just discussed to drive home another point in another podcast. I don’t remember.

    Good deconstruction of Brandon’s Critters, Rashkavar. I hadn’t thought that much about it myself. I just went with chasmfiends = magical creatures fit for the environment and moved on. I may have been influenced by Mistborn as well, where several of the creatures were “manufactured” and I expected there would be some similar explanation for the Stormlight Archives eventually.

  5. The most extreme example of rulebreaking I know: Psycho.
    (spoiler alert)
    Halfway through the film, Hitchcock kills the protagonist. Most of us are terrified to write a story where the main character dies at the end–if that’s a bold choice, how much more daring is it to let them die in the middle? What happens to a story when the main character is dead? More interestingly, what happens to that story’s audience? In this case, the audience gets a desire for revenge. Bates killed our friend–our protagonist–now we have a personal stake in seeing him brought to justice.

  6. Seems to me there’s an awesome episiode prompt here. Right in the beginning, Brandon says he’s got certain things that his magic systems need to do (or maybe he meant each magic system he creates can only do certain things?).

    Anyway, wouldn’t it be great to do a podcast on Brandon’s rules of magic? I know Howard is more sci-fi and Dan always picks crazy over magical, but Mary wrote an expertly focused magic system for Shades of Milk and Honey.

    I’m not even writing a magic system right now (nor do I plan to soon) but I’d still love to hear this gang do a how-to on magic. We all know magic has to have powers and limitations, but are there more check boxes we need to fill before our magic system is complete?

    Do tell…

  7. There may indeed be something in the air, or at least in the meme ether on this writing issue.
    Charlie Jane Anders had an excellent post over at i09 last week about breaking rules in SF and fantasy:

    Howard’s great suggestion to use short fiction in experimenting in breaking the rules would work really well with Anders’s list.

    For my part I needed to learn the rules, especially POV and showing but not telling before breaking them. Like the the WE excuses crew said, these “rules” (which are indeed more like guidelines) are there for a reason, but they can stifle creativity and storytelling if adhered to reflexively.

    Fantastic episode!

  8. Too funny. What would second person omniscient even sound like? I’m imagining scribblings of a man with schizophrenia with all of the voices in his head just referring to him and each other as you and no way to differentiate them except maybe in tone.

  9. Near the end of the podcast Brandon said “Enders Game” was written when [writing?] was in flux., when 3rd person limited was not as strict.

    I’m in a writing group and I’m adamant out POV breaks. Other members seem surprised by this and I begin to doubt my understanding. One writer even had a publisher point out the same POV break I pointed out. I think Brandon’s reference might explain our gap in understanding.

    I’d like to know more about that tightening of POV rules. Is there a source I could link to?

    I think understanding this tightening of POV rules might help us make better choices about breaking the “rules”in our writing.

  10. For some info about Brandon’s rules on magic – there are some helpful youtube vids from “WriteAboutDragons” – he recorded a number of Brandon’s classes – VERY GOOD material there.

  11. One thing that I noticed about the Ender’s Game issue – I personally don’t see the loss of momentum. All that’s really necessary for a POV swap is a double-line break, which gives the reader an indication that the perspective has changed without creating an enormous gap (a chapter break, on the other hand, does break things up somewhat. (That said, I tend to always be surprised when I hit chapter 5 because I think I’m reading the end of chapter 3. When I go back and find where 3 ended and 4 began, I haven’t skipped the page, I just unconsciously glossed over the chapter header.) Also, properly formatted POV hops don’t break up momentum that much – that 190 page chapter in A Memory of Light has somewhere in the order of 50 POV breaks in it. All are formatted properly, and several aren’t headhopping within a group of characters but swapping to entirely different groups, but it flows fantastically well regardless. The only time I’ve seen perspective breaks cause any loss of momentum is in Myst: The Book of D’ni. It’s a pretty slow book to start with, and instead of the traditional double-line break or triple asterisk, it uses a large (4-5 line diameter) circular ornate glyph of some kind. Part breaks (which Brandon uses a lot) do break momentum by setting a couple of pages aside, but then, they’re supposed to.

    As for magic systems, there’s already at least one magic system podcast on Writing Excuses, way back in the day. Season 1, episodes 14 and 15. For a full list of magic tagged things (you’ll miss a few Q&A sessions and the like, but the main magic focused podcasts should all be here): https://writingexcuses.com/category/magic/

  12. Oooooh, Thanks Lita.

    I still want them to do that episode, though.

    And yes, I do realize that Writing Excuses has touched on this topic many times before. The brainstorming episodes revealed a lot of the process, but I would love to hear them…what…sort of quantify what they have learned, for us newbies.

  13. I do have to say the rape is exactly when I stopped reading the Covnenant series. I was not particularly happy with Covenant as a character to begin with, but I had no desire to continue after that.

  14. An interesting episode. I will sometimes see the rule breaking in books, specifically the head hopping, but I never really considered the purpose behind doing it. I wonder, and this may be a bit of a big question, about the info dump. Is there a way to successfully break that rule? Moreover how do you give information about the world, the magic system, etc. and not make it feel like an info dump?
    Thanks for a great episode and a great podcast!

  15. I think if I used broke my least favorite rule for fiction writing, the story itself would inflate into a full length novel.<_<

    Question, are there any recommended how to write books that aren't, "Cut the padding first, ask questions later."

  16. Oh here is a big rule for me in my own writing. Never write a hero that’s absolute pure pureness, because it typically suggests a hero that’s the complete opposite. Unless of course your writing pleasantville fanfiction.

  17. Alright, I’m going to play devil’s advocate, here.

    So, basically, you guys talk about writing that does break the rules and does it well, but in the past you have discussed the Vin Diesel Movie “Chronicles of Riddick” where there is this moon with this apex predator that has no prey; then you turn around and say that the science behind Brandon’s crustacean in essentially non-existent, yet cool, and we just have to accept it as magic. Or not.

    If taken to its extreme, I feel that logic could justify almost anything: Star Wars’ one-climate planets, or even the dreaded “warp factor 9” of Star Trek fame (or infamy). I don’t know about Star Wars, but for Star Trek, the warp speed was virtually essential to having these people travel as far afield from Earth as they did. There was a “reason,” but it still is ridiculed as preposterous. I’ll grant that the whole “insert technobabble here” items in Star Trek scripts doesn’t show a commitment to storytelling, however.

    I disliked the movie “Crash” because I felt it perpetuated stereotypes, even if people argued that it was for a “reason”. I couldn’t get into Grossman’s “Magicians” even though he made his characters unsympathetic for a “reason” (being apathetic college students). I even, to my shame, had a hard time with “Snow Crash” because of “Hiro Protagonist” and put it down before it got “interesting,” or so I’ve been told. I read five books of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” only to feel like the series occasionally became absorbed in world-building for its own sake, and not for the sake of the story (and I’m reading it again at the encouragement of a friend, who tells me I can skip two whole monstrous tomes in which nothing happens!). I’ve read all of George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice” so far, and watched things that annoyed/perplexed me happen for “reasons” such as not following old tropes–or any tropes. All of these works had “reasons” for what their authors did.

    When I complain about popular fiction, like Star Wars and Star Trek or Chronicles of Riddick, it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon and knock it for not being scientific, but just for being lightweight adventure stories. But, when I feel like I’m reading more “serious” fiction, the tolerance for weirdness/rule-breaking goes up. Is it really that these authors have done so many more things right, so I am tolerant of what they do “wrong,” or is there something else in play? I’m not sure that being intentional is enough to justify everything to a reader. “If the reader can say, I could see why you would do that, but…” you may have lost someone. Is the emotional investment even more important than the plausibility factor?

  18. @David: All you’re saying here is that if we’re allowed to break rules, we’ll break ALL the rules, and then everything sucks.

    I reject your logic.

    I don’t like one-climate planets, or Star Trek technobabble, but in both cases the franchises made boatloads of money and did good things for Science Fiction as a genre. If I had to choose between never using technobabble, and making boatloads of money, I think I’d choose the money. And then, ten years down the road, I’d write something else.

    If you’re not comfortable breaking a rule, don’t! If you worry that breaking one rule will lead to the collapse of your escritory morality, engrave your rules in stone and adhere to them. But if you DO dare to break a rule once in a while, be able to explain to yourself why you did it, and why that way was better than coloring within the lines.

  19. Hi guys, long time listener, first time poster. I have to ask, why is it that Brandon doesn’t like (or want to continue reading) George R.R. Martin?

    I’ve tried to find where he’s made those comments, but I can’t seem to find them (though tons of awesome articles about Brandon and/or George have resulted from my search).


  20. @jason: In previous WE episodes Brandon has mentioned that Martin’s brutal treatment of his characters (repeated rapes, murders, etc.) was too intense for him. I can’t tell you which episodes exactly, but it’s all back in the archives.

  21. First thing I learned in art school: Learn the rules. Once you know them and can show you know how to follow them, go ahead and break them as you see fit.

    I love this episode, it lets the rules lawyers know that creativity is more of a gray area than black and white. But in order to be successful, one must know what they are doing and why they are doing it. There are always a lucky few who can do something and be successful without knowing how/why, but for me, it takes lots, and lots, and lots of practice.

    I sure appreciate these podcasts!

  22. Holes uh? Ya one crazy book, but good. It’s very interesting in the way it gives information, and leads you in the story.

    Also, I think if you’re going to be different and break the rules, you have to have the same type of differences, break the same type of rules to make it work. I watched the first season of ‘Once Upon a Time’ and liked it fairly well until the second season came around and they started falling away from what was originally their different idea (fairy tales in modern world) This, among several other problems with the story lost my interest. I think you need to set your own rules within those broken rules.

    Oh, And Brandon. My husband is very interested in what kind of Shepherd you like to play in Mass Effect.

  23. I just wanted to say that I wrote a (very) short story off of this prompt in second person with a narrator in a white room and no defined conflict, and it’s honestly the best and most haunting thing I’ve written in quite some time.

  24. Quick question: Why is it the editors business to make partial a writers politics when they themselves are obviously not being partial?

    I’m really sick of tired of being a liberal trying to make my views nuetral, and a biased conservative editor in trying to make my own story conform to the conservative viewpoint.

    This is an ad homonym attack against me, and has nothing to do with my manuscript. I get that I can’t have golden words, but thats not a license for an editor to use me as their doormat and mouth piece for their own politics.

    This is why I want to self edit my books. I literally can not trust any editors to be politically impartial these days.

  25. @Sarah: I’m not sure what you’re ranting against. I get your point, but you’re coming out of (pardon the pun) left field here.

    As to your “quick question,” it’s the editor’s job to make the book sell better. If the editor believes that the political leaning’s described in the book will hurt sales, then the editor will likely attempt to mitigate that.

    You can rewrite my previous paragraph with all the politics taken out of it. It is the editor’s job to make the book sell better. The editor will work with the author to change things that the editor believes will hurt sales.

    If you and your editor come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, or opposite ends of any other spectrum that might be reflected in your writing, you’re going to have conflict. What you’ve described is not an ad hominem attack at all. It’s unpleasant, certainly, and I can see why you’d want to self-pub, but this is the sort of thing all conventionally published authors deal with to some extent.

  26. So I would need to find one thats of the same learning as me.<_< Anyway thanks.

    I was referencing a comment from a beta reader on quantum muse, a comment I got where the only thing mentioned in the comment was "I'm was a private 1st class in the army, and this story comes off as anti-war."

    Nothing else in the comment was said about the story, so it only came across as non constructive, with no suggestion on how ti modify it.

  27. @Sarah: A reader will respond to what is written. If that reader is responding by correctly pointing out your bias, you have learned something about your reader, and you have learned that your bias is showing.

    If the reader INCORRECTLY points out your bias, you have learned something about your reader, and you have learned that your bias is masked by your writing.

    Either way, you learn something. As a writer, you can use this information.

    You say this was a beta reader. Unless you’ve asked your beta readers to find problems AND make suggestions about how to fix them, it’s best to just let them tell you their reactions to the book. All criticism in this vein is inherently constructive, even if the reader isn’t telling you how to fix the problem.

  28. Hi Guys ….. I appreciate your podcast though I have never successfully written anything worth reading. I would like to know your feelings on authors taking a public and monetary political stance like OSC did in 2008. Since this episode mentioned him several times I have to ask this. His overt support of prop 8 in california has forever for me tainted my impression of him both as a person and as a writer. I just thought I might posit this in that its really affecting my in a very personal way especially as a reader and as a potential writer….

    Take care
    No offense meant by my opinions of OSC i just have a very visceral reaction to over bullying and prejudice….

  29. So Brandon was concerned about short stories being written from the viewpoint of a book. Hate to break it to him, but that’s kind of been done and done a very long time ago. One of the classic Medieval poems that we have tells the story of a tree that was cut down and became the cross that Jesus was crucified on. It’s framed as a dream where the tree that was cut down to make Jesus’ cross speaks to the dreamer and relays it’s life story. It’s as old as Beowulf, and possibly older.

    It’s called The Dream of the Rood.


  30. “Startide Rising” by David Brin broke one of the cardinal rules of Science Fiction storytelling: NO talking fish stories. His work is so good (Helps to be an astrophysicist!) that the editor probably never noticed. But dolphins aren’t actually fish, you might object, they’re mammals. Details that don’t matter …don’t matter.

  31. A second person omniscient story would be really cool, as long as the length was contained. You’re giving your reader telepathy for a period of time, and what gift could be greater than that? After all, everyone hopes they are blessed enough to make it to their 57th Anniversary, or the Telepathy Anniversary as it is known among a person I swear exists.

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