Know the risks
When the rules conflict with our ideas for a story, it is tempting to reject the damage that can break the rule. But even if following the rule is out of the question, recognizing the consequences of your decision will help you remedy. So, the first step for any rule violation is to identify the worst case scenario that it could entail.
Let's take a look at some sample rules and what we would have risked to break them.
- Do not jump Headhopping is the practice of changing the point of view in the same scene, often from one paragraph to another. Head hopping is often jarring to the reader. The risk is that you will interrupt the reading experience every time you make a leap.
- I do not have a predictable ending. The tension of a story depends on having events with an uncertain result. The public is motivated to continue the story because they want to find out what the ending is. The risks of a predictable ending are that the story will feel boring and the ending will be disappointing.
- Your main character should be nice. A nice main character gives the reader a pleasant personality to focus on and a reason to worry about everything that happens in the story. The risk of breaking this rule is that consuming history will be unpleasant and the public will have no incentive to continue.
You may notice that these risks are not equal in severity. While they could all lead someone to abandon the story, an unlikely main character is more likely to create this result than a head jump. The more serious the risks of breaking the rule, the stronger the reward must be.
Identify the payoff
Once you consider the risks, it's time to balance them with potential profit. What advantage does the rule violate your story? What makes you do that you could not otherwise? And how much value does this have for your audience?
The last can be difficult. Just because it's exciting and intelligent of you, does not mean it will be nice for your audience. For example, if you break the rules of storytelling to create a revelation, that revelation may not have the effect you hoped it would have.
Let's take a look at our example rules and see what kind of benefits could make the risk worth it.
- Head hopping. Head hopping is made to tell thoughts for all the characters in a scene together. In most cases, this is not necessary and does not give the reader a profit. However, if your story were to take on a lot of humor based on characters that have a different understanding of what's happening in your scenes, then that humorous element could provide enough fun to be worth the risk of shaking the reader.
- Expected end While predictable conclusions are usually a sign of carelessness as a storyteller, a known ending that is tragic can be used to increase tension and add novelty. Opening with a bold declaration that the story will end in tragedy offers the public a strong hook.
- Unlikely main character Because the consequences of this are so serious, it's worth it only if the story you're telling could not be told in another way. Perhaps the story is about how people are capable of doing evil, and this requires the representation of the inner workings of a main character who is bad. The payoff is communicating something precious that could not otherwise be transmitted.
Profit will be stronger if it is more central to history. It is not worth having an unlikely character just to illustrate how people could be evil as a sub-theme in a story about life in the circus. Illustrating the inner workings of evil must be the whole point of history. It is also important that these kinds of narrative choices are clearly intentional. If your point is to describe the evil in depth, it should be obvious at the end of the story that your character is bad. Be bold.
Mitigate the risks
Once you are sure that the prize is one that can compete with the risks, look for other ways in which you can structure and narrate your story to minimize the damage of breaking the rule. You could take further steps to strengthen the weaker parts of the story or avoid the problem by approaching history from another direction.
- Head hopping. Head hopping is more shocking when you're in a near point of view. Therefore, telling the story in an omniscient point of view will make the narration of everyone's thoughts much easier. You can also be slow and methodical about transitions between characters. The narration of the external behavior of each character will first prepare readers to hear their thoughts.
- Expected end While a tragic ending provides a good engagement and fights the risk that your story is boring, there is still the risk of having an unsatisfactory end. To avoid this, you must respect the promise you made at the beginning, but if it takes place just as people expect, it will not be fun anyway. You can help the ending feel satisfying by promoting the uncertainty about how the characters will reach their announced bad end. They will be murdered, but which person kills them? They will be hit by a train, but is it happening now or late?
- Unlikely main character To minimize the unpleasant concentration of a person who is terrible, offer the public something more positive to hold on to. In a written work, avoid a close point of view; instead, use a distant narrator with a more pleasant personality. To give your audience a stronger reason to continue the story, introduce a secondary character on which you can reckon and jeopardize that character.
With a bit of luck, a careful planning will leave you with a unique story that is improved by breaking the rule. But it is always wise to test ambitious stories with some beta readers. After they have given you general feedback, ask them some specific questions to find out if your bet has been repaid.
As unfair as it may seem, rules are easier to break if you like them. If a narrative principle makes you feel defensively about your own work, it will be difficult to judge if your violation of the rules is justified. But once you understand and appreciate the rule, you will be ready to launch it in the wind.