Breaking The Rules


Recently I finished a book by Tim Johnston called DESCENT.  I loved the book, but the reason I wanted to blog about it is related to the way he wrote it versus an actual review of the story.

I’ve heard over and over, from reading articles online, to comments by other writers, and even in a variety of ways spouted by the magnificent Shark herself, if the writing is stellar, you can get away with just about anything.  For instance, recently on her blog we discussed the use of italicized words.  Generally, La Sharque and others felt that keeping italics to a minimum, to emphasize a character’s internal thoughts, or a specific word, was the best use.

So.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered page upon page upon page of italicized words within DESCENT.  And.  And.  Tim Johnston didn’t use it for only one character, or to signal he was dipping into backstory, he used the font “at will,” and by that, I mean when he thought the story needed it.  It is written in third person omniscient, allowing Johnston to reveal the thoughts and feelings of several characters.  Father, mother, son, daughter, sheriff, sheriff’s brother, all get their turns, although a good chunk of it is written from the son’s and father’s view.  The one character you don’t get into the head of, which is probably what amps up the suspense, is the primary antagonist.  The one the daughter refers to as “The Monkey.”

When the italicized chapters pop up (yes, full chapters in italics) you sometimes don’t immediately know from whose perspective you’re getting that part of the story.  There are a couple areas where the italicized chapters are back to back.  You start to think he’s carrying on from the previous character’s perspective, only to find out, it’s now shifted to someone else.  This is resolved fairly quick as you read a sentence or two.

Does this sound like it would have been the wrong thing to do?  I have to wonder and more than that, admire the skill of this decision, because it works.  I’ll admit, I had get used to it, and I definitely had to pay attention as things began to happen, but all in all, because the writing is so good, it didn’t take a thing away, and what I might have thought of as a distraction, wasn’t.  As a matter of fact, I almost got to where I felt a small jump of excitement when I turned a page to find the beginning of an italicized chapter because those parts seemed so significant to the story.  Honestly though, the overall story itself was so well done, I didn’t care what fonts were used.

And that’s really the point of this post.  If you can write a story, and write it in such a way as to grab a reader from the first sentence, they won’t care what you do with fonts or much of anything else.  Hook me, and at that point, I won’t care about anything but the story.

Some writers break the rules, but, who cares, if the story is that good?

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8 Comments

The more I read stuff like this, the more I am convinced that voice & style are The Hook. I’ve been completely absorbed by a book outside my preferred genres becuase That’s How Good the author wrote it. Sometimes it is exactly how they broke the rules that makes it work.

I gush in professional envy when I see writing like that and I spend my idle daydreaming time wishing I could write that well… or rather, I daydream I am able to analyse what they’ve done so right, so I can do it too.

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    I know voice and style really do the job for me and I think that’s why I’m able to pick up a book, read a few paragraphs, and know if I’ll be interested enough in it to buy it.

    This is also why I keep a stack of books by my laptop, so I can study the writing structure, their choice of words, sentences etc.

    I’ve read books outside of my genre too – mainly YA because they were SO good.

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I think writers are more concerned with (and even aware of) the so-called rules than most readers are. Rules can be seductive, especially in a subjective endeavor as creative writing. Thus, I think, many writers accept almost any rule they can to give them a kind of certainty about their writing. Do most readers care about split infinitives? Sentence fragments (my personal violation of choice)? And so on. As you say, if it works for the reader it works. That’s really the only rule I adhere to. (Also Oxford commas.) (And single spacing after a sentence.)

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    I agree. I never care so much about the rules as much as when I’m worrying myself over something like structure. All of us, writers/readers or just readers only want a good story. I also think lit fiction tends to have less rules, and interestingly, this book is considered a literary thriller for his McCarthy’ish style. Ala “the boy” and “the girl,” etc. I too, am guilty of split infinitives. And I get ticked off when MS Word highlights them. I just ignore all that, and write like I want.

    Could be why I’m not pub’ed yet. 🙂

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That kind of reminds me of all the “songs” Tolkien used. The first time I read the LoTR, I skipped all the Elf songs etc. Then, later I reread the set and saw the genius of how he wove history and back story in. It was an amazing “discovery ” in a story I thought I knew 🙂

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    I read that trilogy when I was thirteen. (impressed the folks I babysat for 🙂 ) It’s been so long ago I don’t recall the Elf songs, but that is a perfect example of doing something unique/different, something that adds to the story instead of taking away, which ultimately translates into a win.

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If it works, it works! I do think established writers are given much broader leeway to experiment with forms and “break the rules”–but in the end, if you’ve got a great voice and a compelling story, there’s not much you can’t do. The “rules” are only guidelines to help, anyway. For the creative mind, they can’t be anything but guidelines. Creative-types like to play fast and loose with rules. 🙂

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    That’s the truth! This was his first adult novel. Before this he’d written a YA called Never So Green and a collection Irish Girl. Still!!! I was impressed but hey, he also teaches creative writing at the University of Memphis, so he knows his stuff, knows how to push the envelope within reason and make it work.

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