In the same way that “not politically-correct” is unironically the politically-correct word that racists and bigots call themselves to hide what they’re not politically-correct about, there are no rules is the only ironclad rule a lot of writers follow.
And I can’t judge. I believed there are no rules so much, I believed for years that if a story didn’t break a rule, it couldn’t be great. And because I can’t think I’m right unless I’m absolutely sure I’m right, I set out to prove it. Over three years I wrote dozens of short stories, and sold six of them.
But then I looked at my theory, compared it to real world results, and realized…there may be something to these rules after all. But I used to play chess as a kid. I loved it. A big swoop across the board to snipe a plum piece from the depths of enemy territory where it probably felt safest the most was a great pleasure. But the older I got, the more I realized I was playing against people who would ask if I was using _______ opening when and I’d be like, I made the pawn go forward. And while I did, occasionally still get to sweep across the board like the angel of death, it became a less frequent and farther apart move. I realized if I wanted to still play chess and have a chance to win, I had to actually study how to play.
And I didn’t want to. So while I’ll still play a random game for the lulz, I know how to move the chess pieces, but I can’t say I know how to play the game beyond the basics. This is why I think “There are no rules” is so dangerous. There’s a difference between the writers who break the rules and the writers who know how to break them.
During my MFA, what bothers me the most is how “but I did that on purpose” was a conversation killer. Because, obviously, I never once thought that the writer didn’t know the rule they were breaking. I didn’t think they understood what it was there for and what it was doing, but that was never part of the conversation. These were simple things, like show the important stuff, character should want something, or stories should start on page one. In my advanced 5XX class, Writing 101 wasn’t understood. And every time I tried to explain why showing the reader what the character is more afraid of will have far more impact on the reader that telling them what the character is afraid of. But that the fact that it’s told between telling the reader what the character wants and telling the reader what they hope for, it has no thunder at all.
My greatest growth came after the realization that if I didn’t understand what the rule was doing, I couldn’t break it on purpose, and just understanding what the rule was doing on the intellectual basis wasn’t showing up in my work. If I wanted to understand the rules, I had to follow them.
But I’d just moved to Lethbridge and sold my first semi-pro book. The more I learned, the more I realized just how foundational the foundations of writing is. Which sounds ridiculous, but breaking away from groupthink is something cult deprogrammers have to do. There is no groupthink louder in writing than the myth that rules don’t exist. Which isn’t what the rules are saying, but functionally, if any rule can be broken, then rules can only be suggestions at best.
I’m fairly certain every student in my class thinks I’m a massive traditionalist who thinks the only good story is a good story that doesn’t break the rules, no matter how much effort I put into explaining what I said. I could break any rule I wanted now, if I wanted, but most of my stories follow them because you can still tell amazing stories through conventional means.
Learning how to get the most out of a story through conventional storytelling was a hard enough journey when every new step built on what I’d just understood. I couldn’t imagine trying to figure all of that out through the unconventional path I was on. Before, a story only worked if it came out working. Now, I know I can fix it.