You Gotta Know the Rules to Break the Rules

One of my favorite memories from teenager-hood was the night some friends and I sneaked out of our houses and met at the Waffle House at midnight. We were all sixteen, and driving was our newly granted privilege (or at least for most of us, I was the youngest and constantly hitching rides). We were all basically good kids, and a couple of us were spending the night with one of the best-behaved girls parents could hope for. I’m not sure her parents fully appreciated back then how good they had it with her. She was one of those teenage anomalies who followed the rules, not for fear of consequence, but because it was the right thing to do. It was very strange. If she hadn’t been so wonderfully goofy, I would’ve suspected her to be a narc.

It’s probably going to sound really boring, but we didn’t do anything dastardly or illegal that night. We sneaked out of her house (I can’t remember if we shimmied down from her second-story room or just went quietly out the door), pushed the car down the driveway in neutral, and started it once we got to the end of the street, hearts pounding with adrenalin. We met a guy friend of ours at the Waffle House, and… ate waffles. We played the jukebox and slow-danced to the amazement/irritation/non-surprise of the various other Waffle House patrons. And we went home. No drinking, no drugs, no sex, no breaking into stores for cigarettes or going to crazy parties. The simple thrill was breaking the rules for its own sake.

Full disclosure: Later that year, I did get caught after sneaking out to go to the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the sketchy Hilltop Family Cinemas in Mableton, Georgia and was grounded for six weeks. Over Christmas. And I had to ride the bus to school. Totally worth it. Oh, Rocky!

In adolescence, in writing, in cooking, and in life: If you’re going to break the rules, you have to accept the risks. And to do that, you have to understand the rules and why they’re there, and what the consequences could be for breaking them.

Yeah, these totally don't exist. Except they do.
Yeah, these totally don’t exist. Except when they do.

There’s been a great conversation going on this week, on the blog of one of my favorite writer’s writers, Kristen Lamb. This week’s theme has been on the evil (Kristen’s power word for “ill-advisedness”) of flashbacks in fiction. *Cough – middle section of The Marriage Pact – cough, cough.*

The thing about flashbacks isn’t just Kristen’s personal axe to grind; it’s one of the “rules” of good fiction, as much as there are rules, which obviously there aren’t. But really, there are. See? Simple.

I’ve been around many newbie writers in my day, and I’ve been a newbie writer myself. (Astonishingly, I think I’ve managed to be a newbie writer during two distinct phases of my life. Pull that one off if you can.) Anyway, one of the problems that newbies have is that we are very rule-resistant. We’ve read Hunter S. Thompson and James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and Stephen King, and we know damn good and well that there are absolutely no rules for fiction, other than grammar, which many authors ignore anyway.

So we pull out our trusty laptop and hammer out that novel that everyone’s been telling us for years we really ought to write. And it’s great, and our Mom loves it, and we’re sure that the next stop is the bestseller list… Until we seek feedback from those more experienced, educated or immersed in the literary/publishing world. If we’re lucky, these people will teach us about some of the rules of good fiction by pointing out what we’ve done wrong. In my opinion, this is the best way to learn the rules because it’s so painful you really remember it. Like being grounded over Christmas break your junior year in high school. Painful.

This way of learning, however, also comes with an unfortunate downside. Many new writers – in particular those who have slaved to put 90,000 words into the same Word document – are not exactly in the mood to hear that we’ve broken the rules in a big way. For someone to tell us about story arc, three-part-structure, conflict, main characters, point of view, etc., AFTER we thought we were basically done with the biggest accomplishment of our lives…. well, it sucks.

So, the options are these: (1) rewrite the entire novel paying attention to The Rules, (2) build a time machine and go back to the point where we started the novel and tell ourselves the rules before we start writing, or (3) defend our novel blindly and vigorously, claiming that our story is high art rather than mainstream fiction, and citing every example of a famous writer who broke the rule in question. “But William Faulkner’s work doesn’t follow three-act structure!” (Often it does, but anyway). “George R. R. Martin doesn’t use a main character!” (Don’t even get me started on that one – it can be its own blog). The hard-to-face correct answer is #1, but the unfortunate, frequent and totally human response of many newbies is #3. Big, fat, resentful #3, which often pushes us away from help and growth, and eventually, discourages us from writing at all.

As first-time authors, we are not Faulkner or GRRM or James Joyce. And even those guys were not Those Guys when they started out. They practiced writing things in a traditional way before branching out and changing the face of literature. Pablo Picasso spent years learning to create accurate sketches of human faces before he did this. The Wunderkind who sits down at the computer for the first time and hammers out a Pulitzer-winning novel is the infinitesimal exception, not the rule. The other 999,999,653 of us? We have some work to do. We have to embrace The Rules so that we can learn to break them to good purpose.

When I put a ginormous flashback in the middle of The Marriage Pact (which is on sale until May 8 if you want to check it out for yourself), I didn’t know that “no flashbacks” was one of the rules. I thought people did it all the time. Fortunately for me, I had some mitigating factors on my side. The flashback came at a point in the story when there was a natural break in the action, so it didn’t totally stop the forward momentum of the book. The glimpse of Marci and Jake’s college days was important to the story – I mean, it’s called The Marriage Pact, for heaven’s sake – and it had to be worked in one way or another. So it wasn’t totally out of left field. The problem was that the flashback was four chapters long and included WAAAAAAAY more details about Jake and Marci’s past than anyone needed. Looking back, I wish I had found another way to work it in. That part of the book has been cut down a good bit in later revisions, but if you made it through the first edition without skipping whole chapters, you’re a reading rockstar.

Before I published the novel, a couple of my more literary beta readers pointed out the flashback problem, and I shared their sense that something was off about it. What I didn’t know then was exactly what was off and why, or how to go about training myself to understand and fix it. I was an English major, I made the Dean’s List, I took creative writing classes. I was already a writer, dammit — what could I possibly learn that I didn’t already know? Plus Jake and Marci’s history felt essential to me. Plus I liked it, so there.

A good summary of the state of things in spring of 2011 was when my friend and beta reader Ryan said over Korean chicken wings (mmmm….) “The flashback slows the book down a little bit, but I don’t see another way for you to tell this story.”

I didn’t see one, either. But if I’m being honest? I didn’t want to see one. It takes a tremendous amount of momentum to write a novel, especially your first. That momentum pulls you naturally toward the next step in the publication process, the way labor pains make you want to get that kid out at all costs. Telling a newbie author to re-think and maybe re-write their whole book is almost like telling an expectant mother that the pregnancy is actually going to last an extra two months. Oh. Hell. No. I’ll fix commas and dangling participles, sure. But no way am I deleting whole chapters and writing new ones. This baby is ready to be born.

So, I birthed it. And since I self-published, I had no agents or editors or publishers to force me to re-think the big ol’ flashback. Fortunately for me, the book had enough other stuff going for it that people generally liked it. It’s a fun story; with quirky, flawed characters and interesting subplots. But there were negative reviews, too. And guess what almost every single one mentioned? Yep. The giant flashback in the middle. It’s funny, isn’t it? I’ll bet not one of those readers knew The Rules of Writing Fiction. They probably never studied story structure or character development. But they knew when something got boring and slow and bogged them down. They knew what they liked and what… sucked.

Since then, I’ve fixed what I could with my first baby. I have also developed a new respect for the rules of fiction. I no longer see them as formulaic and tedious, but as guideposts for the reader’s experience. I’ve made it my mission to study, understand and even teach them when I can. That doesn’t mean I won’t still shimmy out a window occasionally, but I’ll know more about what I’m getting into when I do.


I’m M.J. (Manda) Pullen, an author and mom in the Atlanta, Georgia area. I blog with honesty and humor about writing, publishing, motherhood, psychology and whatever else strikes me in the moment. I make lots of mistakes so you don’t have to!

If you enjoyed this entry, please follow along with my blog or join my Writers and Authors Email List. At the end of each month I do random drawings with various prizes for list subscribers, the friends who refer them, and everyone who comments on the blogs. Good luck with that!

My current roster of books includes The Marriage Pact series, a trilogy of Contemporary Romance/Women’s Fiction novels. You can find them for all eBook formats and in paperback here.


MJ Pullen

M.J. Pullen is a distracted writer and the mom of two boys in Roswell, Georgia, where she is absolutely late for something important right now. Her books include quirky romantic comedies and playful women's fiction. She blogs erratically with writing advice, random observations, and reflections on raising very loud kids and dogs. Join her Distracted Readers newsletter list for updates, free content, giveaways and more.

4 thoughts on “You Gotta Know the Rules to Break the Rules”

  1. LisaLisa

    I was hooked from the moment I read one of my favorite Tom Petty lyrics in The Marriage Pact. Flashbacks of my own.

  2. RyanRyan

    In a classic example of paying it forward, MJ actually kept me from writing a near-fatal POV shift in my to-be-written novel over chips and salsa (mmm…chips and salsa).

    Great point about needing to live within the rules awhile before knowing when to break them! Before Absalom, Absalom! came Sanctuary, and they’re both good novels in their own right. Students of literature often see how authors have tried out their experimental techniques in earlier works, only to make those devices shine in their later ones. What we don’t often see, a century later, are all of those less revolutionary, but still important, works that got that author to the point where she could make those choices confidently and with purpose.

  3. Pansy PetalPansy Petal

    Well gee! Guess I didn’t know the rules either. I read Marriage Pact in it’s first rendition and loved it! As is! Flash back and all. Does that make me a rebel? Or just ignorant of the rules? Doesn’t matter. I still love it! I am glad you are learning and growing. I can love even better. 😉 Thank you for the lesson.

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