In Fiction, Nothing Is Forbidden, Everything Is Permitted

In other words: “Fuck the rules.”

WHOA, JEEZ, ME. SLOW YOUR ROLL, WENDIG.

Okay, so, at cons and conferences — or via e-mail — someone inevitably mentions in a question something that writer is “not supposed to do.” This person has been reliably and repeatedly informed at some point that This Particular Thing is Fucking Anathema, a Dealbreaker Of Epic Narrative Proportions, and to Do This Shitty Thing is Tantamount To Kicking A Baby Down A Flight Of Steps Into A Pile Of Burning Books. (No, I don’t know why I capitalized a bunch of those words, but it felt good at the time. This is probably appropriate given the post I am about to write.)

This can be anything, really.

Don’t open on weather.

Don’t open with a character looking in a mirror.

Don’t open on a character just waking up.

Never ever use an adverb ever.

(Related: “In Writing, There Are Rules, And Then There Are Rules.”)

And for all that’s fucking holy, writing a prologue is a major biggum no-no, on par with and as pleasant as prolapsing one’s anus. You may in fact be told that a Prologue killed Jesus in the Gospel According To… I don’t remember. Dave, maybe. Dan? Eh.

Point is: Somewhere, you’ll find a list of prohibitions that some writer somewhere decided was an official bad idea. This is maybe a published writer. This is maybe just some yahoo.

But what I want you to realize is this: for every prohibition made, for every supposed forbiddance, you will find a book that defies that supposed dictum. Not just a book — you’ll find a published book. A good book, too. Maybe one that sold a metric keister-load of copies. For every rule, many notable exceptions to that rule.

I mean, okay, I dunno how good it is, but I wrote Blackbirds by breaking a ton of these narrative norms and storytelling mores, these purported prescriptions. I open with a character looking in the mirror. It’s present tense, but third person. It’s a mish-mash of genres: frog-hopping from horror to crime to urban fantasy. I use lots of dream sequences and flashbacks. I wrote a theoretically unlikable character (though I prefer to think of her as quite lovable just the same, but then again, I’m kinda goofy). I actively and openly wanted to defy rules.

Hell, pick up a bunch of genre books and you will find contained with them a — drum roll please — prologue. Despite its reported Jesus-killing powers, the prologue continues to pop up like an errant credit card charge, like a bad smell, like the aforementioned prolapsed anus. Prologues are like a dietary restriction that we say we don’t wanna eat and yet there we are, gobbling the damn things down like we don’t care if we end up with a barely-chewed kielbasa clogging our aorta.

It is with this you need to realize:

This is your story.

It’s your book.

You can do whatever the flippy, floppy fuck you want.

Nothing is forbidden. Everything is permitted.

If you listened to every prohibition out there about writing, you’d be trapped in so tight a box I’m not sure you could even write a story at all. You’d probably just be writing the repair manual for a 1990 Geo Tracker.

With this, I offer two very important caveats:

First, just because everything is permitted doesn’t mean everyone likes those particular things. Some agents and editors — if you are going that route — will immediately throw the Kill Switch upon seeing one of these boogers appear. “She began her story by addressing the reader,” the editor says, then promptly spaces the manuscript through the merciless mouth of her spacecraft’s airlock. (All editors live in spaceships floating above the dystopian island of Manhattan. I originally thought this was to protect them from Amazon in a kind of Reagan-era defense program, but now I think it’s just because: hey, spaceship.)

Second, if you are going to break any of these prohibitions, know that they exist for a reason. Defying them is meaningful — an act of rebellion that says two things: one, “I don’t give a shit about your rules,” and two, “I am good enough to step on them and break their little bones.” Your contravention of expectation — your demand to be an exception — has to be one made of great effort and skill. Most prologues? They’re dogshit. That’s why everyone hates them, because people tack them on not because it’s essential to the tale but because they saw some other asshole do it and they thought, “I dunno, it’s a trope?” Like they’re checking a checkbox. People who overuse adverbs are frequently amateurs. People who start with weather do so not because the weather is essential to convey something about the plot, or the setting, or to lend us mood, but rather because the storyteller doesn’t know what the fuck to talk about. “I dunno — uhhh. The sun… is up? But a storm is… coming? Wait, is there supposed to be something relevant here?”

Do not ignore the prohibitions.

Know them.

And give them the middle finger when and only when you know why you need to go the other way. Nothing is forbidden, but a whole bunch of shit isn’t particularly recommended, and when you decide to walk the challenging path — when you pull a stunt — you better own it, and rock it like only you can. Write with purpose and awareness. It’s your story. So know why you’re making the choices you’re making. That is the way of the wise storyteller.

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