Successful Novels That Break the Rules of Writing

magical forest in a library

You know there are hundreds of excellent novels out there, but even among the great ones, few stand apart as truly unique.

These are the bold books, whose authors took risks and broke rules to create something original and refreshing. Of all those I’ve enjoyed, there seems to be three distinct types:

  1. Those that don’t open with a hook
  2. Those with outrageous or made-up dialogue
  3. Those that defy conventional novel construction

(1) Hookless Books

Almost every agent, publisher, and writer will tell you that if you want to draw readers into your novel, you must open it with a hook! But on rare occasions (and we should probably not attempt to follow these exceptional examples), extraordinary books open without a hook, starting slowly like an elderly person shuffling down a store aisle. These books often repel the impatient reader.

But for those who stick with it, those who perceive the confidence with which the author is writing, will be rewarded with an amazing story. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, and Tad William’s The Dragonbone Chair are two of the most conspicuous examples of great fantasies without opening hooks. Both start off slowly, tediously even. They take 100 or 200 pages to really get into the meat of the story. But for hungry readers the rewards are munificent! Jonathan Strange is one of my Top 5 favorite books. I lose myself to its magic once every year.

(2) Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh

Novels featuring screwy dialogue that should not have worked truly bamboozle me. I mean, one of the Unwritten Rules of Writing is that ‘You do not type out accents or make up words!’ That is amateur hour, a sure way to have your work rejected.

And yet, Irvine Welsh committed this very sin in his masterwork Trainspotting. His Scottish characters have thick accents, and he felt he needed to convey this by writing it out phonetically. I couldn’t trudge through one page of this unintelligible claptrap, but I know there are those who swear it is the bomb.

Ah dinnae ken. Try it and decide for yerself, ya wee scunner!

man shaking his head

A Clockwork Orange is another example of this type. Anthony Burgess did something new when he wrote this . . . dystopia? For Alex and his droogs, he created an entire sub-language, a sort of advanced gutter-speak that lends an entirely unique tone and structure to his novel. He was also clever enough to give his youthful anti-hero a respectable trait: a love for classical music, especially of Ludwig Van. And so this work has become a cult classic—because Burgess was bold enough to take a risk.

(3) I Will Not Be Quantified Novels

Even more of a standout from the first two, are those novels that simply refuse to be classified. These sensational buggers defy narrative. The Road (which I am currently reading) has enough substance and tonality to have been published on these merits alone. But Cormac McCarthy decided to take it one step further; to mirror his bleak created world, he made his writing bleak and gray, like the ash that covers everything in his dystopian world. No quotations marks, no indentations for new paragraphs, giving the visual appearance of the same bleakness on page after page, just as the father and the son see nothing but the same bleakness everywhere they go. In place of comma’s McCarthy often uses ‘and’ multiple times in one sentence. This lends the book a monotonous straightforward sound—again, just like the world his characters inhabit, silent and unsettling.

bird box woman blindfolded

Bird Box by Josh Malerman is another example of a defiant novel. This bizarre and oddly engaging work completely disregards all narrative convention. Here, I’ll prove it:

  • It has no beginning, middle and end, but simply wanders back and forth fluidly through time
  • It’s antagonists are not seen (that’s the gimmick)
  • No explanation is given for the appearance of the baddies and we do not know their agenda other than to terrorize because . . .
  • The protagonist does not go through a journey of change. She does not discover something new about herself or the world, except perhaps that nowhere is safe.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino knocked me for a loop years ago when I read it, and I have not forgotten it since. It is IMHO the most original novel ever written. It defies classification and its author makes no attempt at following any Rules of Writing.

Despite all that (or perhaps because of all that), it was published and has remained in the public consciousness.

If on a winter's night a traveler book cover

The books distinctive attributes include:

  • Being written in 2nd Person, a rare and slightly discomfiting find in a novel.
  • It does not follow a straightforward or linear narrative.
  • Many of its successive chapters are actually first chapters of different books in different genres and different styles
  • You are both reader and writer of these stories
  • You are both a male reader and a female reader at different times
  • Each chapter is interrupted at a moment of heightened suspense, and you are then led on to the next chapter (or book)
  • You find yourself attracted to the other reader, and vice versa
  • There’s no clear resolution or ending
  • It is a love poem of reading and an ode to the art of writing.

The moral here, I believe, is that if you are struggling to find your style or voice, don’t be afraid to break some rules of writing. You never know what magic you might conjure up. So read and be inspired, and take risks with your writing. What do you have to lose?

schwarzenegger giving thumbs up