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

The Making of a Hero: How Spiderman 2 Shows Writers How to Create True Heroes

One of the smartest comic book movies ever written has some great lessons for us writers. What better way to pick up some writing tips than by watching movies?

In Spiderman 2 (2004), director Sam Raimi employed a technique with his main character that great writers have long used, but which, sadly, many writers today fail to employ. That is the method of pounding your MC into the ground. Blast him with bad news. Take everything he has from him and then kick his feet out from under him. (Ali of aliventures wrote a nice little post about this, here.)

George RR Martin has perfected this method. He beats the crap out of his characters. In fact, it is through his extreme use of this method that Martin is able to manipulate readers into sympathizing with formerly despicable characters. (But that is a more advanced writing technique for another post for another time.)

We watch, mesmerized, as Peter Parker is fired from his job, discovers that the love of his life is engaged to another man; he is mistreated and abused and disregarded by everyone (except his anorexic female neighbor), loses his self-confidence and his web-slinging ability by association, and finally is forced to endure a public slapping from his best friend. And that’s not even mentioning his main problem: a vengeful scientist with four mechanical arms welded to his body.

It’s one thing after another, beating poor Peter into the ground.

In novels and movies this makes us feel for the MC. But beneath the surface, it also creates wonderful opportunities for character arcs.

When you hurt your darlings—just as with real people in real life—they become vulnerable and open to deep emotional states. Peter eventually chooses the right path, that of a hero. That’s the story crux of Spiderman 2. He learns to become the hero, not because he can, but because that is who he wants to be for his city, no matter its negative effects on his own personal life.

But if you watch the movie and pay close attention, and think about it, you will realize that all these terrible events in his life could just as easily have resulted in creating a villain out of Peter Parker.

In fact, those events are, when you get right down to it, basically the origin story of many villains. They are basically the same things (or worse) that happened to Adrian Toomes in Spiderman: Homecoming.

The difference is that Toomes handled the situation poorly. His decision was driven by selfish impulses. Instead of reflecting on what the city needed, he considered only his own desires. Peter Parker considered his desires, but he also weighed them against the needs of his hometown, and he was wise enough to recognize and confess that his wants and needs—as always—paled in comparison to the needs of New York.

Mythcreants offers a useful little guide for villain origin stories (and even uses movies as examples, which is always cool.)

Does it seem strange that a hero and a villain origin story might be found in the same circumstances?

When I think about it, I must admit that it does not seem strange, after all.

Heroism and villainy are two sides of the same coin. It should come as no surprise that the basis for both might be similar; circumstances (should) shape each of your characters. It is their response to their situation that determines their personality and, ultimately, their destiny.

There are few things more rewarding to read about than characters in dire straits coming to terms with their stations and resolving how to respond.

How do your characters respond to their situations?

It is a vital question you must consider if you want to create a compelling narrative and bold characters. Indecisive characters are annoying. Those who know who they are, or who know who that want to be, make for the greatest, most entertaining characters. They are the sort of people your readers want to read about.

When Peter Parker decides to be the hero the city (and he himself) needs, we are treated to a character with a resolute mind. He knows who he is—and so what follows is pure entertainment.

When you sit down to write your characters, remember to pound them into the ground, force them into making tough decisions. By the end, they should know who they are, and happily embrace who they are—like you. You are a writer. Embrace that fact. Rejoice in it! Educate yourself in the art and joy of writing, by reading and writing. And don’t forget to look for tips in your favorite movies, or right here.

Free Self-Help E-Book Giveaway: Insights into the Self-Improvement Genre

As thanks to my wonderful readers, I am giving away my book The (Psycho) Path to Success.

It is an expose/parody of the self-help industry. I want to share the insight I have been given into a genre that–for the most part—deviously deceives its readers, with tactics designed to enrich, not its followers, but its authors.

Self-help gurus and life coaches make millions with their books and ‘life mastery retreats’ while making unfounded claims that if you follow their expert advice, you too will have everything you want. (All you have to do is buy into their schemes: they sell hope, so you can buy it.)

In The (Psycho) Path, I expose their tactics and deceptions, using one of their own tropes against them: the classic 7 Steps format. Steve Salerno’s own brilliantly researched expose on the self-help industry—SHAM—was very informative, but ultimately it turned even me away. It was clear the man had bones to pick with self-help. His tone was angry, hateful.

So I employ a more playful tone in my expose, treating it like a parody, but filled with incites and tips on how to free yourself from the expensive schemes of these sham artists.

It is my gift to you, for free until November 26, this Sunday. After that, Amazon will force me to start charging for it. Grab it up for free while you can (it’ll still be only .99 cents after Sunday) and discover why (most) self-help spiels inspire, motivate, and exalt you, but ultimately fail to improve your life; and how (most) life-coaches stroke your ego while draining your bank account.

Remember, not all self-help books are deceptive and underhanded. Some select few are genuinely designed to help people. But they are the minority. Beware how you browse the Self-Help shelves.

The playful tone of my little e-book is wonderfully captured by J.P Sears, in his How to Be a Life Coach YouTube video. Check it out down below, and don’t forget to grab The (Psycho) Path to Success for FREE if you want to find out how a multi-billion dollar industry is duping millions of Americans. Happy reading!