Writing Rules You Can And Should Break

This week on Hide and Create, Moses Siregar, Diana Rowland, Jordan Ellinger, and Joshua Essoe talk about writing rules that are okay to break.

I think our final thought today is one of moderation. Learn when it is okay to break rules and when it is not. And please — make sure you know the rules you’re breaking and break them purposefully. Blundering through because you read some other author write that way is not the way to go. But when you know those rules, go ahead and break them — only break them when it benefits your story. Not when it doesn’t.

6 thoughts on “Writing Rules You Can And Should Break

  1. I definitely enjoyed this episode, but would like to comment more specifically on the fantasy swearing portion. You may count me among those who want no swearing (especially of a sexually explicit or blasphemous sort), no sexual innuendo, and basically nothing naughty dealt with explicitly. I understand others don’t feel that way so I try to be tolerant. George R.R. Martian far exceeds what I would put up with in any other author….were not the other parts of his books so well written, his characters so (otherwise) compelling I would have put them down pretty quickly. So, that said, what follows might come of as a bit of a non sequester.

    I don’t think it is always wise to “translate” coarse language. The reason is this, what sorts of things are considered vulgar in one culture don’t translate well to another. The attempt to write the “dynamic equivalent” robs you of world building opportunity. Consider, in the Chammoro language of the Northern Pacific, the expression (in Chammoro) “your mother’s egg” is exceedingly vile as an insult. They are fighting words, words of deepest contempt. In English all it elicits is a great big question mark. Or, if you traveled among the Dani people of Iryan Jawa a generation or so ago (maybe still) if someone really liked you (non-romantic friendship/fond affection) they would tickle you under the chin and tell you in absolute earnestness the treasured your feces (they used their coarse equivalent of our “s” word). Their whole social vocabulary was liberally littered with scatalogical terms. The idea was that if they though so much of the most repulsive thing about you, then just imagine how they feel about the non disgusting part. Their complementary discourse comes off very close to insult in English. “Translating” from a similarly ordered fantasy culture into an English equivalent loses a lot…”Hi Tom, good to see you” does not carry the cultural curiosity and force of “Hi Tom, your “s…” smells good enough to eat.”

    The larger point is how one curses in a culture says a lot about what informs the value system, social norms of a culture. Let’s say you write a medieval fantasy culture where the lowlives and bad boys are saying bloody this and zounds that and drat the other. Those profanities arose in a specifically Christian culture (zounds=God’s wounds, bloody=by our Lady, drat= God rot). If you use anything like those terms and your culture is not Christian or crypto-Christian, then, you’ve got some mythos development to re-referentiate those terms.

    The fact that in western civilization that sexually explicit terms are considered vulgar and not fit for the ears of decent people tells us that for us, culturally speaking, that sex is a socially guarded/regulated activity of the highest sort. It is a taboo area spoken of and engaged it in a few limited ways. Violation of that taboo is barbaric and uncivil…unChristian. The deepest intimacies are those most hedged about….and hedge breakers are regard with varying degrees of social opprobrium, which brings me to a related point, vulgarities are class indicators. Vulgar is what is common, what is found on any dirty little street corner or in the yard of any little dirt silled shack. Better sorts do not speak or act with such animal directness as the lower classes. They have self restraint, and a number of elegant euphemisms nods, and eyebrow twitches to discuss the less delicate aspects of the human condition.

    So while I am no fan of coarseness, profanity, swearing, or blasphemy…I do realize it is not utterly without place in art (even if only as a bad example)…but if it is going to be used it should not be used wantonly for purulent shock value…that got tiresome 30 years ago. And I think if used to build a sense of the world view and mindset of a culture and it’s classes, rather than just “translated” into some coarse English equivalent, an opportunity for deep world building might be lost.

  2. Correction of last sentence: “And I think if used to build a sense of the world view and mindset of a culture and it’s classes, rather than just “translated” into some coarse English equivalent, an opportunity for deep world building might not be lost.”

  3. Really interesting information, Bob! I especially liked reading about the specific curses you mentioned that mean nothing to us, while being exceptionally vile in another culture. Another example is a curse in Cantonese which basically translates to “fall onto the street.” This is one of the worst things you can say to a person in Hong Kong, but here, it just sounds silly. Your support of the point that language and curses present a good world-building opportunity is a good one, and also what the curses say about a society in general.

    As with all else, moderation and careful consideration are what is important. If your created curses are causing confusion, adding to a mood or atmosphere that is contradictory to what’s going on in the story (making it feel silly, when dramatic things are going on, for example), however, it is best to remove them and just use language that is easy and fast for readers to understand.

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