There are two myths that go around about keeping and breaking the rules.

I’m not only talking about writing – the same myths apply to just about anything in the arts, and in fact anything in life. Brad Pitt in Seven - two myths about keeping or breaking the rules

Myth 1: You have to keep the rules or you’ll fail.

Myth 2: If you stick to the rules, you’ll fail.

The truth is, they are both partially right and both partially wrong.

Myth 1 exists because someone once tried to work out what they were doing wrong. They analysed all the people who succeed and made a list of the things they were doing.

In writing, that’s three act structure, likable characters, show don’t tell… all of that.

These are the things that people expect from a good novel, movie, play, etc. Get them wrong and they’ll vote with their feet (and their wallets).

Myth 2 exists because someone then tried to write according to the rules and produced bland rubbish. They then had another look at all those successes and discovered that they broke rules all over the place.

But breaking the rules doesn’t mean you can simply write a novel or script (drive a car, or sell a house…) without caring about the rules at all.

(Actually, many people have. But when you look at their work you realise they already had an intuitive sense of how their industry worked. They learned the rules – they just didn’t do it out of a book or workshop).

So, what’s a person to do?

First, you learn the rules.

That’s the easy part – just about every industry nowadays has hundreds of books, web-sites, workshops, and so on, to teach you how things are done. Many are relatively cheap or even free. Some (being a doctor or pilot, for example) cost a bit more.

Second, you practise until they become second nature.

This is harder. This is the point at which most people give up.

Third, you start to discover times when the rules simply don’t work.

(An operation needs to be adapted. A plane stops doing what it’s supposed to do).

As most people have, as I said, already given up, few get this far. But this is an even bigger challenge.

You can’t just proceed as if the rules don’t apply.

Suppose you want to drive through town at double the speed limit. You’d fairly quickly find that the police had something to say about it.

However, there are ways of breaking every rule if you know the trick.

There are ways of driving that fast and getting away with it. Think about it.

You could join the emergency services, for example. Or become a racing driver. Or perform movie stunts. Or test drive fast cars. Or move to a country which doesn’t have speed limits. Or be very careful about which roads you choose and what times of day…

Here are the four tricks to breaking the rules:

1. Know why the rule exists.

Speed limits have a reason – safety. So does three act structure – coherence, shape, pace, etc.

2. Find other ways of delivering what is asked for

An ambulance driver delivers safety in a different way. An episodic novel – such as Candide – finds different ways of staying coherent, well-shaped, etc.

3. Compensate for what isn’t being provided

Police drivers may break the limit but they compensate for it by (often) catching criminals. Plays that break the rules may compensate their audience by giving them something even better – humour, for example, fast action, intellectual ideas, fascinating characters, or steamy sex…

4. Warn people up-front about what you’re planning to do

Fire engines have sirens and flashing lights. Books and films have titles, among other things. If you’ve written a seven-act movie – why not warn the audience up-front by calling it “Seven“. Base it on the seven deadly sins. Title each act with the seven days of the week…

Soon even the most rule-bound audience member will get the point.

Try it out.

Where in your life do you feel you should know the rules better? How are you going to learn? Where are you going to practise?

And where do you feel you should break some rules? How are you going to get away with it?

Tell me how you get on.

(But I’m not visiting you in jail!)

If you found this article useful, you can read more about breaking the rules here