The Rules of Writing Fiction (and why you should break them)

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I can’t quite remember what happened in my favorite book I’ve ever read.  I’m sure you’re asking how it’s my favorite if I don’t even remember what takes place in it, but that’s sort of the magic of The Raw Shark Texts.  Allow me to give you a brief synopsis of the book.

Eric Sanderson doesn’t know who he is.  Doctors say it’s a mental condition, but letters from “The first Eric Sanderson” paint a much more sinister picture.  These letters tell of Eric’s lost love, and say that a conceptual shark that feeds on human memories and personalities is hunting Eric and will eventually wipe out his identity and memories once and for all.

Sound weird?  You don’t know the half of it.  This book is full of some of the strangest stuff I’ve ever read, but it’s not just these wild concepts that make the book so compelling, it’s how they’re presented.  The conceptual shark is represented by text that’s laid out to look like a shark, whole pages of the book are dedicated to code breaking, and there’s even a stretch of 20 or more pages towards the end of the book that are completely blank, leading to one of the coolest endings in a book I’ve ever read.

The Raw Shark Texts is as much an experience as it is a story.  I don’t remember a ton about it,  but if you’re a writer then I do recommend you look at it for one important reason.  To completely destroy any limits that exist in your mind as to what can and can’t be done in a novel.

There are a lot of rules to writing.  Most of them exist for good reason, and if you follow all the rules it’ll generally help you craft better stories.  However, every once in a while it’s nice to be reminded that the rules aren’t set in stone, and sometimes the best thing you can possibly do for your story is to break some of the rules.  Tell a story backwards, kill your main character in the second chapter, switch points of view mid-chapter, print the text upside down in a scene where the characters are hanging upside down, do some things that aren’t technically within the rules of fiction.  It might go terribly wrong, and you might have to go back and tidy up your little fiction experiment and get it back resembling the kind of stories that we all know and love.  But, you might just create something or do something memorable that no one else has ever done before.

The funny thing is, as much of an influence as The Raw Shark Texts was on me, I’ve never attempted any mind-bending or rule-defying tricks with my writing.  But just knowing that I can, that there’s no option off the table, that if my story ever calls for it I can shake up the status quo of storytelling and book design, knowing that these things are options helps me as a creator.  The rules of fiction guide me, but they don’t constrain me.  And maybe one day I’ll try completely tossing them out the window the way Steven Hall did.

One slightly odd thing about author Steven Hall?  After writing this wildly successful book about losing your memory and personality to a conceptual shark, the guy never published another book.  Part of me likes the mystery of that idea, the tiny little chance that maybe he went mad or lost himself to the craziness of his own book.  The other part of me just googled him and found his Twitter.  Turns out he’s been writing videogames.  Bummer.

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