Friday, May 8, 2009

Breaking the Rules

One of the things I love about starting a new creative pursuit is that it has a way of informing all your other endeavors. For example, I was recently thumbing through my brand-new copy of BEND THE RULES SEWING by Amy Karol, when I came across this little nugget of advice in chapter one:

“You have to be good enough to know when you can bend the rules.”

This reminded me of something I’d read in Molly Wizenberg’s cookbook/memoir A HOMEMADE LIFE a few weeks ago. When trying a new recipe, her mother urges her to follow the instructions to the letter the first time through. After she has prepared the dish the intended way, she is free to improvise the next time. This way, she can have a better understanding of how all the components work together if she should choose to improvise the second time around.

These two anecdotes, of course, made me think of fiction writing. I’m all for breaking the rules, but you need to know what you’re doing in order to break them. I’m sure most people would agree with this statement. But let’s take this thought a bit further…is there a limit to how rules you can break at once?

A few weeks ago, I probably would have said no. It’s kind of silly to have a rule about breaking the rules, right? But then I saw Woody Allen’s VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA and I started to have a change of heart.

(Forgive me on commenting on such an old movie. Long gone are the days when I used to see one or two movies a week. Sadly, the last movie I saw in a theatre was WALL-E. )

The movie, which received excellent reviews and earned Penelope Cruz an Academy Award, starts breaking rules right from the first scene and continues throughout the movie. All along the way, broken rules start to pile-up like roadkill on the highway: the story is propelled by an omniscient voice-over narration rather than by the characters themselves; major events happen off-screen; there is little conflict, and the conflict that exists is short-lived and easily resolved; a major character is introduced late in the story; clich├ęs abound in both story and stereotypes; in the end, the major characters return to their normal lives unchanged…just to name a few.

There were so many broken rules, I started to wonder if Woody Allen had written the movie as an intentional exercise in rule-breaking rather than focusing on making a good story. I mean, the guy knows what he’s doing and he’s broken rules forever, but this time the result felt overwhelmingly shallow. The movie received such glowing praise that I’m in the minority here, but it left me thinking that rules are best broken in moderation. There’s something admirable in going for broke, but sticking to a few rules while breaking others might be necessary to give your experimentation some legitimacy.

Perhaps I’m just generalizing based on a mediocre movie—but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is there a limit to how many rules you should break at the same time?


... Paige said...

Thank goodnes some one else thinks so too.

Patrick said...

I think you're right that you need to know the rules thoroughly before you can break them. James Joyce couldn't have written Ulysses if he hadn't written Dubliners first.

As to a limit on how many rules can be broken, I think it depends entirely on the story. Amy Hempel breaks the rule that a story can't be only one sentence long, with her story "Memoir" ("Just once in my life - oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?"). If she'd tried to break another rule in that story, she would've been in trouble. By contrast, Donald Barthelme doesn't break rules so much as leave them behind.

I think, in the end, most of what we call rules are simply guidelines, and can be crossed or uncrossed accordingly. As long as the resultant work is complete, and it expresses what the author intended it to express, the method it takes to reach completion is not crucial.

But again, yes, know the rules before you break them.