Knowing “the Rules” and Knowing When to Break Them

Guess what? Your writing is your playground. You get to make–and break–the rules.

A while back agent-turned-author Nathan Bransford did a “Five Openings to Avoid” post that takes a jab at some of the obvious and overused openings that circulate, especially among novice writers.

You know, the story that starts with a character gazing at herself in the mirror just so the writer can work in a physical description. That kind of thing.

I was in the final revision stage for The Knife and the Butterfly when I read Bransford’s post. The Knife and the Butterfly begins with Azael, the protag, waking up. So imagine my chagrin when I saw the following on Bransford’s list:

A character waking up: Sure, there’s probably a good reason the character is getting woken up. Maybe their house is on fire/they’re late for school/they just realized their insides are being sucked out by a sea monster. But not only is waking up overdone, what exactly is gained by showing a character wake up? Why not just cut to the insides-getting-sucked-out chase?

This is pretty true. But it’s also important to know that there are plenty of good reasons to do things that are, by and large, a bad idea. What to do in my shoes?

Sit down and make sure you have lots of good reasons for why you’ve written something the way it is. (And, no, the fact that your current opening is already written is not a good enough reason to leave it.)

Here’s a strategy that I use for endings: write 10 alternative endings to what you thought “had” to happen. You might still come back and decide your original direction was the right one, but you’ll also have carefully considered your alternatives.

For The Knife and the Butterfly, I spent a day brainstorming alternative openings before deciding that it needed to open as it does, that my reasons for breaking the rules trump the reasons the rules were in place.

But you be the judge. Here’s the opening few paragraphs from The Knife and the Butterfly. 

Im standing inches from a wall, staring at a half-finished piece. Even though Im too close to read what it says, I know its my work. I run my hands over the black curves outlined in silver. I lean in and sniff. Nothing, not a whiff of fumes. When did I start this? It doesnt matter; Ill finish it now. I start to shake the can in my hand, but all I hear is a hollow rattle. I toss the can down and reach for another, then another. Empty. Theyre all empty.

I wake up with that all over shitty feeling you get the day after a rumble. Head splitting, guts twisted. All that’s left of my dream is a memory of black and silver. I sit up, thinking about snatching the baggie from under the couch and going to the back lot for a joint before Pelón can bust my balls for smoking his weed.

Except then I realize I’m not at Pelón’s. I’m on this narrow cot with my legs all tangled up in a raggedy-ass blanket. It’s dark except for a fluorescent flicker from behind me. I get loose of the covers and take four steps one way before I’m up against another concrete wall. Six steps the other way, and I’m bumping into the shitter in the corner. There’s a sink right by it.  No mirror.  Drain bolted into the concrete floor. I can make out words scrawled in Sharpie on the wall to one side of the cot: WELCUM HOME FOOL. I turn around, already half-knowing what I’m going to see.

Bars. Through them, I take in the long row of cells just like this one. I’m in lock-up. Shit, juvie again? It’s only been four months since I got out of Houston Youth Village.  Village, my ass.

I sit back down on the cot and try to push through the fog in my brain from the shit we smoked yesterday. Thing is, I’ve got no memory of getting brought in here. It’s like I want to replay that part, but my brain’s a jacked-up DVD player that skips back again and again to the same damn scene, the last thing I can remember right.

You can read a longer excerpt from The Knife and the Butterfly here, or buy the whole book in February!


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