Q&A: When to break the rules

Kathleen L. asked:

Hi, Camy,
thanks for this opportunity. You are one of my favorite writing teachers. Your last article on showing versus telling raised a question for me. When is it okay to break the rules? Not just for telling, but for say, using an unusual tag in dialogue. "Come here," he said. versus "Come here," he demanded. (I realize beats are the most effective. ie He stomped his foot and clapped his hands at the dog. "Come here!")Anyway, can we sometimes use an unusual tag?
Thanks in advance.

Camy here: You can break the rules whenever you want to! Seriously. It’s YOUR story.

The “rules” are there to guide you so that you don’t go overboard. They’re not there to constrain you and box in your creativity. At the end of the day, creativity wins over “rules.”

I usually suggest to writers to stick with the “rules” as much as they can, but if a particular sentence or piece of writing just “feels” better with the rules broken, then try it!

I fully believe in the power of gut instinct in writing. Many times, writers know when there’s something wrong with a scene or a piece of writing—they can just sense it. Sometimes when you’ve suffered a few hours (or days! Oy!) of writer’s block, it’s your “Spidey sense” telling you that something’s wrong with the scene you’re writing.

Same thing with breaking the rules. I always tell people to try writing it by the rules as well as breaking the rules, and then decide which feels better. Don’t just arbitrarily assume that breaking the rules is always better—test it and see. You might be surprised.

Also, realize that if you break the rules too often, it might make your writing look amateurish or unprofessional to an editor or agent who has seen literally thousands of manuscripts—several of them by writers who largely follow the rules.

Bottom line: if you break the rules, make sure you have a good reason to do it. Your Spidey sense better be smokin’! Or you can break the rules for effect sometimes, too. It’s ultimately your decision, but make sure you’re breaking rules for the right reasons—that it makes your manuscript tons better!

If you have any other questions for my Q&A series, just leave a comment and I'll be sure to get to it!


  1. Thanks, Camy! You never disappoint. This makes perfect sense, and I love the spidey sense analogy. So, for breaking the rules, make it rare, and make it count. Gotcha.
    ; )

    Kathleen L. Maher


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