What you must learn is that these rules are no different than the rules of a computer system. Some of them can be bent. Others can be broken. Understand?

– Morpheus, The Matrix

Alright, this one is aimed at some of my fellow authors who have been offering well-meaning advice to new writers. Whether it be in reaction to the sci-fi rules of John W. Campbell, the monomyth rules of Joseph Campbell, or the three act structure, a great many writers HATE rules. And so they offer the following: “don’t worry about rules, just write.”

“Just write” is great advice when you have blank paper in front of you. But once you have a story concept, it’s a lousy guide. The rules exit for a reason: they work. The monomyth isn’t prescriptive, it’s descriptive. Joseph Campbell analyzed thousands of stories that had entertained millions, if not billions, to arrive at his framework. Aristotle’s rules for dramatic plot (mythos) in Poetics were a description of what entertained audiences, versus what confused or angered them, and form the foundation of the three act structure. John W. Campbell sold a lot of magazines, and made a many writers into bestsellers (although his are not the only rules for sci-fi, they are the best ones if you write the competent man hard sci-fi he preferred).

I’m a plotter, I outline extensively, so I would apply the rules first at the outline stage. Some of you are pantsers, and may have to write an entire story before you can tell if it fits. I don’t get you. Even if you’re going to let your story grow organically, consider an outline as a trellis to keep it growing in the direction you want.

Failing to learn the rules and canon of your genre can lead to some embarrassment. For example, like Ian McEwan you might suggest snobbishly that sci-fi writers consider the social consequences of alternate history or AI for once, as though Philip K. Dick hadn’t ever put pen to paper. Or you might write The Handmaid’s Tale, and put your name on it. Not that either one calls their own work “sci-fi,” of course, that would be horribly déclassé.

Now are the rules immutable laws? No, of course not. Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson wrote the great Illuminatus! trilogy breaking almost every conceivable writing rule, several federal laws, and possibly one or two laws of physics. But they did it intentionally.

If you’re going to break the rules, do it because you mean to. Do it for a reason. Don’t like the three act structure? Pulp Fiction turned out ok. Want more than your one hand-wave? Well, you may not be writing “hard sci-fi” anymore, but who cares? Stargate is still fun. Entire new genres and literary movements have arisen out of creative rule breaking. But they all first learned the rules against which they were rebelling.

I wanna be anarchy
And I wanna be anarchy
Know what I mean?
And I wanna be anarchist
I get pissed! Destroy!

– The Sex Pistols, Anarchy in the U.K.

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