In a lot of my posts, I spend about eight hundred words describing a process. Sometimes it concerns character, sometimes style, sometimes whatever comes into my head. I do my best to be as clear as I can— do this for this effect, do that for that effect. If you do this and you’re looking for that effect, you’re going to be disappointed. If I’m really clear about it, I give an example and explain several times. Somewhere in that eight hundred words, however, I’ll add another hundred words of disclaimer (at least, if I’m smart): this will not work all the time. This rule is not a law. You can listen or ignore.
I always feel like that one paragraph undermines the entire post. It’s like saying to a five-year-old, don’t stick your hand in boiling water— then adding, but you can if you really want to. It turns out that yes, you can stick your hand into boiling water without getting burned (there are gloves for that). Under the correct circumstances, you can get away with it. But that five-year-old isn’t going to have the forethought to create those conditions.
Did I just liken all of my followers to a five-year-old? I’m sorry, that’s not quite what I meant. Here’s the thing, though: writing rules are never absolutes. (Even this writing rule isn’t an absolute; I think I’m going to add a disclaimer at the end of the post somewhere.) When I or anyone else says never to do something, or that this type of character development only works under these circumstances, it isn’t necessarily true. There are always places where you can break a rule.
That said, here’s another rule: if you’re going to commit a crime, confess first.
In other words, if you’re going to break a rule, hang a flag on it. You know what you’re doing— make sure the audience knows that. If you break a rule unintentionally, go back and fix it. If you break a rule because there’s no other way to tell a good story, hang a flag on it.
How do you hang a flag on something? Like committing a crime, breaking a rule will feel unnatural. You’ll want to hide it. Like confessing, then, hanging a flag on it seems worse but turns out better. (Unless you didn’t commit the crime, in which case the metaphor doesn’t work anyway.) In order to hang a flag on something, you point it out to the audience. Not in blatant “I’m the author, I meant to do that” fashion, but a sneaky way. What exactly happens? Let’s look at a couple examples.
In Star Trek, red is the unlucky color. If you’re wearing a red shirt, you’re probably not going to survive the episode (unless you’re Scotty). You can quickly guess that this is a plot convention— in order to see that bad things are going to happen unless Kirk is heroic, a red shirt dies every episode. It sets the stakes. This doesn’t necessarily break any rules, except common sense— the writers are being very predictable about who they kill first. It’s not like we’re afraid Kirk is going to die before the first commercial break.
Nevertheless, it’s a problem. The storytelling gets predictable, and the audience gets bored, or sarcastic. How do you hang a flag? In this case, and in many cases, you can make it a joke, told by one of the characters. If the characters recognize that it’s happening, the audience feels better about it. Or, you can take the time in an episode to explain why this happens— again, a character notices that strange things are happening around the color red, and the plot involves figuring out why. While I haven’t read it, John Scalzi’s Redshirts appears to do this quite handily, both by making fun of it and explaining.
How about another example? Pick a superhero movie. I saw this happen in the TV show Gotham, and also in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It happens a lot in Buffy the Vampire slayer, too. Someone says something heroic and iconic and worthy of being printed on a poster in giant slanted shiny letters. It also happens to be very corny, because it’s way too well-written to have been spoken in the middle of a fight scene, especially when you have two seconds to disarm a bomb. Either that, or it sounds stilted, and rehearsed, and not at all conversational. Basically, it sounds weird. Did the writers really write something that corny? Is the actor really that wooden?
Again, the easiest thing to do is make a joke out of it. That hangs a flag— while the quote will be heard for the next ten years, it didn’t kick the audience out of the story. It keeps the writer’s dignity intact.
“Dark Lord… Say hello to Socky.”
“Am I supposed to laugh to death? Because that’s a new approach.”
~from Dark Lord, Meet Sock
In the case of The Lego Movie, the entire movie is the joke that makes the message of heroism and bravery less corny. If they were trying to be stealthy about all that, it didn’t work.
Ask yourself this question: am I counting on the reader to be stupid enough to ignore or forget that I’m being corny here, or that I’m breaking a rule there? If you’re still wondering what the answer is, you need to research people in general— readers are not stupid. If you’ve got a hole somewhere, they will find it. And that’s not a bad thing. If you know how to hang a flag on something they’ll notice, you know how to fix the problem and grow their confidence in you.
Okay, so it’s been 900 words, but here’s your disclaimer: you don’t always have to hang a flag. In general, yes, you should. But in general, you shouldn’t consider breaking a rule unless you really, really, really have to. First step: can I get by without breaking the rule? If after a lot of careful thought the answer is no, proceed. Second step: can you hang a flag on it? After a lot of careful thought, you might still answer no. In that case, the third step is this: write so beautifully that you can get away with it. Is that possible? Yes, it is— I’ve seen Neil Gaiman do it several times. It turns out that Maggie Stiefvater has pacing problems sometimes, and you don’t see it unless you really look for it. It is possible to hide a broken rule or a weak point by really good writing. However, hanging a flag or better yet, fixing the problem, will almost always be a better option.
Good writing is worthwhile too.