Breaking the Rules

by Brenda Gayle ( 

A while ago, I took a grammar course for business writing professionals. I had been out of high school for more years than I care to admit and although I wrote professionally for various not-for-profit associations, I felt I needed a refresher to prepare for the new editing responsibilities I was undertaking. It was an eye-opener. Many of the inviolate grammar rules that I learned in English class had changed, particularly those relating to commas, semi-colons, and colons. (Notice the comma following “semi-colons.” Notice, too, the period inside the quotation marks even though it concludes the whole sentence. I could go on, but you get the point.)

The experience made me wonder how important rules are for their own sake versus how important they are to our perception of ourselves as romance writers–how we express ourselves in terms of voice and craft.

SOLDIER FOR LOVEIn my contemporary romance, Soldier for Love, both the heroine and hero are forced to work within a structured environment full of rules and regulations. Their attitude towards those rules is a major part of who they believe they are.

Major Julie Collins is a by-the-book kind of gal. She couldn’t have gotten to where she is any other way. But when she falls in love with one of the men under her command, she struggles to find a way to have the man she desires while remaining true to her beliefs about the value and importance of the military’s rules. 

Lieutenant Matt Wolf, on the other hand, isn’t as wedded to the rules. While he accepts that they have their place, he doesn’t hesitate to break them when he feels they are misguided or likely to interfere with his pursuit of one very arousing woman–even if she is his C.O.

What about the relationship we, as romance writers, have to the “rules” of our genre? 

I can’t think of a subject that garners more debate among writers of romance than whether or not it is okay to head-hop within a single scene. My personal preference is not to. And I admit, I prefer that the books I read don’t, either. However, I have read some great books in which the author not only switched point-of-view part way through a scene, she expertly bounced POV back and forth like a well-played tennis match.

Another rule dissuades the use of “ly” adverbs. I plead guilty to breaking this rule. I love them. I use them (overuse them, according to my critique partners). To me they provide a more visual representation of what is going on. But the conventions of romance writing dictate that they should be stripped from all prose because they reduce the impact of the verb. 

In his book, Story, screen writing guru Robert McKee says: “Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.”

 I’d love to hear your thoughts on romance’s writing rules. Do rules help or hinder your writing? Do you have any pet rule peeves? Are there rules that you feel cannot be broken? 

I’m giving away a signed copy of Soldier For Love to one of today’s commenters.

6 Responses to Breaking the Rules

  1. Linda Poitevin

    I think most rules are made to be broken, but would agree with the others that it needs to be done skilfully. I particularly like Brenna’s differentiation between head-hopping and POV switches — the former being just plain sloppy IMHO, and the latter adding depth to a story when done right (as I REALLY hope I’m doing! *grin*).

    Great idea for a blog, btw!


  2. LeeAnn Lessard

    Great blog Brenda.

    I like most authors broke every “rule” of writing. I was the worst at head hopping, but my critique partner helped me fix that. As for reading books that have head hopping I don’t mind them as long as the author does it well and that as a reader I know who’s point of view I’m in. The author that comes to mind at doing it so well is Nora Roberts.

    However do I believe the rules should be followed? I’m more like Brenda’s Hero in SOLDIER FOR LOVE , I like to break them when they don’t work for my voice. Call me a rebel!

  3. Mary Ricksen

    Some of the new rules are senseless to me. But like you said forget what you learned in school
    trouble is that if you want to be published you have to follow the rules of the publisher.

  4. Brenna Lyons

    Okay, there’s a big difference between head hopping and switching POV in a scene. Head hopping implies that there are rapid switches of POV that confuse the reader. Is that a good idea? Never. Any time you lose the reader…even for a paragraph, it’s bad, because it breaks the immersion in the story.

    Some editors won’t let you do either. Most won’t let you head hop. If an editor minds changing heads without a full hard break in scene, and you do it, you better do it incredibly skillfully, or you’ve lost that contract, unless you change heads so few times that you can either eliminate it or make them hard breaks. If the editor doesn’t mind, as long as he/she can follow the head you’re in, you’re golden.

    The point is to do anything you do that breaks the rules skillfully enough to make it work for your editor and readers. If you can do that, by all means, break them. You are masterful enough to make it work.

    Head hopping…the jarring switches that confuse people, are never masterful. It’s a breakdown in communication between author and reader.

    As for grammar rules, you’re right. What you learn in school doesn’t much matter. All that matters is the house style. Now, what makes it worse is that many houses will base it on (for instance) the latest edition of Chicago Manual of Style, so even if you’ve been with a publishing house for several years, if a new CMS comes out…well, it’s changed again. Grin…


  5. Tammy Plunkett

    Hi Brenda,

    Your blog had me thinking…I break the ultimate “show, don’t tell” rule a lot but I’ve come to realize that I have a narrative voice and writing 1st person POV can also account for some of that. I have reformed from the passive voice, and I’m not a fan of the ly-adverb, but that can also be someone’s voice shining through.

    So I guess rules are great guidelines to start with, then when we find ourselves through our writing we can choose which ones really apply. I use that outlook in real life too, now that I’m a little older and a lot wiser about myself…

  6. Annette McCleave

    Hi Brenda!

    I’ve never followed the rules with slavish devotion. In the beginning, I didn’t know there were rules, LOL. Then I became more aware, and I think that improved my writing–but there were always some rules that felt ‘wrong’ with my writing style. “Always write in complete sentences” is one of them. 🙂

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