Overcoming the Fear of Breaking Writing Rules

written by Ken Preston | Creativity

July 4, 2024


Creative writing rules. They're the invisible chains that bind every writer's hand to the paper, ink bleeding through their veins. They exist for a reason—guiding principles, like lighthouses in the fog of literary chaos. These rules are the whispered wisdom of generations, designed to elevate prose from dreck to masterpiece.

But here's the kicker: these same rules can become a cage, locking up creativity behind iron bars of fear. Many writers quake at the thought of breaking these sacred commandments, afraid they'll be cast out into the literary abyss, ridiculed and forgotten. This fear is a creativity killer, strangling the soul and stifling any spark of originality.

The goal here? To smash those chains. Not with reckless abandon but with calculated precision. We'll explore how to dance on the edge of these rules without falling into anarchy. Respecting the craft while pushing its boundaries.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • Understanding Creative Writing Rules: Arm yourself with knowledge. Familiarize yourself with the guidelines so you can twist them to your will.
  • The Role of Fear in Hindering Creativity: Dive into why this fear exists and how it can choke your creative spirit.
  • Balancing Structure and Innovation: Learn to walk the tightrope between following rules and embracing innovation.
  • Practical Tips for Overcoming Fear: Develop strategies to look fear in the eye and keep writing.

We’re not here to burn down the library; we're here to rearrange its shelves. Step inside, throw off your shackles, and reclaim your freedom as a writer.

Understanding Creative Writing Rules

Creative writing guide—a term that sends shivers down the spine of many a writer. Like it or not, these guides exist for a reason. They are the scaffolding that can turn raw talent into something powerful. But like any set of rules, knowing them well is the first step to knowing how and when to break them.

Resources to Familiarize with Writing Rules

For those who want to get a grip on these creative writing rules, there's no shortage of resources:

1. Books

Titles like "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White or Stephen King's "On Writing" offer timeless advice.

2. Online Courses

Websites like Coursera and Masterclass host courses from literary giants. Neil Gaiman's Masterclass on storytelling is one worth mentioning.

3. Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Basics of Creative Writing

Kurt Vonnegut—a name that needs no introduction in the world of literature. His essay, "How to Write with Style," offers eight punchy principles for creative writing that are both insightful and liberating.

  • Find a Subject You Care About: Passion is contagious. If you don't care about your subject, neither will your readers.
  • Do Not Ramble, Though: Be concise. Every word should serve a purpose. Fluff is for pillows, not prose.
  • Keep It Simple: Simplicity trumps complexity every time. A clear sentence will always beat an ornate one.
  • Have the Guts to Cut: Editing is brutal but necessary. Kill your darlings, as they say.
  • Sound Like Yourself: Authenticity matters more than you think. Your unique voice is your greatest asset.
  • Say What You Mean to Say: Clarity over cleverness. Make sure your message isn't lost in translation.
  • Pity the Readers: Respect their time and intelligence. Don’t make reading your work a chore.

For Really Detailed Advice: Vonnegut cheekily suggests consulting books on grammar and usage—a nod to respecting foundational rules before breaking them.

These principles aren’t just rules; they're guidelines from a master who knew when to color inside the lines and when to scribble all over the page.

By understanding these basics, writers can see rules not as cages but as canvases for creativity—frameworks within which their unique voices can resonate powerfully.

Knowing these resources and principles provides clarity and direction, making it easier to decide when it's worth taking risks in writing and when it's better to play by the book. Embrace them, dissect them, then twist them into something uniquely yours because that's where magic happens in writing.

The Role of Fear in Hindering Creativity

Many writers are haunted by the fear of breaking writing rules. It's like a dark cloud hanging over them, whispering doubts and insecurities. The rules become a safety net, a comforting companion in the midst of the chaotic creative process.

Why does this fear hold such power?

  • Validation and Acceptance: Especially when starting out, many writers believe that following established rules is the only way to be taken seriously. They look at successful authors and see a formula that must be replicated. Venturing off this path feels like wandering into unknown territory without a guide.
  • Criticism and Rejection: Getting rejection letters or facing harsh criticism can be deeply painful. To shield themselves from further hurt, writers hold onto rules as if they were armor. They think that by not deviating, they can minimize the risk of being criticized.
  • Imposter Syndrome: Even experienced writers aren't immune to feeling like frauds. That persistent voice questioning their legitimacy often pushes them to strictly adhere to traditional guidelines. They worry that any departure from the norm will expose their inadequacy.

The Impact on Self-Expression

This fear comes at a high cost. When writers are bound by the fear of breaking rules, their ability to express themselves fully suffers.

  • Limited Creativity: Fear restricts creativity like a straightjacket. Instead of exploring new narrative structures or experimenting with unique voices, writers may stick to safe formulas.
  • Missed Opportunities: By playing it safe and avoiding risks, writers deny themselves the chance to uncover their true potential. They might have groundbreaking ideas hidden away because those ideas don't neatly fit into traditional molds.
  • Unoriginal Writing: An excessive focus on following rules can result in dull and predictable stories that lack originality—the very thing readers crave.

Fear kills more dreams than failure ever will.

To break free from this fear, writers need courage and a willingness to embrace uncertainty. It's about understanding that rules are tools, not chains. They're meant to guide, not imprison.

The next step? Striking a balance between structure and innovation while embracing creativity within writing guidelines—finding that perfect spot where your voice can shine brightly without being silenced by fear.

Balancing Structure and Innovation: Embracing Creativity Within Writing Guidelines

True creativity isn't about breaking the rules completely. It's about bending them until they beg for mercy, finding those narrow paths where innovation thrives within constraint. Think of it as playing jazz with words—improvising while keeping the rhythm tight.

High goals

Set your sights high, but don't get lost in unrealistic dreams. The boundaries set by writing rules can be your guide. They steer you in the right direction, making sure your story doesn't turn into a chaotic mess. Remember, Kurt Vonnegut's principles are not prisons; they're like handrails on a stormy night.

Idea recognition

Coming up with a unique idea is exciting, but without structure, it may fizzle out before it has a chance to shine on the page. Understand the importance of shaping that raw idea into something concrete and logical. Your readers want to make sense of things, especially amidst all the chaos of creativity.

Working Within Constraints

  • Dialogue: Have you ever noticed how powerful dialogue can be when it's concise and straight to the point? Hemingway mastered this by working within the limits of brevity. Every word and pause carries weight.
  • Plot Structure: Even in Tarantino's movies with their non-linear storytelling, there's still an underlying structure—a backbone that holds his wild narratives together. Structure isn't something to fear; it can actually be your secret weapon.

Audience Expectations

Readers have certain expectations—not because they lack imagination, but because they crave stability in your whirlwind of creativity. Balancing high goals and idea recognition means you respect their need for coherence while dazzling them with originality.

  • Know Your Genre: Every genre has its own patterns and frameworks. Use them as a starting point before you begin twisting them into something new.
  • Character Arcs: Readers want characters who grow, who face challenges within their boundaries before eventually breaking free. This transformation is rooted in structure.

Embracing creativity within writing guidelines isn't about playing it safe; it's about being strategic. It's about knowing when to follow the rules closely and when to let loose with unbridled creativity.

Practical Tips for Overcoming the Fear

1. Focus on the process, not the outcome.

Writing is a journey, not a destination. Obsessing over the end product can paralyze you before you even start. Embrace the act of writing itself. Let it be messy, let it be raw. Each word is a step forward, even if it feels like you're wading through mud.

2. Set a disciplined writing schedule.

Fear thrives in chaos. It feeds off uncertainty and procrastination. Setting a regular writing schedule carves out a sanctuary of discipline in your day. Whether it's 15 minutes or two hours, make it non-negotiable. Show up for yourself consistently, and watch your confidence grow.

3. Practice mindfulness and meditation.

Writing demands presence. Yet, fear has a way of pulling you into past failures or future anxieties. Mindfulness and meditation anchor you in the now. Take deep breaths, clear your mind. This isn't some new-age fluff; it's about reclaiming control over your mental space.

Building Strong Narratives: Understanding Plot Structure

1. Establishing a Solid Foundation with Setting and Characterization

Setting, the unsung hero of any gripping narrative. It’s more than just a backdrop; it's the bones of your story. Picture a grimy alleyway, rain cascading down, shadows lurking at every corner. This isn't just some random place; it's a mood, an atmosphere that screams tension and unease.

Influencing Mood and Atmosphere

Example: Think of Stephen King's "The Shining." The Overlook Hotel isn't merely a setting. It's practically a character in itself, dripping with malevolence and dread. Every creaky floorboard, every flickering light adds layers to the story's tension.

Technique: Use sensory details to paint your setting vividly. Let your readers smell the dampness, hear the distant thunder, feel the chill in the air.

Characters are another piece of this intricate puzzle. Readers don't just want cardboard cutouts; they crave flesh-and-blood individuals with quirks, flaws, and dreams.

Creating Vivid and Believable Characters

Method: Dive deep into character development. What drives them? What keeps them awake at night? Create backstories that might never make it onto the page but breathe life into your characters.

Example: Think of Walter White from "Breaking Bad." He's not just a chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin; he's a desperate man grappling with mortality, pride, and regret.

Techniques for Crafting Characters That Stick:

  • Flaws and Strengths: Nobody’s perfect. Show their scars. Example: Sherlock Holmes—brilliant but riddled with arrogance and addiction.
  • Dialogue: Let their words reveal their essence.
  • Inner Conflict: Highlight internal struggles. Example: Frodo Baggins’ turmoil over the One Ring.
2. Navigating Conflict and Resolution: From Tension to Transformation

Conflict is the heartbeat of any story. It’s what propels characters forward, forces them to evolve or crumble under pressure.

Types of Literary Conflicts

Internal Struggles: Battles within oneself. Example: Hamlet's indecision leads him down a spiral of madness and tragedy.

Societal Tensions: Clashes against societal norms or structures. Example: Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games" rebelling against an oppressive regime.

Conflicts aren't just hurdles; they're opportunities for transformation.

Crafting Satisfying Resolutions

Readers need closure but also crave new possibilities for characters they've grown attached to.

Example: In "Harry Potter," Voldemort's defeat brings peace but leaves Harry grappling with his future without his nemesis.

Key Points for Conflict Resolution:

  • Earned Endings: Resolutions should feel inevitable yet surprising. Avoid deus ex machina solutions that cheapen the narrative impact.
  • Character Growth: Show how conflicts have fundamentally changed them. Tip: Use before-and-after snapshots of character mindsets or situations.

In reality, balancing plotline foundation with vivid setting elements and believable character elements isn’t about following rules blindly—it’s about understanding which rules serve your story best and bending or breaking those that don’t.

Crafting conflict goes beyond placing obstacles in your main character's path. It involves infusing tension into every aspect of your story, creating an irresistible pull that keeps readers engaged.

Key Elements of Plot Development:

  • Setting Elements: The setting isn't just a backdrop; it actively contributes to your story. A dystopian cityscape can intensify a feeling of hopelessness, while a peaceful village might create a sense of calm before unexpected chaos erupts.
  • Character Elements: Characters are the driving force behind your plot. Develop them fully by giving them wants, fears, and flaws that make their struggles relatable and their victories well-deserved.
  • Conflict Elements: Introduce conflict early on and escalate it gradually. Whether it's a person battling their own thoughts, challenging societal norms, or facing the forces of nature, ensure that the stakes are clear and the tension is palpable.
  • Resolution Elements: Resolutions should bring closure while also opening doors for new beginnings. A satisfying resolution doesn't just tie up loose ends; it paves the way for future possibilities without feeling forced.

Understanding the structure of a plot gives you the ability to bend or defy traditional storytelling conventions intentionally. When you have a firm grasp of how setting, characters, conflict, and resolution work together, you can innovate without sacrificing coherence.

Crafting satisfying resolutions is an art in itself. They should feel earned—like a boxer who has fought through twelve rounds only to deliver that final knockout blow in the last second of the match.

A well-developed plot isn't about blindly following rules; it's about knowing them so well that you can break them in ways that enhance the impact of your story.


Writers, it's time to embrace your unique voice. Calculated risks are the name of the game. Even within the boundaries of established writing rules, there's room for innovation. The fear of breaking creative writing rules can be paralyzing, stifling your ability to express your true self. But rules aren't meant to chain you down—they're guidelines, not gospel.

  • Embrace your quirks.
  • Lean into your idiosyncrasies.
  • Break the mold with purpose.

When you allow yourself to take these risks, something magical happens. Your writing becomes authentic. It pulses with a life that readers can't ignore.

The world doesn't need another cookie-cutter writer. It needs you.

Share your journey. How have you faced the fear of breaking rules in your creative writing? What strategies helped you push past the uncertainty? Your experiences can inspire others walking the same tightrope between structure and freedom.

Remember, overcoming fear isn't about throwing caution to the wind. It's about knowing the rules well enough to break them with intent. So go ahead—write that story that's been gnawing at you. Twist those tropes, bend those genres, and let your creativity run wild.

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