Learn The Rules, Then Break Them



“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” (Pablo Picasso)


How many of you have heard a variation of this quote? I have so many times that I can’t remember where I first heard it (probably on Pinterest, if I had to guess). But, regardless of the popularity, this quote holds a lot of merit, even though its application goes against our basic artistic desires.

Allow me to explain using a story. In the OYAN curriculum that I used in high school, the teacher limited the users of the program to writing a novel that a) followed the three-act plot structure, b) followed at least some conventions of the adventure genre, and c) was written in first person, with a protagonist that was close in age to the writer. Inevitably, every year, one or two students would pose the question, “Do I have to write in 1st person? I prefer to write in 3rd!” The response was always yes, you must write in 1st person. Whether every student did is unknown, although many followed the curriculum guidelines, and others also questioned the rule of having the protagonist within the age range of the writer. What if I want to write about a 40 year old pirate, or an 80 year old grandmother? What if I want to write a story without a plot? What if I want to write slice-of-life or romance? Very well, but only after you finish a novel within the guidelines.

I followed these guidelines to a T, but never realized their full merit until years later. They did not exist to limit creativity, but rather, to teach young writers the building blocks of a storytelling. Once I learned the foundation, I could build whatever I wanted on top, and, most likely, it wouldn’t crumble, and I wouldn’t have to start from the very beginning if I had to discard the idea. Writing a story with a 3-act structure made me conscientious of how to properly place conflict to propel a story forward. Following the conventions of the adventure genre gave me a chance to learn what genres I liked and didn’t like through experience. And writing in first person, with a protagonist who was close to my age at the time, was a stepping stone in learning good characterization.

As artists, we don’t want to go through that process—we don’t want to compromise our artistic expression for anything, much less for rules that we may or may not like. But completing the process backwards will, at worst, result in failure, and at best, result in wasted time. You may be authentic in the emotions you’re expressing, but if your grammar, formatting, and structure are so sporadic that people are unable to decipher your meaning, the meaning of your words won’t be able to shine. Instead, you must learn what it means to write a story at its base level before you can know how to write the story you envision.

Learning these “rules” takes time, and is a path dotted with failure. This is, no doubt, why it’s so discouraging and why so many writers want to bypass it in favor of boundless self-expression. But only when you understand the essentials of story can you change them in a meaningful way. Respect and knowledge of the art medium you’re working with must come first—in fact, that respect and knowledge is like a canvas for the beautiful paints of your unique writing style. Then, eventually, you can start using paints onto other surfaces too.  The hours of discipline and work are worth being able to give justice to the art you want to create.


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