Rules are meant to be broken, or so they say. Even so, writers have a few sacred rules that common sense tells us must be respected for the sake of a sound story. Here are five books that broke those rules, and despite their audacity, won our hearts.
Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles) by Marissa Meyer
I was skeptical. After all, Cinderella, seriously? Been there done that. What could Ms. Meyer possibly do that would be new?
But the cover was so darned intriguing, that after trying not to look inside seven or eight times, I acquiesced and opened to the first chapter. Color me a goner. Cinder is a Asian Cyborg–can you believe it? Not only that, but the talented Ms. Meyer’s paints such vivid characters that I felt as if I’d been sucked into a live action anime.
She does one more thing that totally amazes me. Each of the next three books in the series bring in a new protagonist, and each is a adaptation of another fairytale. Yet Meyer weaves all these stories together beautifully and keeps the reader connected to the previous characters. When she got to book three, Cress, a Rapunzel-esque heroine, I thought for sure the author would lose her grip on the other story lines. For pity’s sake, Cress is trapped in a satellite. In space. Alone.
But no, Meyer pulled it off with as much magical finesse as David Copperfield sawing himself in half. I can’t wait for Winter to come out. The Lunar Chronicles are one of this decade’s masterpieces.
Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
Most writers compulsively check and double check for echoes and redundancies and remove them. Contrast that with Daphne du Maurier’s, Jamaica Inn. The opening paragraph contains no less than five redundancies and repeated images.
Du Maurier also head-hops, shifting from various points of view, before narrowing to the protagonist. Normally, this is a no-no. But du Maurier eases us deeper and deeper into the story as deftly as a skilled hypnotist puts an audience into a trance. By the end of the first page readers are wiping imaginary rain from their brows and snuggling deeper into their sweaters to stave off the cold. Thus opens the mesmerizing tale of murderous pirates and grey moors. Read it and the images will remain etched in your mind forever.
Du Maurier’s classic mystery Rebecca is equally unforgettable. Here again, you’ll see multiple repetitions in the first paragraph. I suspect Daphne du Maurier figured out how to put her readers under a spell using a form of linguistic hypnosis.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
In Howl’s Moving Castle, half the time the reader isn’t sure where they are, or what they’re doing there. The plot meanders as much as the castle does over the countryside. And yet it is still a compelling story and remains one of my all-time favorites. Diana Wynne Jones, author of more than thirty critically acclaimed books, does not pre-plot. She says, “No, that kills it dead.”
I agree. But here’s what she does do in all her stories, and did masterfully in Howl’s Moving Castle; she fascinates us with unexpected twists and turns and delightful character discoveries. Somehow Jones manages to weave wildly unpredictable plot lines together and produce a tale with a theme revealed at the end.
Reading Jones is like riding a rollercoaster in the pitch dark. Hang on–it will end up in a bright good place.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
No discussion of writerly rule-breaking would be complete without mentioning Mark Twain and his landmark novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Writers today take our use of regional dialogue for granted, but Twain, and a handful of other authors, blazed the trail for us. Twain broke from the prim and proper literary forms of his day and ripped it up with shockingly realistic dialogue. He didn’t exploit just one regional dialect; he had Aunt Polly’s homespun southern flavor, Huck Finn’s uneducated twang, Pap’s use of onomatopoeia and poetic phrasing, and Jim’s slave lingo.
Twain got some serious grief for his bravado. Newspaper critics weren’t impressed. The public turned up its collective nose. Fortunately, Twain’s novels outlived the criticism. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were among the first books my mother read to me as a child and they remain favorites still today.
Soulless (The Parasol Protectorate) by Gail Carriger
In Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series the main character Miss Alexia Tarabotti was born without a soul. She is completely unflappable. Nothing alarms her. She is not fearful or passionate. Point in case, the story opens with a vampire trying to bite her, but when Alexia subdues the offender and he collapses at her feet she is perturbed, not by his attack, but because he has fallen on a plate of treacle tarts she’d intended to eat.
Penning an emotionless heroine was a gigantic risk. Readers read for vicarious emotional experience. So why did a rule-breaking book like Soulless rocket up the charts?
Chalk it up to Carriger’s top shelf sense of humor. Few writers have her wit and tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. Although her heroine doesn’t feel much, Carriger makes readers feel intelligent as they experience all the spoofy goings-on. It is as if we are in on the grand joke rather than simply observing.
Kathleen Baldwin has written several award-winning traditional Regency romances for adults, including Lady Fiasco, winner of Cataromance’s Best Traditional Regency, and Mistaken Kiss, a Holt Medallion Finalist. A School for Unusual Girls is her first book for teens. She lives in Texas with her family.