In Shannon’s blog post on the rules of writing, he made a great metaphor: a driver who “doesn’t mind going five miles per hour over the speed limit, but they always use their turn signal and wear their seatbelt.” I won’t go slower than five over, but not only do I use my turn signals, I curse out anyone who doesn’t. Maybe it’s because my wife and I are gutting out an eight-hour drive from Tulsa to Houston, but I’ve been thinking of how else the rules of the road parallel the rules of writing.
Roads dictate how you drive. Signs posted every few miles tell you the speed limit. The cars around you show you how fast you actually can, or should, drive. More fundamentally, highways are designed for speed: guard rails, cement medians, and overhead lights keep drivers safe. Country roads, like the ones we’re driving on as I write, have no lights, hair pin curves. Farm lands stretch for miles in every direction. Bugs hover over the road, too slow to dodge our car, splattering on the windshield. We don’t want to slow down. We have to.
Stories dictate how they need to be told the same way roads dictate how you need to drive. In the same way you have the freedom to slam on the brakes and take a hard left into the median on a highway, writers have the freedom to break the rules of their genre anytime they want. Genre sets the baseline for your reader’s expectations.
The classics of the genre are your speed limit. For horror, my home genre, the canon is Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Daphne Du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, unapologetic racist H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the unholy trio of 70s smash hits—The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Other. They’re the base modern horror builds off of, and any horror you write is in conversation with them. But if you only read them, you’ll be the asshole clogging traffic going five under and talking about “non euclidean geometry.”
The modern writers of your genre are the ones that show you how the genre’s grown. For me, that’s Gemma Files, Victor LaValle, Carmen Maria Machado, Edgar Cantero, and Grady Hendrix. I read their books in a daze, pausing every few chapters to say, “Holy shit! You can do that!?” If you’re not up to date, your fiction can’t be either.
But story dictates the rules even more than genre. There was a truck hauling a flatbed of PVC pipe in front of us a few hours ago. Having seen every Final Destination movie, I thought of the ways I’d break the rules to survive if the straps holding those pipes snapped. None of them are legal. Your stories don’t have to be either. They need to go where the characters take you, and sometimes that means finding a gap in the median and turning the whole damn car around.