I feel like a lot of the recent posts I’ve written, or haven’t yet written but plan to write, have a common theme: namely, that it’s important to know the rules of writing fiction, but also when to break them. Or, in some cases, to break them… but only temporarily.
Take this particular piece of advice: every scene in your story should have a purpose. As a reader, I can’t dispute this. Reading a meandering book, filled with descriptions or exposition that seem to do nothing but show you how skilled the writer thinks they are, is deeply frustrating. On the writing side, I think we should strive for purpose and meaning in every scene of a finished story, to improve pacing and tension, and to stop the reader getting bored. But no published story starts out as a fully formed, completed animal, and that’s where breaking the rules come in.
You see, I think there’s something to be said for not always knowing your scene’s purpose before you write it. Admittedly, not knowing for an entire novel would make writing it a very slow affair, but sometimes it can be a relief to throw caution to the winds and just write, to see where the characters take you. Not only might you surprise yourself with the twists the story takes, but there can be some truly serendipitous moments, throwing up new possibilities you’d never considered before.
If you consider yourself a pantser, i.e. you write by the seat of your pants, this is probably a feeling you get every day. I believe even staunch outliners can benefit from occasionally writing without purpose, though. It often feels to me as though some subconscious part of my brain keeps working on my stories when I’m not actively thinking about them (call it the Muse, if you will, although I don’t believe that’s something writers should rely on or even need to be able to write). When you write without any clear idea of where a scene is going, your subconscious starts throwing in the things it’s been mulling over – and quite frequently it has better ideas!
As I said before, I don’t like the idea of relying on the Muse, or writing every scene without a purpose in mind (and I think a lot of pantsers do more internal outlining than they realise), but there are times when you really don’t know what you’re going to write – and that’s okay. Simply putting your characters together and seeing what comes out might surprise you, and might even turn your whole story upside down, in the best way possible.