When Great Authors Break the Rules

Photo © 2008 Edward Simpson CC 2.0 BY SA

Can you guess which novel the following beginning comes from?

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

Yes, it’s the first page of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling’s breakout novel.

It’s a breakout novel in more ways than one, because in the process she broke a few rules, too:

According to the experts, these are signs that your manuscript “needs work,” and you’ll never get it accepted by a publisher. But when these same experts analyze Harry Potter, they take a different tack. They tell you to follow the rules, because you don’t yet know how to break them. Once you become good enough, they say, then you can break the rules with impunity, like J.K. Rowling.

Or in the words of Randy Ingermanson, “This is ‘Telling.’ But it’s brilliant… Since it’s brilliant, there’s just no good reason to ‘Show’ it—unless you can ‘Show’ it better.”

Er… But I thought that “showing” was always “better” than “telling.”

In reality:

  1. Showing is not always better than telling. You should show those things that are core to the story—the most interesting bits—and tell (i.e., gloss over) everything else.

  2. A story does always start better with showing—the interesting bits—rather than telling.

  3. This Harry Potter beginning sucks. But the book as a whole was good enough for Rowling’s audience in order to garner word of mouth, so that she could build up a fan-base.

  4. That marketing feat is a significant achievement, and we don’t have to heroify Rowling in order to give her credit where credit is due.

  5. There are precious few hard-and-fast rules, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There is no “better”; there’s only “better for me.” The rules, such as they are, ought to serve you, not to bind you.

  6. Rich and famous authors don’t necessarily write “better” than you do.

  7. If you want to become rich and famous, the quality of your marketing is more important that the quality of your writing. Or more precisely, the quality of your writing is measured by and controlled by your marketing. And that is what agents and editors are really arguing with you over, how well they think your manuscript appeals to their market, not over how “good” your writing is.

Keep writing!


And, of course, she wasn’t rich or famous when she wrote that. She was broke and practically homeless, or so the legend goes. Which makes it all the more shocking that it was accepted in the first place. She was at the center of a perfect storm of luck, talent and marketing.

Yeah, I know that Harry Potter was her first published novel. I’ve been wondering what the true story was behind the circumstances of getting it written and published. -TimK

One of the things I remember from reading the Harry Potter series is that J.K. Rowling’s first books were not as well written as the latter ones. She started the series as a beginner, she didn’t know the “rules” and broke them without knowing she was doing so. But she had a gripping story and fantastic characters.

When you have a gripping story and fantastic characters the WAY you tell the story doesn’t matter so much. Readers will read it anyway. In time, as you write and write some more, you learn the craft and the rules. The WAY you tell the story gets better. But if it’s a bad story, with poor characters, no matter how well you write it won’t keep your readers.

In this case, the “hook” is that the Dursley’s are “perfectly normal”. We know they’re not and if they’re proud of it and won’t hold with anything strange and mysterious the reader knows something strange and mysterious must be about to happen. One of the greatest things a writer can do is to respect the reader’s intelligence. Rowling does this. She doesn’t have to say, “Something weird is about to happen.” She implies it and delivers a fantastic character introduction in the same sentence.

Sometimes, the most important rule for a writer to follow is: “Trust you instincts.” 🙂

Hi, Rebecca. Thanks for commenting. I agree completely that if you have a great story, you can make all kinds of mistakes (as it were) in telling it, and the story will still work. And the more I think about it, the more I conclude the same. A writer should read, and write what she loves to read. That’s the best place to start. -TimK

I’ve never read Harry Potter, but it’s interesting to see how she broke the rules like that and still was so successful. I have started to get frustrated reading some published novels because of how many rules I see broken.

Yeah, they’re all over the place. What gets me—amuses me, anymore—is the mythology that’s been built up around the various rules. But when you look at actual published books, and especially at popular books, you see that very few of the rules have little to do with anything. I think what it comes down to is that you have to write material that you respect, for readers who you respect. That’s going to determine which rules you follow and which style and writing values you adopt. What do you think?

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