How to Break Storytelling Rules

Broken window with a blue sky on the other side

While all rules can be broken, breaking them successfully takes a robust knowledge of storytelling principles. How do you know when breaking a rule is successful? In concept, that’s simple; you’re successful when you gain more from breaking the rule than following it. Of course, in practice that’s difficult to judge. Let’s go over how to plan an exception to a best practice.

Know the Risks

When rules conflict with our ideas for a story, it’s tempting to dismiss the damage that breaking the rule can do. But even if following the rule is out of the question, acknowledging the ramifications of your decision will help you make up for it. So the first step for any rule breaking is to identify the worst-case scenario that could result.

Let’s look at some sample rules and what we would risk when breaking them.

  • Don’t head hop. Head hopping is the practice of switching the viewpoint character in the same scene, often from one paragraph to the next. Head hopping is often jarring for the reader. The risk is that you’ll interrupt the reading experience whenever you head hop.
  • Don’t have a predictable ending. A story’s tension depends on having events with an uncertain outcome. The audience is motivated to continue the story because they want to find out what the ending is. The risks of a predictable ending are that the story will feel boring and the ending will be disappointing.
  • Your main character should be likable. A likable main character gives the reader a pleasant personality to focus on and a reason to care about everything that happens in the story. The risk of breaking this rule is that consuming the story will be unpleasant and the audience will have no incentive to continue.

You might notice these risks are not equal in severity. While they could all cause someone to abandon the story, an unlikable main character is more likely to create this result than head hopping. The more severe the risks of breaking the rule, the stronger the reward must be.

Identify the Payoff

Once you’ve considered the risks, it’s time to balance them against the potential payoff. What benefit does breaking the rule have for your story? What does it let you do that you couldn’t otherwise? And how much value does that thing have for your audience?

The last one can be tricky. Just because it feels exciting and clever on your end does not mean it will be enjoyable for your audience. For instance, if you break storytelling rules to set up for a reveal, that reveal may not have the effect you were hoping it would have.

Let’s look at our sample rules and see what kind of benefits might make the risks worth it.

  • Head hopping. Head hopping is done to narrate thoughts for all the characters in a scene together. In most cases, this is unnecessary and doesn’t give the reader a payoff. However, if your story happens to employ a lot of humor based on characters having a different understanding of what’s happening in your scenes, then that humorous element could provide enough enjoyment to be worth the risk of jarring the reader.
  • Predictable ending. While predictable endings are usually a sign of storyteller thoughtlessness, a known ending that’s tragic can be used to raise tension and add novelty. Opening with a bold declaration that the tale will end in tragedy gives the audience a strong hook.
  • Unlikable main character. Because the consequences of this one are so severe, it’s only worth it if the story you are telling could not be told in another way. Perhaps the story is about how people are capable of evil, and that requires depicting the inner workings of a main character who is evil. The payoff is communicating something valuable that could not otherwise be conveyed.

The payoff will be stronger if it is more central to the story. It’s not worth having an unlikable character just to illustrate how people could be evil as a sub-theme in a story that’s focused on life in the circus. Illustrating the inner workings of evil must be the entire point of the story. It’s also important that these kinds of storytelling choices are clearly intentional. If your point is to depict evil in depth, it should obvious by the end of the story that your character is evil. Be bold.

Mitigate the Risks

Once you’re sure the payoff is one that can compete with the risks, look for other ways you can structure and narrate your story to minimize the damage of breaking the rule. You might take extra steps to strengthen the parts of the story that will be weaker or avoid the problem by approaching the story from another direction.

  • Head hopping. Head hopping is more jarring when you’re in a close point of view. So telling the story in omniscient point of view will make narrating everyone’s thoughts much smoother. You can also be slow and methodical about transitions between characters. Narrating each character’s external behavior first will prepare readers to hear their thoughts.
  • Predictable ending. While a tragic ending provides a good hook and combats the risk your story will be boring, there’s still a risk of having an unsatisfying end. To avoid this you have to stick to the promise you made in the beginning, but if it unfolds just as people expect, it will still be no fun. You can help the ending feel satisfying by fostering uncertainty about how the characters will reach their foretold bad end. They’ll be murdered, but which person murders them? They’ll be run over by a train, but does it happen now or later?
  • Unlikable main character. To minimize the unpleasantness of focusing on a person who’s terrible, give the audience something more positive to hold on to. In a written work, avoid a close point of view; instead use a distant narrator with a more pleasant personality. To give your audience a stronger reason to continue the story, introduce a side character they can root for, and put that character in jeopardy.

With luck, careful planning will leave you with a unique story that is improved by breaking the rule. But it’s always wise to test ambitious stories with some beta readers. After they give you some general feedback, ask them some targeted questions to find out if your gamble paid off.

As unfair as it may seem, rules are easier to break if you like them. If a storytelling principle makes you feel defensive about your own work, it’ll be difficult to assess whether your rule breaking is justified. But once you understand and appreciate the rule, you’ll be ready to throw it to the wind.

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  1. Dave L

    >Predictable ending… a known ending that’s tragic
    Or if your story is “fairy tale” style. Or humorous and fourth-wall breaking

    >Unlikable main character… avoid a close point of view
    Sometimes a close point of view, letting us into their mind, can justify their actions. Even if it does not, readers are more likely to sympathize w/ the pov character, especially if the reader is in close. And w/ a distant pov. the narrator might give their own opinion of the character, which might work, or might make the narrator seem preachy.

    Fitting that sometimes you have to break the rules for breaking the rules

    • Cay Reet

      And unlikeable character is unlikable, because the audience doesn’t identify with them. If you show their thoughts and they are understandable, they’re no longer an unliekable character.

      And while certain outcomes are more likely – and, yes, fables and fairy tales usually have a predictable ‘the good guys win’ ending -, the actual ending is still not clear from the beginning. You can’t derive from the beginning of Snow White or Briar Rose what precisely will be the ending above ‘the good will triumph.’

  2. Dave R

    Regarding the unlikeable character, Jonathan Franzen has an interesting take on the concept in this long, but worth-reading, article:

  3. Quinte

    I think that story telling rules should be understood as tools and that writing is about understanding the tools to create the experiences you want in the reader.
    I think there’s a problem with writers failing to create the right experience because they think they are breaking a rule.

  4. Alfred

    I never liked Bora Horza Gobuchul (a protagonist from Consider Phlebas, by Iian M Banks). He balanced the story with a mystery, in the form of the illusive Culture. Horza despises the Culture.

    Having read; almost all Culture related books. I have come to despise the Culture, and I now find myself in agreement with Horza. I have come full circle. I think Banks intended this from the outset – Genius!

  5. Peter Lewerin

    Neil Gaiman has a lot of unlikable main characters in his short stories. Sometimes they are balanced by a comeuppance, sometimes the narrative gradually erases their unpleasantness, sometimes you’re just left with the ‘pleasure’ of having spent some time in the mind of a murderer, a psychopath, or some literal monster.

  6. AngeloPardi

    If “not knowing what will happen at the end” was such an important rule, we would not enjoy re-reading the same books again – and a lot of cultural classics such as Romeo and Juliet would be spoiled irremediably just by cultural osmosis…

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