I just finished "The House of the Seven Gables" by Hawthorne. I was struck by how often he switched tenses. Mostly the narration was in past tense, but then he would switch to present or even future tense. Sometimes the tense would change for a sentence or a paragraph; other times it would change for a whole chapter. It was a bit jarring, since it's hardly ever done, to the point where it is almost an iron-clad rule. (As in: Any competent editor or English teacher will always mark it wrong.) But it worked well the way Hawthorne did it in this novel. This set me thinking (and here's the question):

What are some (other) great examples where authors of novels successfully break the "rules" for writing? (And of course, what was the broken rule?)

I don't mean rule-breaking once in a blue moon, for dramatic emphasis. I mean a lot -- multiple chapters, or the whole book. And I'm restricting this to novels, because short stories are much more experimental. And by "successfully," I mean that the novel sold well and is fairly well-known. Also, I'm not necessarily asking for a list of ground-breaking novels, which broke "rules" that once seemed important but no longer stand.

Another example would be "Slaughterhouse-Five" by Vonnegut. (For a variety of reasons!)

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    It's hard to give "a correct answer". I can give one: Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Lots of deus ex machina events - no foreshadowing, and defying common logic. Continuity is all over the place, there are some timelines but you'd need a notebook to follow them all. Mary-Sue protagonist character - Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Universe. "Coincidences" that defy suspension of disbelief, e.g. totally crappy reinvention of reopenable windows. Plot holes through defying common knowledge (dolphins and mice being perfectly tolerant of humans).
    – SF.
    Jul 25 '14 at 16:48
  • This question can result in an open-ended list, and it isn't really answerable in its current form. That said, it's a fascinating question. Can anyone think of a way of editing this into a form that we could leave open? Jul 25 '14 at 20:42
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    It's not answerable with a single answer, true, but it is answerable. And the answers are supposed to be restricted to "successful" books, so that's not open-ended. And people are supposed to explain how the novel broke rules, so I'm not just asking for a list. Having said all that, I'm not married to the current wording. At the root of the question is my wondering how strongly a skilled author can break the rules (and still be successful). Readers accept misdemeanors for the sake of effect. How often do they accept felonies? Or even, crimes of the century?
    – dmm
    Jul 25 '14 at 21:46
  • I guess "Ulysses" by Joyce qualifies. It is famous, and its stream-of-consciousness "plot" certainly breaks lots of rules. And it has sold many copies. But how many people actually read it all the way through, because they wanted to? It started as a short story, and it worked well. Then it turned into a tome. OTOH, a lot of literary critics rate it as one of the greatest books ever, so that's another measure of success (FWIW).
    – dmm
    Jul 25 '14 at 21:57
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    Theory: Trying to determine what things qualify as "rules-breaking" is really broad. Perhaps the OP could identify one or two "rules-breaking" things he's interested in emulating and then ask about those. "How do you maintain frequent perspective shifts without alienating the reader? I know X did this, but is that just because X do anything he likes and people like it anyway?" That might work. Or it might be completely derailing the OP's intent.
    – Jerenda
    Jul 26 '14 at 0:28

I could suggest the Water! trilogy by Gael Baudino, but it's not well-known and I found the experimental format exhausting. Still, Your Mileage May Vary.

In the three books (O Greenest Branch, The Dove Looked In, Branch and Crown) she kept switching not merely narrator and POV, but the entire narrative style: parts were standard narration, then parts were being told by a marketing guy as he was getting mugged, then parts were a stone-cutting manual which was increasingly crossed out and being used as a religious text.... I guess in the end the story was told, but it was kind of painful after a while. And I really loved Baudino's other works (The Elven series, Gossamer Axe), so this was a letdown for me.

  • So, this would be a counter-example to my question. Here we have a knowledgeable reader (you) and a good author (Baudino). But this book turned you off with its rule-breaking, and didn't sell well, and didn't become well-known. That is what one would have expected. That is why the "rules" exist.
    – dmm
    Jul 25 '14 at 21:49

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