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Stephen King Breaks the Rules!

You heard that right — Stephen King, gazillion-seller, award winning author, household name, breaks the rules. The “writing rules,” that is.

I’m about 250 pages into “The Stand” and thus far one of the takeaways, to  my shame, has been how often I’ve noticed King violates some of the most basic writing rules. Namely in his use of passives and head-hopping. Lots of jumping from one POV to the next in the same chapter. And then there’s the “had been’s” and “was’s.” This book would drive some of my old mentors crazy.

More importantly, however, King’s infractions haven’t kept me from enjoying the story. That’s the weird thing about it.

Like many writers, I spent the first couple of years learning about the rules. Show don’t tell. Avoid passives. Maintain POV. Stuff like that. I took it as gospel and worked darned hard to apply it. Now, some six or seven years later, I’m trying to unlearn them. If my reading of The Stand is any indication, I’ve got a long way to go. It feels like a bad hangover — only time and abstinence will cure it.

I can only imagine how many other writers have been ruined by the “writing rules.” No, I’m not suggesting there are no rules or that teaching them is wrong. Fact is, before gaining fame as a novelist, King taught high school English, an experience that informs his book On Writing (Scribner, 2000). In that book, King freely expounds upon some of these same rules, things like Active Voice and Over-use of Adverbs. So it’s not like he’s advocating literary anarchy or something.

Nevertheless, it bothers me that the I have to work so hard, at least make conscious effort, to enjoy novels nowadays. I never had that problem before I became a writer. In a way, I wish I’d never have learned about the writing rules.

Perhaps it’s true of all artists or crafts people. Once you learn the inner-workings of any medium you’re bound to look at it differently, more critically. How could a trumpet player NOT listen to Miles Davis more acutely than a massage therapist? In this sense, my sensitivity to King’s rule-breaking might be… natural. All writers are aware of another author’s stylistic propensities. I also wonder if it may be indicative of a shifting consensus among writing professionals. (The Stand was written in early 90-something, I think.) People always talk about how readers’ tastes are evolving. Could it be that the writing rules which I learned in 2005-6 were just not as applicable in 1990? Or not as enforced? I don’t know.

Whatever the answer, I can’t help but feel there is an inordinate emphasis placed on new authors to learn to follow these writing rules. By over-emphasizing writing rules we unwittingly create a “checklist mentality” that places style above story, pointlessly constricts writers’ options, and narrows their range. Of course, new writers need to understand the rules. But if we’re not careful, we will turn the creative process into a formula and make literary Pharisees out of our proteges.

Not to mention, potentially diminish their enjoyment of some very good books.

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{ 54 comments… add one }
  • Dave Jacobs July 11, 2012, 8:28 AM

    I’ve been greatly influenced by reading the journals of Thomas Merton (NY Times best-seller “The Seven Story Mountain.”) Many of Merton’s journals were turned into best selling books but retained the, often-times, grammatical errors typically allowed in one’s private journals. Here’s a guy who taught composition at Columbia University breaking all the rules and still managing to be a best seller.

  • Liliy July 11, 2012, 8:34 AM

    You’ve hit why I love King’s late 80’s & early 90’s books. I love head-hopping, and the use of passives makes the read feel more like a casual conversation or story being told more so than just being in a character’s head.

    Speaking mostly as a reader, I think rules only really matter when you want to tell a story in a specific style–Writing Deep 3rd POV? Yeah. Don’t head-hop. Writing 3rd Person Omniscient? Go for that head-hopping. Let us in on all the juicy details of everyone’s thoughts. 1st person? Don’t tell us about the person standing behind the main character! We can’t see them! Etc.

    Variety is a good thing. <3

    • Mike Duran July 11, 2012, 8:48 AM

      Liliy, I’ve actually found the head-hopping refreshing. During the edits for The Telling, my editor pointed out several POV infractions I’d made. I’m usually pretty good about staying in one person’s head. However, the editor’s “catch” made me wonder whether this rule isn’t still a big one in some circles.

      • Kevin Lucia July 11, 2012, 9:54 AM

        “Lots of jumping from one POV to the next in the same chapter”

        But from understanding, this is not necessarily breaking the rules. As long as there is a paragraph break, clearly indicating a shift in POV, it’s NOT breaking the rules. It’s just a POV shift.

        It’s been so long since I read it – but, if he shifts POVs WITHIN the narrative, that might be breaking the rules,UNLESS…again, according to my reading…he’s using a DEVICE to help him shift POV within the narrative. It’s been such a long time since I read The Stand, I honestly can’t remember. Which does it seem like it is.

        And, I’ve always felt this about Stephen King: he’s a master STORYTELLER first. He just tells a great, engaging yarn, and makes you care about his characters. Even his nonfiction reads like him sitting around a fire, spinning a good tale.

        Now, I’ve read his son’s work, Joe Hill – and he’s a great story teller like his dad, but a finer craftsman. Of course, he probably grew up in a writer-friendly environment…

        • Jill July 11, 2012, 11:17 AM

          Some of my favorite authors switch POV in the middle of paragraphs. God forbid!

          • Kevin Lucia July 11, 2012, 1:34 PM

            Again – you can do that. As long as there’s a method. The Charles Grant used a very cinematic, “panning” effect, that would move through four or five POV in one narrative stream, but he used a method. Whenever one person touched another, or encountered another person, the POV would transition. It started with one student leaving a classroom in school, and the POV “piggy-backed” down the hall towards the principal’s office, switching from person to person when they came into contact. Very smoothly done, and maybe the “rules” were broken, but through a discernible method the reader could pick up on.

      • R. L. Copple July 11, 2012, 2:21 PM

        Yeah, all depends on what pov(s) the novel is in, and such. I think the big problem with head hopping is when you don’t carry the reader along with you, and they suddenly realize they’ve been in someone else’s head for the past few paragraphs and they didn’t realize it. That’s what you don’t want to have happen. Keeping one pov per chapter and such are devices to help writers avoid doing that, especially newer writers who would tend to lose the reader easier without them.

  • Ramona July 11, 2012, 8:46 AM

    Mike, you’re right about how knowing the craft changes the way you view something. I have been a member of several bands, and I can’t listen to an orchestra or a vocal group without hearing the parts as well as the whole. Same thing with learning the art of photography, or having an artist explain to me how to see the colors of light and shadows.

    As to reading, I can no longer read a book that uses an omniscient POV incorrectly. Just makes me crazy, and there are so few masters at it. Most beginning writers are NOT – they’re just head-hopping. (Omniscient involves a LOT more than just telling every character’s thoughts and feelings).

    I do use King in my classes as an example of when you can “break rules.” You sell like he does, you can break all the rules you want. But if you’re still trying to get an agent or an editor to read your first book….don’t give them a reason to turn you down.

  • Jessica Thomas July 11, 2012, 8:48 AM

    Great points. It’s a bit tyrannical. Telling writers, “Work for free for a decade learning to follow MY rules or else you’ll never make that measely advance or those measely royalties.” Work your arse’s off doing it MY way for a tiny bit of success and then when “success” comes, don’t complain; be happy in your poverty.

    Yep. Writers need to take the power back.

    I’m grumpy today.

  • Susan July 11, 2012, 8:49 AM

    Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien, E.B. White, C.S. Lewis – they are a few in a long list of authors who deviated from the rules. The rules matter less than whether or not the person knows how to write a whacking good story.

    • Jill July 11, 2012, 11:19 AM

      Of course, E.B. White came up with all kinds of stupid rules in the joint writing manual Strunk and White. But maybe he didn’t follow his own rules–don’t know, haven’t read him since childhood.

  • Kat Heckenbach July 11, 2012, 9:22 AM

    OK, I’m gonna be the one here who points out that The Stand was originally published in 1978. It was revised and re-released in 1990, but I’m guessing he probably left a lot well enough alone as it already had a huge fan base, one that he likely didn’t want to piss off with too many changes. Plus, the writing style of the eighties and early nineties was still a far cry from what it is today.

    Anyway, I’m not saying at all that we need to adhere strictly to rules. Not. At. All. I, for one, love a proper rule-breaking ;).

    The thing is, it’s a matter of popular style. The rule for “no head-hopping” has to do with being in deep POV, which is how *most* books are written these days. Omniscient is kind of a trend that has passed. And when you DO head-hop in omniscient there are good ways and bad ways. If you feel like you’re being knocked out of the story, it’s not being done right.

    Granted, I read mostly YA and MG, which are very main character-centered in POV. Maybe adult novels are more likely to be in omniscient POV, but I’d still guess those are few and far between. Read King’s more recent works–like Duma Key–and there’s no head-hopping. It’s deep POV with one main character.

    All that said, I wholeheartedly agree. Learning all the “rules” sometimes DOES make my head swim when I’m reading. I get frustrated more easily, distracted by certain “no-nos”, and it can at times really ruin an otherwise good story for me.

    • Mike Duran July 11, 2012, 9:39 AM

      Kat, thanks for pointing out that The Stand was written in ’78. Some of the cultural references (or lack of them) make it feel that old. I’m reading the fat, updated version that was published in ’90. And even though “the writing style of the eighties and early nineties was still a far cry from what it is today,” I’ve found it to be a very smooth read. Despite my own hang-ups, that is.

      • Kat Heckenbach July 11, 2012, 9:57 AM

        “Smooth read.” And there you have it. King was great at creating a smooth read back then, and he is great at it now.

        I think the reason the “rules” are emphasized so much these days is that too many new writers don’t write “smooth”. Deep POV, omniscient, literary, commercial, whatever. There’s nothing wrong with passive voice, “was” is not the devil, adverbs are not evil incarnate. But those things can be overused and misused, writing trends or not.

        • Ramona July 11, 2012, 1:20 PM

          Spot on, Kat.

        • R. L. Copple July 11, 2012, 2:43 PM

          Good points, Kat. I like to think of the adverbs, wases, passive voice, as spices for a story. The right amounts applied in the right ways can add flavor and bring out the character of the dish. Too much of any of them, and you ruin the flavor. You don’t want to eliminate it totally. Just like the time I made cornbread and forgot to put in the salt. Talk about bland. But if I had thrown in three tablespoons instead of the one teaspoon it called for, it would have tasted horrible.

          And that’s where the art of cooking comes into creating a flavorful experience instead of following a specific reciepe. You can adjust the spices for effect. The rules are really to help slow down those people who might write the whole story in passive voice, or have 30 wases on each page. But neither is it the goal to get rid of each one either. Rather, to find what works to bring out the best flavor in the story. That’s why writing is an art instead of a science. There is no *one* formula.

        • Christian July 11, 2012, 11:23 PM

          “Smooth read” is right. The Stand is longer than The Lord of the Rings but it never feels that way. King’s magnum opus is incredibly thought-provoking and has a lot of depth but is still a very easy read. I love that. I enjoy Lord of the Rings but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a very dry and at times difficult read (little action, lots of hiking :P).

        • Marion July 13, 2012, 6:07 PM


          You are spot on about King creating a smooth read. I just read my first Stephen King novel, Bag of Bones, and I was surprised at how literate and smooth it was. I had a pre-conceived notion about him and after reading that novel…I realized that he is a terrific storyteller.

          King was on my reading bucket list and I was glad to fulfill it. He is big enough to break rules and maybe he opens a door for other writers to follow suit.

          Here’s my review for Bag of Bones:



          • Kat Heckenbach July 13, 2012, 7:15 PM

            Marion, I resisted reading Stephen King books for soooooo long. I admit now, I judged the books by their movies ;). But when I finally picked one up, I discovered what an awesome writer he is, and how *character driven* his books are!

            • Marion July 14, 2012, 9:57 AM


              It wasn’t that I resisted him. I happen to get hooked on Dean Koontz’s books in the late 90’s and read a lot of his books. But for some reason…I created a rivalry between him and Stephen King. So I decided I was not going to read King and I thought I had to choose a side. Absolutely crazy and didn’t make any sense when I looked back on it.

              However, I decided to put King on my reading bucket list because I had to find how my created rival wrote his books.

              I’m glad I finally read him and will try another one in the future. I’ve been told to read Dead Zone. It is considered one of his best early novels.

              Any other recommendations?


    • Christian July 11, 2012, 11:15 PM

      I thought I mentioned this earlier but I realised that I posted on Mike’s FaceBook wall. Oops.

  • Rachel Starr Thomson July 11, 2012, 9:27 AM

    I am quite disenchanted with “the rules” and have been ever since I read a review, written by an aspiring writer who has taken writing courses, criticizing the craft of George Bryan Polivka’s “Blaggard’s Moon” as “poor” because the plot wasn’t linear and thus didn’t build tension “properly.” Essentially, this reviewer knew how you’re “supposed to” write a book and thus couldn’t see how brilliant this particular book was or the incredible skill that went into crafting it.

    The only rule that counts, in my opinion, is “Does this work for this story?” Otherwise, we needlessly restrict creativity and stifle variety, and it’s no wonder so many stories lack spark.

    • Marion July 13, 2012, 6:11 PM

      I read Blaggard’s Moon by Polivka and I thought he did a solid job of writing. It was a good story and kept me interested all the way to the end.

      Maybe I missed something….LOL!!


  • sally apokedak July 11, 2012, 9:38 AM

    Yes, yes, and yes. Those rules ruin style much of the time.

    And, yes, after I spent a summer making drapes when I was a teen, I couldn’t walk into a building without flipping over the drapes to see if they were hemmed well.

    I am back now, to being able to enjoy books without noticing all the rule breaking going on. I’m very happy about that.

    And, yes, I’ve had some literary Pharisees for crit partners. 🙂

  • Nicole July 11, 2012, 9:44 AM

    Mike, like you, I’ve emphasized the learning of the so-called rules so that when we break them, we know we’re doing so. I’ve also been a persistent rebel against the uniform application of the rules which persists in critiques, in articles and posts, and in general CBA formulaic novels. Although “the rules” have been given (too little too late) permission to be relaxed and considered (in some circles) to be “suggestions”, the overall opinions of editors point to the specifics you mentioned and religiously stick to them.

    I love variety. I love what they’ve leveled head-hopping. Contrary to those who’ve memorized and applied these rules to their writing, head-hopping can keep a reader engaged and paying attention. Adverbs, passive verbs, dialogue tags, etc. can be essential to adding flavor, accenting voice, and creating style.

    If we truly believe using the opposite of these rules constitutes “bad” writing, then we eliminate many of the classics as well as contemporary greats.

  • Scathe meic Beorh July 11, 2012, 10:40 AM

    Agreed, Mike. Because John Betancourt owns the magazines Weird Tales and Fantasy, and quite a few other well-known projects to include his house Wildside Press, I allowed him to school me on adverb usage (‘hideously’) and dialogue tags (‘he screamed’) before he would publish my first novel (now out-of-print). I still use precious few of either, and stories stop dead in their tracks for me when I come across them in other people’s writing. Too, I get story rejections frequently telling me that I have changed POV and that I am using passive voice. So much for those last two. I don’t care. But the DTs and the adverbs still haunt me, and likely always will. Oh, yeah, and the rule that Fantasy genre titles have to be three words, the first word being ‘The.’ I absolutely ignore that one, perhaps to my own detriment?

    Thanks for such a consistently provocative blog, friend. Much appreciated.

  • Jill July 11, 2012, 11:22 AM

    I love adverbs.

    • Kevin Lucia July 11, 2012, 1:36 PM

      My favorite adverb-user is Neil Gaiman. Hands down.

      • Kat Heckenbach July 11, 2012, 1:51 PM

        Comments need “like” buttons :). Neil Gaiman rocks.

        Related to the adverb thing is the show-don’t-tell thing when a single word or phrase (such as “condescending look”) can get across much more than trying to describe every twist of feature on a person’s face.

        Oh, and just because I *have* to interject this somewhere and don’t want to start another new comment–I know far too many people who don’t actually *know* what passive voice is, much less why and how to use it.

        • Jill July 11, 2012, 2:44 PM

          Yes, this is so true! Nobody seems to know what passive voice is any more. Burn the Strunk and White–burn it, I say. 😉

          • Kat Heckenbach July 11, 2012, 2:49 PM

            Thank you, Jill!

            There are many who believe the mere presence of the word “was” means passive voice. “He was reading.” NO, not passive! “The book was read by him.” Yes, passive! And a great example of when to not use it ;).

            And in the “He was reading” bit–that is legitimate. It implies a continuing action. “He was reading a book when I walked into the room.” No, do not change it to “he read”: “He read a book when I walked into the room.” Totally different.

            Can ya tell this is a pet peeve?? 😛

            • R. L. Copple July 11, 2012, 3:03 PM

              LOL Kat. You should like my article in the upcoming SB Univ. book. I make those exact points. 🙂 As well as good times to use passive voice, wases, etc.

    • Lyn Perry July 11, 2012, 1:41 PM

      I love adverbs ridiculously.

      • Jill July 11, 2012, 2:42 PM

        That just sounds better, doesn’t it? As a poet, I’ve tried to tell people this–adverbs add a rollicking, yet graceful rhythm to writing. They don’t necessarily weaken it.

  • Ramona July 11, 2012, 1:25 PM

    Storytelling is definitely primo. I recently bought a manuscript because I was halfway through it before I realized how many “rules” the author had broken. It’s written in a slightly snarky omniscient POV, totally charming. A good story will snag me everytime. Everything else is editing.

  • Todd Michael Greene July 11, 2012, 2:08 PM

    I haven’t gone through all the comments here Mike, so I may be repeating something someone else has noted. However, you mention the possible dating of The Stand. It depends on which version of the novel you’re reading. The original was written in 1973 and was his third published novel. In 1990 or 91 he re-issued it in it’s original form only updating certain facts like technology and perhaps – though this I’m not sure – some writing rule changes. The 73 version was around 500-600 pages. The re-issue was around 1100-1200. Back in 73 the publish ordered the cut because of the expense involved in printing a manuscript over 1000 pages and the fact that King was a relatively new untried novelist. If they had only known. lol

  • Iola July 11, 2012, 2:20 PM

    “Could it be that the writing rules which I learned in 2005-6 were just not as applicable in 1990? Or not as enforced? I don’t know.”

    Yes, I think they have changed. After all, there was a time when speech was in double quotes and thought in single quotes. Now that’s considered quite archaic.

    Head-hopping, done well, works. But many authors (perhaps new authors in particular) don’t know how to make it work. When I’ve got to re-read two pages to work out the POV character, it hasn’t worked.

    I guess it’s the same with other writing ‘rules’. If the writing is strong, the characters interesting and the plot compelling, the reader is unlikely to notice the adverbs, the passive voice etc. But if the writing is full of basic spelling and grammar errors, the characters are unlikeable and the plot blah, then readers are going to notice. And criticise.

    And criticising the writing for not following the ‘rules” is easier and potentially less personal than telling them their book is bad.

    • R. L. Copple July 11, 2012, 2:36 PM

      On the double-quote/single-quote thing. At one point, I was going to use single-quotes to designate thoughts as a rule in my own writing. Then I realized that confused people, because the standard British rule is to use single-quotation marks for dialog. I checked in a Chronicles of Narnia book and Lord of the Rings, and yep. Dialog is in single-quotes (at least the copies I have).

      So I gave up and used italics. 🙂

    • Scathe meic Beorh July 11, 2012, 2:38 PM

      “After all, there was a time when speech was in double quotes and thought in single quotes. Now that’s considered quite archaic.”


      Well… what’ll I do now?

      I need to find my ruby slippers but quick! This is just too much! THIS IS JUST TOO MUCH TO HANDLE! Aieeeeeeee!

      (there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…)

      • Iola July 11, 2012, 7:05 PM

        “Never, ever use quotes with your interior monologue. It is not merely poor style; it is, by today’s standards, ungrammatical. Thoughts are thought, not spoken.”

        From Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Brown and Dave King.

        • Scathe meic Beorh July 11, 2012, 9:03 PM

          My interior monologue is usually a song by Lamb, the 2nd Chapter of Acts, Keith Green, or Kemper Crabb anyway, so the rule doesn’t apply to me.

          Oh, _that_ interior monologue…

  • Cherry Odelberg July 11, 2012, 6:18 PM

    Hear! Hear!
    Sometimes, I think the emphasis on rules is just to keep us circling the publishing airport until we run out of fuel.

  • Nissa Annakindt July 12, 2012, 6:36 AM

    I used to be an obsessive Stephen King fan— Annie Wilkes was my role model— but I was not aware of the head-hopping thing until recently when I read a recent King novel out of curiosity about what he was up to since I stopped reading him.

    I blogged about it because the example I noticed was a very effective use of head-hopping— jumping temporarily from the head of a repulsive killer into the head of a victim really sharpened the effect of the kill-spree.

    The reason I never noticed head-hopping before was that when I started reading books on writing, none of the books I read ever mentioned it. More than that, though I heard a lot about head hopping online, I only recently saw it mentioned in a book (which listed it as a possible point-of-view to use, not as one of the Seven Deadly Sins).

    I think that all these arbitrary technical rules like no head-hopping and no passives are popular with would-be writers because they are easier to deal with than those things which are difficult to measure, which are the things that actually count in gaining readers.

  • Thomas Smith July 12, 2012, 8:10 AM

    Kevin Lucia touched on it, and Ramona nailed it with “Storytelling is definitely primo.” The important thing is tapping into that stream that feeds the imagination and carries the reader along from page one to the final “the end.” Sometimes head-hopping, adverb usage, and passive phrases are the mark of a lazy writer, or a writer who hasn’t done the journeyman work of learning the rules. And other times, as in Ramona’s example, it is a part of the current which propels us to the next sentence, the next paragraph, and the next page. As Dean Koontz has said, “Readers will stay with an author, no matter what the variations in style and genre, as long as they get that sense of story, of character, of empathetic involvement.”

  • Bob Avey July 12, 2012, 10:45 AM

    Excellent article, Mike. And I know what you mean about Stephen King — even though he breaks the rules, his books are still enjoyable. In fact, I can’t imagine a Stephen King book being written without his style of rule-breaking. I know you’ve read it, but take another look at John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. Mr. Gardner gives a rule then says it’s somethimes okay to break it. He pretty much sums it up in saying, “Good writers can get away with just about anything.”

  • Mark July 12, 2012, 11:23 AM

    More than strickly following the rules, I think authors should live by “Learn the rules so you know when to break them.”

    As others have said, POV shifting can be good or bad, depending on how authors handle it. Same with passive of adverbs or….

    The more important thing is to know what you are doing and why. And if it works for your great story, people won’t care. However, if you don’t do it well, it will take people out of your awesome story.

    And this is coming from a devout non-POV shift reader. It can be done well. But it can also be done horribly. And an author needs to make sure they’ve done it well if they are going to do it.

  • Scathe meic Beorh July 12, 2012, 11:38 AM

    It’s been said o’er and o’er already, but I’ll say it again. Either you can tell a story, or you can’t. No amount of rules and regulations will make you a better storyteller, and in fact may stifle you. And, since we seem to be mostly Christians of one kind or another on here, I’ll say this: if writing was something that came naturally to you before you were born from above, and was not a gift given to you as a talent with your new birth, than God bless you, because you’re going to have a hell of a time making it work for you.

  • Tom Canfield July 12, 2012, 11:51 AM

    The Stand. This one book made me want to become a writer. It also has had a more significant impact on my faith than any piece of literature outside the Bible. King uses story to show you yourself, and in The Stand he uses head hopping to show you your multiplicity, because we find bits of our identity in so many of these characters. Great storytelling is the only ultimate rule worth following.

    I have been writing and reading about writing for nearly a year now. The process is similar to stock trading which I have done for over 13 years. There is no shortage of “must follow” rules and teachers pounding the table on how it has to be in the trading world if you want to survive let alone make significant money. They clogged my brain for years as I searched for the one true way. It all felt forced and I couldn’t make it work because it wasn’t mine. It was not until I walked away from all of it and did what made sense to me and only me that I found my trading voice where everything flowed and I made money. Ultimately, making money is the only rule of trading.

    I see writing the same way. Learn the rules and study several different styles and then throw it all out and find your own storytelling voice. King clearly has his own storytelling voice, and it is amazing.

    • Gene Bathurst December 2, 2014, 3:22 PM

      “They clogged my brain for years as I searched for the one true way. It all felt forced and I couldn’t make it work because it wasn’t mine. It was not until I walked away from all of it and did what made sense to me and only me that I found my trading voice…”

      I think that’s a very wise piece of advice.

  • Gene Bathurst December 2, 2014, 3:21 PM

    Great post, and lots of good advice here.

    I’ve only recently become aware of the sin of head hopping. I can understand the complaint, but somehow I remember reading books when I was younger and not getting confused by it. I thought The Stand was great. Obviously some writers can ‘head hop’ well enough to be enjoyable.

    Rules can constrict if applied too rigidly.

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