Lit Crush: Books that Break the Rules

As we gear up for April's Muse and the Marketplace Conference, where this year many presenters will be talking about writerly rules and rule-breaking, we asked the Grub community for their favorite rule-breaking books. This is a non-exhaustive list of Grubbie recommendations.



Programs Coordinator Lauren suggests Dancer by Colum McCann, because it follows no rules about making the narrative timeline clear to the reader; it changes perspectives, time period, and location every chapter with no explanation, and trusts the reader to figure it out.


Instructor and GrubWrites columnist Crystal King doesn't think there is a single likable character in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, and Nicholson Baker's book Vox is written entirely in dialogue.


Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch starts with a dream, and it won the Pulitzer Prize! (And it’s one of Muse Conference Volunteer Coordinator Diane's favorites.)


GrubWrites contributor and Grubbie Grace Lapointe always says that Alice Munro's short stories break the "show, don't tell" rule constantly. She summarizes huge periods in characters' lives, tells you exactly how they're feeling, and somehow, it works. See "Dear Life," "The Moons of Jupiter," and "Too Much Happiness."


Director of the Muse & Advocacy Sonya just read David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, which destroyed her, and one of the playwriting "rules" it breaks is a scene in which the lead character tells the audience that he's going to spend intermission on stage, washing makeup off his face, transitioning from a woman to a man. "So I thought you might want to take this opportunity to stretch your legs, enjoy a drink, or listen to the musicians," he says. "I'll be here, when you return, right where you left me." NOW the audience suddenly wants to stay and watch him, but if they do, they're complicit in the very cultural fascination that he's been critiquing the whole time. It's utterly brilliant.


Roberto Bolaño's By Night in Chile is a novel with no chapter breaks, told in one long paragraph. Instructor Jonathan Escoffery is pretty sure that breaks a couple conventions, if not rules.


Jorge Luis Borges's Labyrinths is the favorite of Head of Faculty & Curriculum Dariel. Borges has stories with no main characters, and narratives that read like philosophical musings.


GrubWrites editor Sarah wants to shout out Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, for the flagrant and joyous use of dialect and phonetic spelling in every glorious corner of the prose, and Peter Ho Davies' The Fortunes for boldly challenging the conventional conception of narrative unity.

The book that made Muse & Events Coordinator Hanna a reader, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, begins with the weather: "It was a dark and stormy night."


 Grubbie Cathy Elcik just finished Gina Frangello's  A Life in Men and was gobsmacked by all the POV rules she broke.


If you ask Director of Programs & Marketing Alison, she'll suggest David Grossman's To the End of the Land, which not only starts with a prologue, it starts with a long prologue that is almost entirely dialogue, in a POV and timeline that do not show up again throughout the rest of the novel. It also includes many tangents that Alison has a feeling workshoppers would have identified as "darlings," and every single one of them makes the book better.


Administrative Assistant Erin thinks David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is riddled with backstories of characters we never see again, which gets right at the heart of what it's like to live in a city, which is, in the end, only held together by the stories people tell about it.


Grubbie Maria MayMar says Sylvain Neuvel's Sleeping Giants (and its sequel) is written in interview form. A single voice for the interviewer. Different points of view of an event. Excellent book.


Author and Novel Incubator alum Emily Ross noticed that Jane Harper’s The Dry just drops the past (in italics) into the middle of the present. Must be breaking some rule but it works. 


HR & Operations Manager Lauren loved Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which is a novel composed of nested stories, all of which are based on different reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies. There are wild jumps into the past and future, stories end in the middle of a pivotal moment, and the last five stories are told in reverse chronological order, like a mirror for the first five.


Founder & Executive Director Eve was just talking to a friend about Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which blew her mind back in the early nineties largely because it offered almost nothing you normally expect from a novel. Characters are flat, and Kundera breaks in all the time to remind you that his brain is producing everything on the page. It's idea-driven and absurdist. Eve wants to re-read it and imagines that it's not a book that will hold up for her.


Missed an edition of Lit Hits? Fear not! Find the entire back catalogue of Grubbie-recommended titles right here.

About the Author

As Editor of GrubWrites, GrubStreet's popular blog, Colwill serves the Grub community a daily dose of literary goodness. Book lovers can find reviews, news, recommendations, and conversations with exciting new authors to stay up to speed on all things lit. Writers, GrubWrites is your go-to spot for expert craft talk, thoughtful discussions on how writing is learned and taught, and essential publishing and publicity advice. Colwill is also a GrubStreet instructor and consultant specializing in the novel.


Colwill is Writer-in-Residence at Wellspring House, and a recipient of the work-study scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53, fall 2018), Solstice Literary Magazine, The Conium Review, Poetry and Audience, and other places, and her essays have featured on Dead Darlings and elsewhere. She's served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine and The Conium Review and is currently Fiction Editor at Pangyrus magazine. A scholarship awardee for GrubStreet's Novel Incubator, after graduating from the program Colwill found representation for her first novel with literary agent Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic. She was educated at Leeds University in England, where she received her BA hons in English Language and Literature (International), with stints at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Kansas State University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, where she was awarded the Seaton Graduate Fellowship in Creative Writing. Most recently, Colwill completed a Master's degree in English Literature at Boston College, for which she was awarded a full scholarship. Hailing from Yorkshire, England, her life's mission is to introduce the word "sozzard" to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and other services, including copy editing, please visit

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