I’ve been debating grammar lately. This isn’t new. As our world shifts to using new technologies and ever newer and shorter forms of communication become normal the tension between the evolving grammar tactics and the grammar traditionalists keeps flaring up. And, grammatical prescriptivism bothers me on a lot of levels. As a designer, it bothers me that a lot of rules exist not to aid or clarify communication, but “just because.” Worse is the double-standard they institutionalize. Most of the people who laud Shakespeare would probably dismiss him if he were writing today, as many liberties as he was willing to take with language. Faulkner, Cummings, Vonnegut… there are so many valued writers who kept the rules of English at arms length. So, how is it brilliant when they break the rules, but garbage when your average texter does it? Ah yes, that old saw. You have to know the rules before you can break them. You hear that a lot in grammar, where the rules exist to try and leash the sprawling, squirming mass of too many legs and too few heads that is English. You hear it a lot in art where the rules serve to block out some form in the nebulous theories of composition and subject. You have to know the rules first. Once you know them, then you can break them to the correct effect.
Let’s be honest, that’s pretty worthless advice. It has that certain appearance of depth and usefulness that makes it easy to get behind. But it doesn’t actually tell you anything. It doesn’t mean anything by itself. In composition there’s the rule of thirds. It’s a popular one, and one commonly taught to people learning photography. It’s easy. if you’re not familiar with it, I can tell you it right now. You take your frame and divide into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. You’ll end up with a grid of nine squares. Placing your subject and any horizons along any of those lines will generally make the photo seem more interesting. Placing your primary focus point on one of the four intersections will make it more interesting still.
Easy, no? You bet it is. Now, go shoot a picture like that. Shoot ten. Shoot thirty. Shoot a hundred. When you know the rule so much you’re doing it on auto-pilot you suddenly understand why you would break it, don’t you? Of course you don’t. All you know is the rule. It’s not that rules like this one aren’t useful in their way, it’s just that they’re incomplete. They’re a lazy shorthand for a whole slew of more complicated things used too often as a stand-in for actually understanding those complicated theories. The rule of thirds is a simplification of the entirety of the theories of composition. To know when to break it you don’t need to know how to divide a frame into thirds, you need to understand how tension, isolation, balance, and visual weight work together in a frame. You need to know why a subject in the center feels boring and static. You need to understand that simply offsetting the subject alone isn’t enough, the space you leave beside them needs to have less weight to balance them. You need to know the farther they get from center the harder it will be to balance the tension, and the more empty space you’ll need to leave to accomplish it. Throwing the subject all the way to the edge of a frame turns the tension up to 11. It’s not “breaking the rules.” it’s understanding the underlying theory that gave us the rule.
David Lynch and his crew are the master class in how to use edge-of-frame composition to increase visual tension.
All of which is really to say, it’s not that rules are meant to be broken. If that’s the case all it really means is the rules are broken. And they are. Our rules are broken, because they’re not really rules. They’re crutches. Simplifications. And, that’s OK. Composition, like grammar, is a big idea. Big, and formless. In the beginning, the rules give it enough shape to get a foothold. They’re doorways in. But we have a tendency to stop at the rules. To fail to make it clear the rule is a simplification. A stand in for much wider, more nuanced theory. And then the rules fail us. We start to “break” them, even though there was nothing ever there to break. The difference between a good artist and a bad one, between a good and bad writer, isn’t knowing when to break the rules. It’s either explicitly or implicitly understanding the rule was just a stand-in for other things, and an understanding of how to use those other things. A bad text happens because someone doesn’t understand the history of language and how the parts work together to communicate ideas clearly. A bad photograph happens because someone doesn’t yet get the elements of composition. Teaching those people a rule will help them make better works, but only when they follow the rule. It’ll never teach them when to break it. It can’t. If you want better craft, be less hung up on teaching someone the rules. Be more concerned with helping them understand the theory.