Someone wrote to me the other day with a question about the points of view she was using in her story. She was trying something different, she told me, but "I'm afraid I'm breaking the rules."
Well, that made me a feel a little guilty, because I tend to lay down the law when giving advice about writing fiction. But as I told my correspondent, there are no rules.
What we really have is techniques, developed by trial and error (especially error). They work for most of us, the way recipes work for most cooks. When you don't want to create an inedible mess, you stick with the recipe. When you're more confident and feel experimental, you can throw in more or less than a teaspoon of salt. (A cookbook I saw recently recommends a "glug" of olive oil for most of its recipes.) The result may be yet another inedible mess, or a wonderful improvement.
Learning almost any technique is really hard as long as you're keeping it in your conscious mind. Remember learning how to drive? If you still had to concentrate that hard every time you took the wheel, you'd sell your car. When I started learning a little Korean, deciphering hangul was physically exhausting. (I gained new sympathy for anyone with reading problems!) Time and practice have made it easier to recognize a sound or word at once, because it now goes on subconsciously.
The same is true with writing fiction. After a while you stop worrying about POV or narrative voice or the quality of the dialogue. Your subconscious writer is looking after the technical stuff, and your job becomes something like a stenographer's. You take down what's given to you, and sometimes you catch an error, but that's about it. When you stop thinking about technique, you've mastered it.
Still, we all know writers (often the ones we most admire) who "break the rules." I'm always ranting on about "show, don't tell," because flat-footed over-exposition is the most common novice error. Then I read Gabriel García Márquez and I wonder why he tells and tells for page after page, and I'm still mesmerized instead of bored. For years I couldn't figure out how the Maestro gets away with it.
And thinking about my correspondent's question finally gave me a glimpse into that broken rule. The narrative persona of his stories is not some omniscient Colombian author. The narrator is a kind of unnoticed participant, someone who was there, or who heard the story from someone and is passing it along. As we read the pages, we are hearing the voice of García Márquez's grandmother, or some other friend or relative, telling the amazing tales of Macondo and doomed lovers. The drama is not in the "show," but in the social perspective of the narrator...both a single individual and the chorus expressing a society's views.
This is a very sophisticated form of narration. It's not unique. Joseph Conrad uses something like it with Marlowe, his seafaring storyteller. Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway, on the fringes of Gatsby's passion for Daisy, is roughly similar. But in García Márquez the narrator simply sinks into the background, telling the story without participating in it.
In cases like these, I guess the author isn't really "breaking the rules." But such techniques demand far more talent and practice than most of us will ever have—not to mention their grounding in a tradition of family and village storytelling that most of us never had.