You Can Break the Rules If You’re Victor Hugo

Hello, friends! Some of you might recall that I read The Brothers Karamazov last year with a book club (homeschool moms are way too ambitious, sometimes). This year we’ve decided to up the ante–apparently 800 pages wasn’t long enough—so now we’re reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which checks in at a whopping 1460 pages for the version I’ve got.

I’m happy to report I’ve made it almost halfway through, and, being a writer, have of course been analyzing the book as both writer and reader. We writers are constantly getting “the rules” drilled into us–what you can and can’t do if you want to be published, or have your book read and admired, etc. But if there’s one thing I can say about Les Miserables, it’s that Victor Hugo broke all sorts of rules. So for today’s post, let’s take a look!

Keep your novel to 60,000 to 110,000 words.

Granted, this rule has some flexibility depending on your genre and whether it’s a debut novel. Take a look at JK Rowling–by the end of the Harry Potter series, the books were approaching 200,000 words. But Les Miserables flies in the face of all publishing wisdom by redefining the word epic, clocking in at over 650,000 words. Perhaps long novels were more in vogue in the mid-19th century (although I’m not sure what that implies about our attention spans these days….).

Can you imagine submitting a manuscript of that length to a publisher? Or, if Victor Hugo had decided to go indie and self-publish, how much CreateSpace would charge for a tome of that length?

Now the reason for the novel’s great length becomes readily apparent once you start reading it. It’s full of digressions and descriptions in which none of the action of the plot actually occurs. But that only leads to other broken rules…

Show, don’t tell (and don’t present the backstory as an info-dump).

This rule, perhaps, is one of the first that a new writer learns. You can’t just tell us about a character’s morals or personality, you have to show them in action. Let the reader find out for themselves.

That rule apparently didn’t exist in Hugo’s day, because while he does show his characters in action, he also has great swaths of text directly telling us all about them. Sections like this: “Since we will meet M. Mabeuf later, a few words would not be out of place,” followed by a lengthy description of the character and his household.

Or this sentence (the third in the book): “Although it in no way concerns our story, it might be worthwhile…to mention the rumors and gossip about him…” followed by nearly 60 pages of information on one of the characters. I can’t help but wonder how many agents today would send Les Mis back to the slush pile after reading the first page (if they made it past the query letter).

Every scene must move the plot forward.

Victor Hugo was, in many ways, a genius. He had remarkable knowledge about the history of France, about the city of Paris, about politics and religion, and he wastes no opportunity to share this knowledge with his readers. As a result, Les Miserables is full of long digressions into material that seems almost entirely irrelevant to the plot.

Right at the moment when the reader is dying to know whether Jean Valjean escapes from Javert and manages to retrieve little Cosette, we are left hanging for 57 pages as we read the history of the Battle of Waterloo. And this type of digression happens regularly, into history, the geography of Paris, the nature of religion and man, or the question of whether convents should exist. I’m only halfway through the story–who knows what else I’ll be reading about?

I do know this–try submitting a mansucript like this to an agent today, and you can count on a nice pile of rejection letters coming your way.

Your target audience can’t be “everyone.”

Writers today are becoming more and more involved in the marketing and business aspects of their books. We’re told to create an author brand and to build our social media followers. We’re told to consider our book’s target audience, which has to be a specific group of people, so that we can tailor our content for them. In fact, a huge red flag to a potential agent or publisher is if an author says their target audience is “everyone”–because no book can possibly appeal to everyone.

Yet, Victor Hugo said the following to his Italian publisher: “I don’t know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone. It addresses England as well as Spain, Italy as well as France, Germany as well as Ireland, the republics that harbour slaves as well as empires that have serfs. Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: “open up, I am here for you”.” [Source: Wikipedia]

Now how’s that for ambition?

Does it work?

Now to the point–we’ve seen how Victor Hugo took so many “cardinal” writing rules and ignored them completely. How, then, is this book one of the greatest classics ever written?

I’ve seen the movie based on the Broadway musical. The story itself, the characters, the singing–they’re fantastic. But they do pale in comparison to the novel itself, and I’ve only read half of it so far. In some indefinable way, “suffering” through all those lengthy digressions and info-dumps make the moments of actual plot so much more meaningful. When you’ve read the entire history of Waterloo, you suddenly understand so much better the character who was pulled out of the Ohain road (a disastrous move for Napoleon’s cavalry), and Marius’ admiration for his father takes on a whole new meaning.

Now I’ll be honest, it’s hard reading. The sentence structures, the vocabulary, and even the social context are much harder to understand for modern readers than they would have been in Hugo’s day. And I have a lot going on in life–I don’t have the luxury of poring over every sentence to make sure I don’t miss any of the meaning. I feel, in many ways, like I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything Hugo is trying to say.

But I can say I haven’t regretted a moment spent reading it, and I strongly suspect Hugo was right. It is a novel for everyone, because we can all learn something from it. And as both reader and writer, I think that’s pretty remarkable.


Image credit:, CC0 license.


8 thoughts on “You Can Break the Rules If You’re Victor Hugo

  1. Les Misérables is such a special musical and book. I wouldn’t have read the book if I never developed a big love for the musical


  2. This is an incredibly good point! I love your insight so much.
    I got raised on a lot of old literature (constantly stealing new books off my parents’ bookshelves) and when I got into writing I thought to myself, I want to write like these writers who stood the test of time and told stories that are still relevant and interesting years and years after they themselves have passed on!
    So I went off to writing courses and was told all the those ‘cardinal rules’ we all know and was really confused, because many of my favourite stories weren’t following them at all.
    The moment of epiphany was when I asked a tutor about this and they shrugged before grandly stating that Victor Hugo ‘just wouldn’t have been published or marketable today’ like that was the only thing that mattered! The biggest lesson of writing I ever tell myself now is ‘try it and see if it works’ because received wisdom is great and all, but convention isn’t the only way to succeed!


    • Thanks! You make a great point too–it helps to know “the rules,” but ultimately as writers sometimes we have to try new things for the sake of our stories. I think writing/ reading styles have changed so much over the last 50 years even, that now most of the classics probably wouldn’t be marketable. (I’m not sure that’s a good sign in terms of our modern intelligence or reading abilities, though!).
      A lot of our creative decisions probably come down to goals. If you want to write a genre bestseller, you have a lot less leeway than if you’re writing literary fiction or catering to a small audience who loves your work. Creative freedom is probably one of the benefits of going indie over needing a traditional agent or publisher to accept your work.


      • I have to agree – that’s my favourite thing abotu the rise of indie publishing is that it allows for much greater experimentation and diversity of styles and ideas in writing again. Like with anything creative, getting something great is all about taking calculated risks and enjoying the ones that pay off!

        Liked by 1 person

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