Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The One Writing Rule You “Must” Follow

I hear a lot of advice about writing. I listen to it all, though I don’t necessarily take it all. Here are some of the “rules” I’ve picked up over the years:

Show don’t tell.
Kill your darlings.
Avoid adverbs.
Never use clichés.
Ain’t ain’t a word.
Avoid Info Dumps.
Conflict on every page.
Use adjectives sparingly.
Don’t split infinitives.
Character trumps plot.
Avoid “ing” endings.
Never a day without a line.
Don’t open with description.
Never write in second person.
Don’t start sentences with “and” or “but.”
Characters must change during a story.
Dialogue should do more than one thing.
Develop a full biography for each character.
Never repeat salient words close to each other.
Use active rather than passive sentence structure.
The first word that pops into your head is the best word.
Always begin a story with people talking to each other.
Know every element of your story before you start writing.
Children and animals are naturally sympathetic characters.
Avoid authorial intrusions (Direct address from author to reader).

The truth is that none of these are rules. At best they are guidelines, and at worst they are straightjackets. The one absolute rule of writing is that there are no absolute rules. “Show don’t tell” is a good guideline but you can’t always follow it literally or your work would be unreadable. When you’re moving characters around in a story but the travel itself isn’t important, just tell it and get it done. The rule really means to “show” the interesting stuff. Otherwise your work will be weighed down with useless detail.

Never start a sentence with “and” or “but” is a bad rule. Sometimes those are perfect to start sentences with. Note every sentence, of course.

Never begin with description might be a good rule but it’s one I refuse to obey. I often start with description, and, for me, I hate, hate, hate books and stories that start with dialogue. I almost always put them down immediately.

Never use clichés is both a good and a bad rule, depending on the situation. Cliché description, like “red as a rose,” or “free as a bird,” is generally weak because readers have seen the phrasings so much that they don’t really process the meaning. However, sometimes having a character speak in clichés is just the right element to bring your story to life.

“In media res” is generally a good rule, I think, but it also depends on the genre. It’s a critical rule for thrillers, but not nearly as necessary in literary fiction. And when someone tells me to “never use adverbs” I counter with “never throw a tool out of your tool kit.”

One of the best things about writing, and one of the most intimidating, is the incredible freedom it affords you to do and say whatever you want. Certainly, you should listen to the advice of others. I’ve given plenty of advice myself, and I think it has been good advice. But don’t let anyone fool you into believing that guidelines are rules. It just ain’t so.

So, tell me, what are some of the other “rules” of writing that aren’t really rules? What have I missed?

39 comments:

David J. West said...

Seems I have heard that genre's should all have wordcounts of a certain length, respectively - for example YA being shorter, but then look at the size of the last few Harry Potter's.

Granted it can be harder to break in with a Tome-but again its just a guideline.

Deka Black said...

David, you just said what i was about to say.

For me... “never throw a tool out of your tool kit.” is a advice.

And a rule what is not a rule... "never a day without a line". Well, sometimes, there are things keeping us away from the keyboard. And i feel guilty when it happens. I shoyld not feel this way, but...

And another:

"write about things you know". Ah, yeah, throw away your imagination, right? To me this is a guideline, a advice... and nothing more ;)

JR's Thumbprints said...

Here's the number one "guideline" for writing a story: BE ORIGINAL.

Sidney said...

Good thoughts. Darlings die hard

Phyllis Bourne said...

I'm a rules person. When a cop stops a traffic violator I yell, "Do your duty officer!"

However, writingwise if sounds good to the ear and looks good on the page - I do it.

Phyllis Bourne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christina said...

I had a teacher who said a story should never begin with characters talking. She made an example of my work on how "not to do it" and that was hard to sit through because I know I'd read books that started with dialogue.

Love your list.

Steve Malley said...

'Never open with weather, or waking up'-- advice I'd say is worth living by... Mostly.

Also, one of my favorites (though certainly not for everyone) is 'avoid the hooptedoodle'!

the walking man said...

Take 6 months to develop a story arc on a cork board full of interconnected post it notes and lines of yarn strung between characters and actions before you put the first descripton down as an opening.

Farrah Rochon said...

The only "must" rule is to write. That's it. Just write.

AvDeeBee said...

"Avoid prologues." Yes, prologues are sometimes a crutch used by writers who don't want to work backstory into their novel. Yes, they've been overdone somewhat within the sf/fantasy genre. Yes, it's always a good idea to take a moment (or ten) to decide if a prologue can be worked into the story some other way. However, at times prologues work--sometimes going beyond "working" to setting a perfect tone for the following pages. Prologues have become this loathed entity, a pariah of the literary world. Agents admit chucking entire manuscripts because they see that one word hovering at the top of page one. It all seems a bit knee-jerkish and phobic to me. Again, another useful tool chucked out of the box just for the hell of it.

Charles Gramlich said...

David J. West, I’ve heard the desired “size” of books in fantasy and YA shift dramatically in my time. Sometimes they say short is better, sometimes longer is better. That one fluctuates quite a bit, as do some of the others.

Deka Black, I think “never a day without a line” can be more broadly translated as “Never spend a day without thinking about writing,” but even then sometimes life intervenes. AS for the Tool kit, yeah, it’s amazing how many folks want to handicap themselves by eliminating tools up front. Oh, that is a good one: Write what you know. I can’t believe I overlooked that one.

JR's Thumbprints, good one. Not easy to do for sure in this day and age, with all the stuff having been published.

Sidney, I must confess to generally sparing my darlings.

Phyllis Bourne, I obey the rules most of the time because I don’t want to get a ticket. And yes, if it works on the page I think that is how any “rule” should be applied.

Christina, the rule about “starting with characters talking” is a fairly new one, I believe. I think it’s a bad rule personally.

Steve Malley, never open with weather. Good one. Don’t open with a dream is another. I like to open with a “touch” of weather, though, and generally really really prefer those books and stories that ground me in the environment immediately with a line or two of weather or general description. I don’t really know what hooptedoodle is. Anyway to explain it? Or is it, you’ll know it when you see it?

Mark, that sounds like a lot of work. Sometimes I think I don’t obey the rules because I’m a touch on the lazy side. ;)

Farrah Rochon, yes, I agree.

AvDeeBee, exactly. Putting in a prologue for prologue’s sake isn’t going to work, but sometimes it’s perfect, especially when you have a scene say that is much earlier in time than the primary story. The scene that sets up the story. I know writers who simply call what they would have named a prologue as chapter 1 now. It’s silly as you say.

Britta Coleman said...

I had a writing professor who said to be careful of stories that begin with someone waking up or driving. A guideline, hopefully, and not a straightjacket.

Charles Gramlich said...

Britta, I think the 'waking up' issue can be a problem for sure, but one of my favorite stories of all time, John D. MacDonald's "Hangover," starts with a guy waking up and it is perfect.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Troll your ms. for repetition of words like we tend to repeat in real life but are boring in prose-really, just, every, those sorts of words which are rarely needed. YOu can do this with the "find" function in word.

sage said...

Good advice!

Cloudia said...

This is why you are a writer,

not an 'aspiring writer'

Intellectual self confidence based in an educated eye and ear always trumps repeating what someone else already did well...


Aloha from Waikiki :)

Comfort Spiral

jennifer said...

I'm so glad you pointed out that you have no problem with starting a sentence with "and" or "but".

I tend to write like I speak (or think) and I use AND to start my sentences when making a point.

I added this post to my favorites to use as a reference.

laughingwolf said...

good guides, charles... like author/screenwriter alexandra sokoloff [link in my sidebar] says, the ONLY rule in writing is: DO WHATEVER WORKS [or words to that effect]

Charles Gramlich said...

Patty, I use that to double check words like “it’s” to make sure I haven’t put in the apostrophe in the wrong place. I do that a lot unfortunately.

Sage, thankee.

Cloudia, that’s a good way to say it. Ultimately the need is to make your own decisions.

Jennifer, the Bible does the “and” and “But” thing all the time. I think that’s probably where I picked it up. I like doing it although I sometimes do it ‘more’ than is good.

Laughingwolf, do whatever works is very good advice. Indeed.

Barrie said...

Don't write in first person. Definitely a rule/suggestion/guideline that can be broken. ;)

Charles Gramlich said...

Barrie, agreed. I love both writing in and reading first person.

Liane Spicer said...

A friend got a hissy fit while reading one of my manuscripts and told me that Stephen King said we should never use adverbs. I told him I was unaware that an entire part of speech had become obsolete. King himself used adverbs while demonstrating his point about limiting their use.

There are some rules I don't compromise on: (1) Know your medium: poor grammar, spelling, idiom etc in published work drives me crazy. (2) Read widely: I know aspiring writers who tell me they don't have time to read. I agree with Stephen King that people who don't have time to read have "neither the time nor tools to write."

All the others are guidelines, and a good writer can (and even should) break them to great effect.

Deka Black said...

About the weather thing... if this help to build the mood of a characteri believe is worth start a story this way. For example, the hero looking through a window the rain, the snow or whatever.

Charles Gramlich said...

Liane, I think the key is too communicate effectively. And that is almost always done best by following the rules of grammar and punctuation. good point.

Deka, exactly. I think so too. I like openings that set a mood and weather can do that well.

G said...

One rule that I learned the hard way is to never throw in a particular scene if it doesn't do anything to move the plot.

Like sex.

If it don't move (no pun intended, or is ther?) don't use.

Carleen Brice said...

Amen, Charles!

Charles Gramlich said...

G, that's definitely a good thing to do. I do agree with that guideline for sure.

Carleen, indeed!

jodi said...

Charles, I apparantly do not have the basics of English and gramma enough to apply most of these rules. I need to go back to high school--and this time, PAY ATTENTON!!

Shauna Roberts said...

Great post. I can't think of any "rules that shouldn't be rules" to add.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jodi, I learned everything I know about English usage pretty much 'after' high school. I wish I'd paid more attention in HS.

Shauna, thanks. Maybe at some point I'll try to expand the list.

Jess said...

I think every story that comes to us has its 'own' rules and will dictate to us how it needs to be told. Sometimes the characters will balk until we start that first chapter with their setting.

Rules. This is where I really get screwed up by critiques or contest judges. I'm not strong enough or confident enough in my writing to know if what I've written truly works... or if I need to do EXACTLY what they say. The quirk of an eyebrow can create doubt in me. :) ha, I'm really in the wrong profession, huh?

Ty Johnston said...

Hemingway said the "first draft of anything is sh*t," and for the most part I agree with him. However, sometimes a story just comes out perfect the first time. It's happened to me maybe three times in 20+ years of fiction writing, always with short stories, never novels.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jess, ultimately maybe it doesn't matter. Some contests are very very much sticklers, but then you can always find another contest. And I think good stuff will find it's market in time.

Ty, I've certainly had flash fictions come out nearly perfect the first time, although I probably still mess with them anyway. But yeah, not novels for sure.

Captain Black said...

Rules, or guidelines if you like, can be: followed, broken, discussed endlessly, changed, go in and out of fashion and whatever else. There's something nobody seems to ask: what is the reason behind any given rule? What is it's justification? For example: Always begin a story with people talking to each other. Why? Says who?

Most of these rules seem to have no particular provenance, no citations and no backing up. I'm not saying they're wrong (or right), I'm just questioning rather than blindly following.

To cut a long story short (oops, cliché), my one rule would be:

Question all rules.

And secondly: always list rules in ascending order or length, so as to make a pretty triangle ;o)

Carole said...

There is a lot of good meat here. I need to print it out and put it inside my writing notebook.

Charles Gramlich said...

Captain black, I was trying for some steps, like building a pyramid without the hard work. :) I've heard some of these rules from folks who really haven't been published much and it may be that they got them wrong from someone else. Who knows, but to not follow them blindly is the critical thing.

Carol, Some of the "rules" are indeed quite helpful and make good general guidelines to follow.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Great discussion, Charles. One that comes to mind that I don't see here is: Never open with the weather

Charles Gramlich said...

L.A. Yes, that's a good one, and another one I often don't follow. Thanks.