Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published August 11, 2010.
By Charles Gramlich
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.
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?