There are a ton of resources out there for writers—articles, books, videos, podcasts—all filled with what seem like endless rules we’re supposed to follow. Do this, don’t do that, only do this if you do that . . . but too many rules and guidelines all at once can be overwhelming, and the defensive reaction is to rebel and say “screw all the rules, just write!”
Sound familiar? That’s okay. I’ve been there, too.
That’s not really an option, though. If you throw out all the rules, you can’t improve. It’s one thing to write for love of the story, which I strongly think you should, but you edit because you want it to be better. Whether you’re writing for an audience or only yourself, every change you make—from correcting typos to rewriting chapters—is to improve readability. Like it or not, that requires rules.
But, the truth is, everything should be taken in moderation. Even rules. That’s why I’ve narrowed it down to the three rules at the heart of it all—the ones every writer should follow. And believe me, knowing where to start can really help you figure out where to go next. So let’s dive in!
learn the rules before you break them
A rule about rules? Yes, yes indeed. The most important one, actually.
It’s one of the first things a mentor tells his students, and with good reason. In every trade and skill, a master knows what works and why. If you don’t know how something works or what you have to do to achieve success, you’ll never know what you’re doing wrong when things don’t work out.
This is especially true in writing. Think of all the rules people throw around, like how prologues are useless. Or how it’s frowned upon to open with dialogue. You can’t start with a dream sequence, either. And who says you can’t use adverbs if you use them carefully?
None of these are hard rules, and every single one can be bent and broken. Learn and understand the “why” and “how”; not only will it make you a stronger writer, but it’ll help you master your personal style.
How do you know when to break a rule?
This is best explained with an example, so let’s say we’re masons, and we’re building a wall. We have a pile of stones in varying sizes and shapes, we’ve got a tray full of mortar, and we’ve got a clean slate to begin with. Consider these our writing tools.
Now, we can be as stubborn and “artistic” as we want, blow off the rules, and just do what we feel is best . . . but if we don’t really know what we’re doing, our wall will suffer. If we put on too much or too little mortar, the structural integrity will be compromised. If it isn’t plumb, our wall will lean as we build, and it will fall. And if we don’t use the strongest stones on the bottom, our foundation will be weak and the weight of subsequent stones will cause it to crumble.
Every rule and guideline a mason follows is because it’s tried and true; the methods produce the most durable, long-lasting structures. Likewise, every rule and guideline a writer follows is because it’s proven to result in a well-written story that captures the reader’s attention from start to finish.
A master mason doesn’t just build straight walls, though. By learning the rules, they come to understand the stone and how it will react when they start to add curves and windows and arches to their creations. They are able to stray from the “rules” and adapt them to their designs, applying the lessons and traditions to their unique style.
The same is true of writers. By learning the rules, you’ll come to understand the many literary devices and how they fit together to craft your stories.
Let’s break a rule right now so you can see what I’m talking about.
One of the rules I hear people complain about the most is “don’t open with dialogue.”
“But I just finished reading an NYT bestseller that opens with dialogue!”
Yes, the masters break the rules. This is partly because once they have a huge audience, they can do pretty much whatever they want. It’s also because they probably did it right, and you haven’t learned the rule yet to understand how.
The opening to your story should set your scene, and if you’re opening with dialogue that means you’re opening with a character. The reader has never met anyone in your story, nor do they know where your story takes place or what the context is, so that initial line of dialogue is a total mystery to them. Which is why you want to clue the reader in pretty quickly as to who the dialogue belongs to.
The longer you wait, the more guessing your reader has to do, and the more they will form their own image of who they think is speaking and where they think they are. Maybe your character is a young woman strolling through an abandoned building, but your reader has no idea, so they picture an old man sitting in Central Park. When you do finally reveal your character, there’s a good chance your reader will be frustrated, surprised, and pulled from the story, and they’ll have to reread your opening in the intended mindset.
In the above example, this works because (1) the character and action is inserted after just four words of dialogue, breaking up the longer song and helping the reader picture what’s going on, and (2) as soon as the dialogue is over, the scene is set in a way that totally hooks the reader. Personally I wouldn’t have used such a long piece of song, but even the song itself lends culture and personality to the character, so it still works well.
So, following the rule, opening with dialogue is difficult because it could leave the reader with a lot of guesswork until you finally reveal the truth of the scene; it’s easier and more powerful to show the reader the characters and setting and use the dialogue a few lines in to enhance the action. Breaking the rule, you can open with an intriguing line of dialogue and instantly provide the necessary context.
My point is, ultimately, you will be able to bend and break the rules, like all the greats do. Just be patient with yourself as you learn. You’ll get there.
remember that there are no always or never in fiction
The rules are there for a reason, for sure, but fiction writing is still an art form. And with art, you really can’t be too strict. You have to take into account different methods, styles, tones, and intentions. I mean, we just got through saying how all the rules can be broken, so how could we possibly say there are any absolutes?
Learning any craft is hard enough on its own without those people (who have good intentions, I’m sure) preaching these rigid rules at one extreme or the other. Always do this. Never do that. It gets a lot easier when you remember to take a step back and look at it more objectively. Cast aside the always and the never and look at the rule behind it.
Every writing rule will have an exception. Even hard and fast grammar rules will differ depending on the dialect (American English or British English) and the style manual being used (for fiction, we’ll stick with the Chicago Manual of Style). A real writing rule won’t tell you it has to be one way or the other; instead it will tell you why it does or doesn’t work in most situations.
Let’s look at a common never rule.
“Never bother with a prologue. Either make it chapter one or take it out.”
Well that’s unforgiving. Why, then, does the word “prologue” even exists? Oh, right . . . because we don’t write in absolutes. 😉
There are a ton of reasons for having a prologue. The most common is to show something important to the story that happens out of time sequence. Maybe something from the past or future is important to keep in mind throughout the story. The first book in The Wheel of Time, for example, opens with a prologue that takes place ages before the story ever begins and shows the reader why that fantasy world fears men who control magic, which is a huge plot line in the series. For some fiction genres, this can mean laying out the way the world works and providing context and background for chapter one (think of that scrolling text at the beginning of Star Wars).
Not that every prologue, even for the right reasons, is going to be a good fit. You still have to ask yourself whether it could be considered chapter one and whether anyone would lose any key information if you just left it out. But clearly we can’t lump all prologues into the “never use these” category. And that’s my point.
If you come across a rule that sounds far too strict, do some digging. Find the “why” so you can figure out how to apply it to your own work.
don’t give up
Honestly, this one should be a given, but I feel like it gets forgotten all too often. This is easily one of the most important rules for improving in any skill.
Don’t. Give. Up.
Maybe your critique partner returned your story with every line highlighted and at least a hundred comments in the sidebar. Or you received your tenth form rejection letter from publishers you’ve submitted to. Maybe someone left you a one-star review on your debut novel. All these things and more can really get you down. But I promise you it isn’t the end of your writing journey. It’s just a bump along the way.
More than a few times, I’ve found myself at the bottom of my esteem with zero confidence left in my writing. I once got a critique that tore one of my short stories apart so horribly, I still haven’t picked it back up again because just thinking about it makes me feel hopelessly inadequate (and that was a year ago).
The worst part is that I really loved that story when I first wrote it because it was fiction in second person point of view with what I felt was an amazingly emotional twist, and I was really proud of it. I shared it as a rough draft in a writing group and it had a great reception until this one critique. After that feedback—even coming from a place of love and with the full intent of helping me improve—I just couldn’t open the document without crying. If I loved it that much and it was clearly that terrible, what hope did I have for ever being a half-decent writer?
Even though I still haven’t gone back to that story (I’m sure I will one day!) I didn’t quit writing. I wanted to, believe me, but I didn’t. How could I? I love writing. It’s my passion. No one can ever take your passion away from you.
Instead, I wrote something else and moved on. I applied what I had learned and grew as a writer. Three short stories later, I wrote a piece that I was insanely proud of that others really enjoyed, too. It’s actually one of my favorite pieces that I’ve ever written, and it even got accepted into Authors’ Tale‘s third anthology, Ink Dreams.
I would never have written “The Messenger” if I had given up.
So you can’t give up, either! There will always be challenges and naysayers. But if you quit, you’ll never improve, and you’ll never find out what your next creation will be. The people who ultimately succeed are the ones who stick around. Who don’t throw in the towel just because they had a bad experience. I want you to succeed, which means you need to keep at it!
As a matter of fact, if you ever feel like giving up and you just need someone to give you a reason to stick with it, message me. I got you covered. No one should ever feel like giving up on something they love.
a quick recap
- learn the rules before you break them
- remember that there are no always or never in fiction
- don’t give up
Do you agree with my list? If not, what would be your top three?
stock images from Max Pixel and Pixabay