Tuesday, March 09, 2010


The Guardian has an interesting article listing ten rules for writing fiction from Elmore Leonard and various other important authors. Richard Ford's terse but funny list (scroll down) is my favorite, but I noted a couple authors couldn't come up with ten rules; one lady only offered three (invoking that quotation about there being three rules for writing books, but no one knows what they are.)

I don't agree or disagree with any of the rules listed; I question the point of listing rules for writing at all. The authors I enjoy most are the ones who generally ignore or smash the rules. This may be because I personally loathe them and do whatever I can to stomp on their pointy little heads (the rules, not the important authors who issue them. Who may have pointy little heads, too, but I digress.)

The work demands certain things from us: good grammar, strong voice, coherent narrative, effortless pacing and engaging characters. We all have our own tricks and tools we use to bring that to the page. Do any of us do it exactly the same way, or abide by the same set of rules? No. I've known writers who use such a complicated process that they have to do ten times the work I do in order to produce a story; I've known others who seem to pull it out of thin air on a whim and nail perfection in a single draft that they rattle out in an hour.

Over the course of a career I think we all put together rules for ourselves and take them apart and recombine them and throw in or take out whatever experience teaches us works or doesn't work. I used to be obsessed with writing all my chapters the same length and with the same number of scenes. They were all exactly the same; I actually counted scenes and pages. Part of it was my love of symmetry; some of it came from worry that if I didn't have that uniformity I wasn't controlling the prose or the pacing. Then I read a book by another author who obviously didn't give a damn about chapter length, having written several that were very long and others that were equally short. A couple were just a single page -- and the book was wonderful.

Seeing that book work so well despite the lack of chapter symmetry was so powerful and effective an example that it made me rethink my own rule. I started relaxing more and focusing on the story instead of counting pages. My chapters are still fairly symmetrical (old habits die hard) but now if the scene or page counts don't match perfectly I don't have a cow.

I'd like to see all these writing rules go far, far away, and more discussion and advice take their place. Why can't we agree that no rule fits all writers? Maybe some of you out there know an excellent way to get around the rule of using only "said" as a dialogue tag, or that dark and stormy night no-no of never opening a story with a weather report just doesn't apply to you. In fact, maybe you do it so well that the applicable rule crumples like a wet tissue in the face of what you do with story.

One thing I did take away from this article is an intense desire never to utter another writing rule again without making sure I clarify it with a "For me" or "When I write." For me, reading a book that opens with a weather report seems dull, so I don't write them. When I write, I try not to use any dialogue tag but "said" because I was brainwashed into doing the exact opposite by my ninny of an English teacher in school. And I still reserve the right to break either rule whenever it serves the story.

What writing rule(s) do you like to break? Let us know in comments.


  1. I feel like I'm still learning the craft, but there are rules I bend.

    Foreshadowing is one. Sure, I'll give clues, but nothing obvious. Things in life can happen suddenly, without warning and should in fiction as well. I love books that give me an OMG! moment.

    A new one is writing every day. It is a good way to give yourself a bad case of burnout. Taking time off for indulgences has recharged the ideas battery.

    I also think it's okay to kill off main characters, suddenly, unexpectedly, indiscriminately, adverbally...

    Like you, I know what works for me and what doesn't; and no stinkin' rule is gonna tell me diffrunt.

    The problem is that new writers will always ask experienced writers how they do it - and try to copy the success.

    There is no right or wrong way to write, only the author's way. And, like trying to find your own voice, it is unique to the writer.

  2. My annoyance with rules may be why I get more out of books about creativity that are written by and for people in other disciplines. I know that rules about acting, or dance, or whatever don't apply to writing, and so I can learn from the book instead of arguing with the author.

    I have the least patience for rules about process, such as the age-old outline or not debate. I'm somewhat more open to rules about the finished product, even though the only unbreakable one is that Thou Shalt Not be Boring.

  3. I like action tags instead of dialog tags, especially since it lets me use body language and add nuance to the words.

    I don't like rules, because the only rule to follow is the one that works for that writer writing that story. I think the endless "rules" are the writing equivalent of the publishing myth of the secret handshake. There's no secret to make your book a bestseller or award winner. Except maybe work hard.

  4. I don't like to outline, anything. That's the one rule I break. I like to write with the freedom to change things as I go along.

    I do however, read the Guardian's rules for writers column regularly. Maybe I like to see which rules I'm breaking. lol

  5. Hmmm, #9 by Elmore Leonard sounds a little weird to me. Don't describe too much unless you can paint scenes with words. Isn't that how you learn to paint scenes with words, by writing description and revising it?

    It's as if he's saying that you shouldn't try it unless you're already good at it. I like breaking that rule.

  6. I'm a believer that there's only really one rule of writing and you'd better not break it:

    Don't be boring.

  7. I break the "Write what you know" rule all the time. I've never killed anyone, never blacked out from drinking too much, never kidnapped a baby, and never hung out with supernaturals. Okay, it's possible I've done the last one a time or two.

  8. I'll admit that I like Mark's one rule of "don't be boring," but I would simplify that even further. I think there's really only one rule that an author needs to follow:


  9. I like to think of the rules the way I think of the pirate code.

    They're more guidelines, actually.

  10. I loved Richard Ford's rules. Although it is too late for me on some of those.

    The rule I break is passive voice.
    I can see where these can be overused but if you write in the past tense they are unavoidable at times.

  11. I think us creative souls can get carried away with our fear of rules. Rules are wonderful things so long as you understand why you took them on and can create and destroy them as needed.

    At university, I had some professors from the 60s who thought that if they passed on any knowledge to their students, i.e. rules, they would forever destroy that potential artist’s ability to create. So we had classes where everyone sat around wondering what they were there for. On the other hand, I knew a designer afraid to let an element “float” on the page. She was so relieved when I told her that the rules aren’t really rules. She was free to do whatever worked.

    I think the creative (and spiritual) path is spiral. We spin around and get back to the point of “ah, there are no rules.” But, confusion comes when the person who hasn’t started the journey thinks that they are in the same place as the person who went around a few times; that knowing nothing is not the same as knowing that nothing is the answer for all situations.

    Rules are suggestions, guideposts that might help us on your journey. The traveler can’t take them too seriously or ignore them completely. (I just broke my rule about not using words that end in -ly. Somehow I think I’ll sleep OK tonight.)

  12. I agree with JC and Margaret. I don't mind rules. I like seeing what works for others, but I'm confident enough not to think I have to do it that way, too. And to add to Margaret's point, in today's society I'm not sure most people don't really MEAN 'guideline' when they say 'rule.'

    Not what you asked but the two rules I think every writer MUST follow is to read a lot and write a lot. Otherwise, why do you want to be a writer, anyway?

  13. I'm late! Late, late, late...

    I think the worst rule ever made was to never, ever use adverbs/adjectives. Some of my most favorite authors use them. They know how and when to use them, but use them they do.

    When we read or write a story, we're getting it from some narrators POV. Doesn't matter whether it's omniscient, first-person, third...but no one in real life speaks without using a variety of words and I've never understood why the storyteller should be any different.

    So, other than trying to remain entertaining in what I write, I tend to agree with someone else who said they're really just guidelines, not rules...

  14. I'm one of those people vulnerable to dares. I swear, give me a rule and I hear it as "I dare you to try this." I got the concept for a YA novel out of the latest "can't do this" I read. While I know that's not what they meant when stating you can never have a tense scene while lying in a field, what comes to mind is: what about if there's a pitchfork in your character's chest and death isn't the biggest issue? (That was from the Gotham book you gave me :).) The trouble with rules is that examples are stated as rules instead of examples of what might not work.

    Anyway, so in a less long answer to your question: what rules don't I like to break? None. The story rules is the only rule I follow.


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