The ‘Rules’ of Writing: Real or Choose Your Own Adventure?

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“Kill your darlings!”

“No prologues!”

“Show, don’t tell!”

“Only use ‘say/says/said’!”

“You must eliminate 80% of your first draft!”

I’m sure we’ve all heard these or variations over the course of our writing careers.  Some of us have used these with the intention of helping other authors.  You might be noticing where I stand on this just from that last sentence.  I mean, we’re all trying to hone our craft and we go to each other or the public for advice.  After all, other authors have tricks/rules that we my have never considered.  Yet, we’re more likely to run into the standards above and someone who happily praises Stephen King as if he’s the man who invented the written word.  Yes, I know his book on writing is popular and I was given it during my 400-level college writing course.  Still, there is a major flaw in all of this, which is what I’m about to touch on and probably piss people off.  Heck, I’ve probably done it already.

I use a wide variety of dialogue tags.  I use prologues.  I do so much pre-writing work that I don’t tear apart my first draft because I’ve done that already.  Writing in present third-person seems to short circuit the ‘show, don’t tell’ adage because how I write comes off as telling to some.  In other words, I don’t follow these things at all, which has struck a rather ultra-critical chord with some.  Oddest thing is that many who come at me about the ‘rules of writing’ have never finished a first draft or published.  Yet, they find me to be someone who can be talked to because I don’t do what I’m supposed to do.  Heck, you have blogs dedicated to teaching people how to write beyond the grammar, spelling, and basics that every story has.  It’s rather frustrating too.

You see, these really aren’t rules.  They’re guidelines built off either the habits of famous authors or what people believe sells books.  The first group is treated like gospel because struggling authors think copying them will earn the same results.  It ignores luck, hard work on the promotional end, and the time that they published.  That third option is very important because it means they filled a niche at some point, but that niche no longer needs filling.  You run the risk of being called a copycat here too.  Now, the second category is done through research and everyone wants to sell books.  Yet, your average reader doesn’t follow these things and only reads what they like.  For example, not every reader cares if you introduce the main hero in the first sentence.  In fact, this rule means that there can’t be any world building or leading up to the debut, which can be used in some genres to draw people in.  So, you might actually do more harm than help if you follow certain guidelines.

One of the biggest problems I have with this type of gatekeeper mentality (and that is what it is) is that it limits the styles and habits of authors.  It makes new authors think that they are failures or not meant to be in the craft because they aren’t like everyone else.  If everyone wrote books exactly the same with no prologues, limited dialogue tags, the same amount of telling, the same tense, and everything else then it would be a rather desolate landscape in terms of creativity.  Some authors write best with those things and you need an author to put their heart and soul into their work.  If I cared more about getting the rules right than crafting the actual story then I think there would be something missing from my characters.  You can do both, but you may have to sacrifice part of yourself to follow the pack.  That will show and you might find that you don’t really like what you create then.

Some may think I’m a hypocrite since I write a blog a writing and am working on Do I Need To Use A Dragon? (Fantasy Writing Tips). Well, here’s the thing.  I never say that my suggestions or what I do is a rule.  They’re not even suggestions.  Unlike many people, I fully admit that I talk about what works for me.  It doesn’t work for everyone and I don’t expect it.  I’d be the first to stop someone from using my suggestions to criticize another author.  That’s really all those things above are.  Most people don’t even use some of them correctly.  I once had three people in the span of a week say the following:

  • Person 1-  Your book shows more than it tells.
  • Person 2-  Your book tells more than it shows.
  • Person 3-  You found just the right balance of showing and telling.

Is it possible for all three to be right?  OF COURSE!  Your average reader doesn’t really know the difference.  It’s down to personal preference.  Some people would rather be shown than told and others are the opposite.  A third group is just in it for the escapism or whatever drew them in regardless of the rules.  This is why it’s so frustrating to see authors practically cannibalize each other over these silly adages.  I mean, several authors drank alcohol a lot, but you don’t see anyone saying that’s a rule.  Authors are humans and everyone develops their own style.  Some have prologues and others don’t.  That’s the greatness of books.  Each one is different.

So, what do you think about the ‘rules of writing’?  Are they really rules?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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23 Responses to The ‘Rules’ of Writing: Real or Choose Your Own Adventure?

  1. Art, which writing is, can’t have hard and fast rules. There are guidance documents and they can be helpful, but each artist has to find his/her own path. I’m fond of saying take what works for you and leave the rest.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’d be surprised how often I get into an argument with someone about writing being art. Poetry and plays they can accept, but books don’t seem to get that category by many people. Taking what works for you is a great way to do it. The more irritating issue is when people start claiming that what works for them is the way all should be done and then others listen. Opinions and different paths are great. Just not when a person is trying to force, hinder, or shame someone else with it.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. L. Marie says:

    Many of the so-called rules are subjective. I’ve heard the ones you mentioned, with the exception of the 80% rule, which doesn’t make sense to me. How can anyone come up with a percentage like that as a rule? Every book is different.

    I suggested to an author whose book I was hired to line edit that she add a prologue. She did and it was appreciated at her publishing house. So there goes that rule out of the window! (I love prologues! And I’ve heard many agents say how much they hate them. Yet I have seen them in many books!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • The percentage rule caught me by surprise too. I’m guessing it’s a general idea and the rule is more to ditch most of what you write. The prologue/epilogue rule is another one. I wonder if a famous author did these and then fans analyzed the works to create rules.

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  3. V.M.Sang says:

    1. In my Wolves of Vimar series, I have prologues in each bool.
    2. I get bored reading a book with only ‘he said, she said’. It’s repetitive and we’re told not to be repetitive, so I vary my dialogue tags, sometimes using an action beat instead.
    3. Don’t use adverbs (and adjectives to a lesser extent). Sometimes a stronger verb is better, but occasionally you need an adverb.
    One you didn’t mention is conflict. Everyone seems to be saying no conflict no story.
    Writing has fashions. Read Jane Austin. She is considered a great writer, but has overlong sentences, (I counted well over 100 words in one sentence in Persuasion) peppered with semicolons. She also uses a lot of passive voice (The carriage was begun to be listned for).
    And she tells.
    But that’s not fashionable nowadays.
    Write the way you want to write. As long as it’s intelligible and people enjoy your stories, go for it.
    I’m not sure my writing is a 3 act structure. Inciting events etc. I’ve no idea. Perhaps it is, but I don’t try to fit my stories into a strait-jacket.
    So I agree with you, Charles. Thank you for your post. It’s made me understand my methods better.

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  4. I think rules are made to be broken. The one thing that does turn me off on a book if I see it is poorly edited. No matter the artistic value, the typos, and sloppy work definitely get in the way.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. For me, it has to be the choose your own path approach. In my early work I tried to follow some of these ‘rules’ but as I became more confident, I found it easier to break them – in moderation. I try to keep adverbs down but sometimes they’re needed in my opinion. Also I’ve just written something with a prologue for the first time and I don’t think it cheapens the work or lessens it in some way – but I guess if it ever makes its way into the world, others may make that decision for me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember following all the rules I heard and it nearly destroyed my first book. Took me years to fix it. I use prologues to set up events that the characters will be running into. Great place for foreshadowing and introducing new faces when you do a series. Curious what you mean by others making that decision for you.

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  6. Pingback: The ‘Rules’ of Writing: Real or Choose Your Own Adventure? – Author Steve Boseley – Half a Loaf of Fiction

  7. I never heard of the “No prologue” rule. When did that come about? Almost every book and its momma has a prologue. Or at least the ones I read through the years. What’s The difference between a prologue and a preface?

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  8. There are exceptions to every writing “rule” and times when they should apply. In other words, I consider them guidelines, but think you should be aware of them. It’s good for you to know what the generally accepted rules are, so at least you know you’re breaking them, but at the end of the day what works for one writer or story won’t always work for another. People need to remember that.

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  9. I think you’re right, there are no ironclad rules for writing a novel. Or anything else, for that matter. We can take them as advice. We can try things and see if they work for us. But in the end, the author will sit down to work in the way that fits them best.

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  10. Definitely guidelines rather than rules. I do my best to ignore them when writing a first draft, though they have an irritating way of creeping in and stopping the flow.

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