“Kill your darlings!”
“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?