Formal Writing

‘Rules’ of Writing, Pt 1

Mostly, I use this little corner of the internet to organize my creative life and talk about writing. I don’t expect the site or even any individual post to change the world, and most of my talking is just affable personal opinions with no real impact behind it beyond my own feelings.

This is not one of those posts.

There are very few things in writing I get really passionate about, beyond the actual creation of a story itself. I know what I think makes for good critique or editing, but if someone else does it differently, more power to them. You do you!

But there are two things that I get very vocal about if they are brought up

  1. Doing unto others as they have for you (i.e. if someone reads your work, do them the courtesy of reading theirs back! Give as much effort as you received!)

  2. The ‘Rules’ of writing

I despise number 2 to a far greater degree than the first, and anyone who comes at me with ‘rules’ is on a short street to being completely ignored. And I shall tell you why.

The List of Rules

Let’s start by naming and shaming these so-called rules of fictional writing. Things the internet will tell you not to do if you search for ‘rules of writing’.

  1. No prologues

  2. No adverbs

  3. No third-person omniscient

  4. Never use anything except ‘said’ in dialogue.

  5. No cliche’s (such as ‘all hell broke loose’ or ‘kiss and make up’)

  6. Don’t describe anything in too much detail, only show.

  7. Avoid regional dialects or ‘weird’ speech.

  8. Never open a book with weather or dialogue

  9. You must have a hook inside the first few sentences and should open with some form of action

  10. Don’t use complicated words when a simpler one will do, aim for Grade 9-ish reader level to hit the widest market.

These are all, universally, rubbish. Not ONE of these rules is a good rule, nor are they even good guidelines. They are the biggest load of nonsense a writer can ever be told, forged in a negativity, misinformation and worst of all… ‘market trends’.

Do not believe their lies, and join me in shaming these naughty rules for all their worth. Or at least stick around long enough for me to justify my very strong opinion!

No Prologues

This one has been being bandied about for years, and I can totally understand how it got started. Unlike many of the rules on my hit list, this one grew out of a legitimate problem.

If you wind your way back a little to the 1980’s and 90’s, there is a worrying trend you might find. Notable most in the fantasy genre, but also turning up elsewhere, a lot of books came out with prologues in them that really shouldn’t have been there.

Maybe it was writers being unsure the difference between a prologue, a foreword, and a preface. Maybe it was writers wantonly settling themselves into their own work and then forgetting to remove the text before publication. Or maybe it was that ‘market trends’ back then indicated including a prologue made your book more likely to sell.

Whatever the cause, a lot of prologues turned up that did not add to the story, until readers soon learned to just skip over the text to Chapter 1, safe in the knowledge they wouldn’t miss much.
Then the industry noticed readers didn’t care for prologues and the ‘No prologues!’ rule was born.

Why it’s nonsense: A prologue is a tool in a writers arsenal, and it does a job if used properly. Eradicating them hampers a writer at times when one could be used.

The best example, of course, is JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel. The first chapter is different to the entire rest of the book because it isn’t from Harry’s point of view. It focuses on how Harry ends up at the Dursley’s and gives us insight into both Dumbledoor and McGonagall in ways that help flesh them out and also lets us know Harry is far from an average baby.
The rest of the book then follows Harry himself.
Chapter One should have been a prologue, really, in that particular book, but was probably not labeled as such because of this stupid ‘rule’.

The point of a prologue is to detail either a different time period to the main story (Harry Potter falls in this category), show the thoughts and point of view of another character relevant to the story that the main novel itself will not be able to do, or bring to light the importance of some small item to the reader, that the characters won’t know about until much, much later.

There are so many good books out there with very legitimate prologues, and if you need one, you should use one.
Examples include: Tales of Canterbury, Romeo and Juliet, Jurassic Park, every single Warhammer 40k book EVER, even The Da Vinci Code had one, and whether you love or hate Dan Brown, no one can deny how huge that title got.

Prologues are a literary device. They are not some forbidden fruit. The pendulum will swing back (I feel like it very much is right now, slowly but surely) and they will be coveted again in time, but as much as I want to encourage people to ignore this stupid rule…. do so appropriately. Misused prologues are how we got here, remember!!

No Adverbs

Haaaaaate. What next, a book with no nouns? Or shall we eliminate all contractions instead?

‘No adverbs’ is possibly my most despised ‘rule’ on this list. Adverbs are a staple part of the English language (and many other languages too), and just as I would not try to run a marathon by hopping, I’m not going to try and tell a story without adverbs.

Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s the definition of an adverb:
‘a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g., gently, quite, then, there ). ‘

And now you can see the problem.

Why it’s nonsense: Can you imagine writing a book without saying ‘then’ or ‘there’? Of course, the people who put forth this ‘rule’ do so not meaning those words, they tend to mean the ‘-ly’ words. Quickly, deftly, loudly.

Even then, it’s still wrong. The biggest area I can point out is for dialogue. People use adverbs all the time when they talk, so to cut out all adverbs is to commit one of the worst crimes in my eyes – writing bad dialogue. People use these words to convey meaning to each other, and once you accept we talk like that, you have to accept the use of these kinds of words overall.

Now, too many adverbs really is a sign of lazy writing, and also of telling people what is happening, instead of drawing them into the scene. Adverbs can be a massive problem, and writers should be aware of them for sure.
I like to think of them as seasoning – too much and the natural flavor of the dish is ruined. Too little, and the dish is bland and unappetizing. Apply them at the right stages, in the right amount, and you’ll be golden.

And if anyone ever tries to tell you ‘no adverbs’ is definitely a rule because Stephen King said so… ask them if they can quote exactly what he said, in context… and then also tell them most of his books still have at least one or two in them despite this ‘rule’.

Mr. King has a unique voice and adverb elimination is a large part of how he did that, but we are not all Stephen King, nor should we try to be.

Go team adverb.

No Third-person Omniscient

I’m not going to go horrifically into the weeds on this one, and I’m going to broaden it to talk about all Points of View.

If it suits your story, do it. There are umpteen examples through history of good books in every single type of POV you can imagine. Choose the one that works best for your story, and that you think you can work with best for yourself.

I know that for me, I kind of hate first-person stories. I find it harder to put myself inside the characters head, and I’m the kind of reader who likes to feel like I am there. I feel like it is also really hard to write well.
In spite of this, Eisenhorn by Dan Abnett is one of my favorite books, and it’s entirely first person.

I also think third-person omniscient is hard to write well, or at least to keep compelling. This is where you the reader can be told anything that suits the author, on a whim, as the story unfolds. It all feels just a bit too convenient for me.
Yet, one of my favorite series I got into when I was a teen is the unequaled Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, which romps wherever it will at any given moment and delights in telling us what multiple different characters are thinking at the same time.

Close in third-person is my personal favorite, especially to write. It’s where I feel most comfortable, though I certainly don’t feel ‘expert’ at it, or even ‘competent’ some days. I just know I like following a couple of characters tops to pursue the plot and let the reader realize things as the main character(s) discover them.
Discworld often does this, and that series has to be one of my biggest inspirations.

Ultimately, know your POV, trust your own voice, and write the story the way it will be best told. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Any POV is acceptable, so long as you stick to it.

Always use ‘said’ in dialogue

*incoherent screaming*

No. Just no.

This one comes very close to adverbs, for me. We use adverbs to communicate ideas succinctly, and we do the same with dialogue tags.

It takes so much more effort to pick and choose specific words in a line of dialogue to indicate how upset someone is, and the result is usually an unwieldy line no one would ever actually say (especially once we take the adverbs out!).

Here’s what I mean:

“That’s not true, Leona. I can’t believe you’d accuse me of doing something so vile! You know nothing about me, where I came from or what I’ve been through and I have no intention of educating you on the matter,” he said. “Get out of here, take your stupid prayer beads with you and don’t you ever say that to me again!”
“How dare you!” he snapped. “My life is none of your business, and I’m not going to justify myself to you! Take your damn beads and clear off. I’m sick of the sight of you!”

Using ‘snapped’ instead of ‘said’ does me no harm, and I feel like I can express the anger in my character’s tone much quicker and punchier with its use. Without it, I feel myself spouting excess words to get to the same place (whether I need to or not.)

Now, what I will say is that using an adverb to quantify a dialogue tag can be a problem. ‘He snapped loudly’ would be bad – the ‘loudly’ adds nothing, changes the dialogue to telling instead of showing, and feels more immature.

Beyond that… feel free to tag your dialogue as you like, in my opinion!

No cliches

Literary. Device. Not forbidden fruit.

Cliche’s are a natural part of human society. Unlike most of the other things on my list, cliche’s are hard to quantify, because they’re always changing.

A cliché is simply a word or phrase that is so often used it becomes desensitized to its original meaning and takes on a life of its own. It is a little collection of words that represent an idea, more than it’s constituent parts and becomes an innate and deep part of normal life.
Examples are things like ‘like nobodies business’, ‘I second the motion’, even ‘happy birthday!’

The point is that, once, every cliché was new and fresh. Now they are commonplace and built into our lives.

Just as with adverbs, eliminating them from the dialogue, in particular, would be counterproductive, and eliminating them from your writing as a whole is again a good way to cripple yourself.

A cliché, used properly, conveys an entire idea in a few words, to save writing a whole paragraph. Of course, your character can get sweaty palms when they are stressed! Just as they can hold their breath in anticipation, or say the incident ‘lasted an eternity’ while their ‘heart stopped in fear’.

Like with everything else, if you overdo it you will run into problems, but some cliches are entirely allowed. Know you are using one, check it’s appropriate and you aren’t over-using it, then forge ahead. This is another tool in a writers workbox, throwing it out would be stupid.

I can also almost guarantee you that anyone who tells you to never use one… probably has used multiple in their own works, and if they haven’t somehow… wait a couple of years. What is new today, is old hat tomorrow.

Well, that’s the first half of my shame list. On Monday, I’ll tackle the other five. I hope my passion on this topic of ‘rules’ has been at least insightful, and my reasoning as to why I run counter to the common grain is at least understandable.

T’would be a sad world indeed if we restricted all creativity to rules and algorithms. Go forth, fellow artists, and create freely.

And if you get time, dump a bucket of water over the next person who tells you to follow the ‘rules’ to keep up with ‘market trends’!
The world doesn’t need more homogenized mass-market books of tripe. It needs your story, as unique and interesting as you are, told the best way you can tell it… and hopefully, it needs my stories, too.

6 thoughts on “‘Rules’ of Writing, Pt 1”

  1. Most of these “rules” seem to come from thinking that, since some people do such-and-such thing badly (Avoid Adverbs! Say “They don’t do it well” instead of “They do it badly”… and use two adverbs instead of one. *shakes head*), no on should do that thing at all, ever. Some guy wrote a fantasy novel with a bad prologue of the ‘History of the Whole Universe Up Until Right Now’ sort, and readers were bored, so no one should write a two-page prologue with a vivid sequence that shows why the protagonist is where she is six months later, because Prologues Are Bad.

    The “no clichés” one is also annoying. Ever notice how a lot of people who scream against clichés don’t know the difference between a cliché and a trope (A romance novel where the main character falls in love? Cliché! A mystery novel where a mystery is solved? Cliché! A novel written in first person? Cliché! …And that last one isn’t even a trope. What ARE they teaching young people these days?), although they do love their Hero’s Journey as the Only Permitted Pattern for a Novel to Follow. (“This book is badly written because I’m reading chapter twelve now and the protagonist STILL hasn’t had her Meeting With the Mentor. Also, she’d Answered the Call before the story even opened.”)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see you too have come across the silliness 🙂 It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who gets so aggravated by the ‘rules’. I think you are entirely right that they mostly exist because people in the past mishandled certain tools, and I also think the only way to get rid of this nonsense is to use all the tools at our disposal, correctly, regardless of ‘advice’ to do otherwise.

      Liked by 1 person

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