So, last Friday I started on a nice little ranty post about why I don’t like the supposed ‘rules’ of writing the internet tries to convince me are a real thing.
I went through half my list of naughty ‘rules’ in that post, which you can find here.
All caught up? Then welcome to part two of my little rant, wherein we shall be dispelling the nonsense of ‘rules’ 6 – 10.
The List of Rules
As a reminder, here are the rules I’ve been ranting about:
No third-person omniscient
Never use anything except ‘said’ in dialogue.
No cliche’s (such as ‘all hell broke loose’ or ‘kiss and make up’)
Don’t describe anything in too much detail, only show.
Avoid regional dialects or ‘weird’ speech.
Never open a book with weather or dialogue
You must have a hook inside the first few sentences and should open with some form of action
Don’t use complicated words when a simpler one will do, aim for Grade 9-ish reader level to hit the widest market.
I continue to maintain that these are all, universally, rubbish, and not even good as guidelines. Without further ado, let’s continue breaking these things apart.
Don’t over-detail, always Show Don’t Tell
This is a pretty good one to start on for a second post.
Show Don’t Tell is a very common bit of advice in the writing world, and actually relatively useful. Anytime you can show your readers what is happening and let them work things out themselves, especially through the use of the five senses, the text is more compelling.
But it’s not a hard rule. Sometimes, showing is the right way to go, especially if you need to display information to the reader that the character might not be able to experience themselves, without some very contrived story telling. A better example still might be an occasion where you need to explain something to the reader that is perfectly natural and well understood by the characters – something they wouldn’t explain to themselves.
And this is where the ‘over-detail’ comes in.
Why it’s nonsense: Yes, if you write every line of your epic in the most over-blown prose possible, you’re going to turn people off fast. Sometimes, short and sweet is best.
But detail isn’t a bad thing. Good description to help readers envision your setting can be a wonderful tool, so long as you apply it correctly. Is not the point of something like fantasy to let you show other people what you see inside your head?
Anyway. Let’s go back to explaining for the reader’s sake. I can use my own work as an example here. Both Anka and Leona, my two female leads, are Weavers. They both inherently know what this means, and they know how aether works.
Each of them has an intrinsic knowledge that aether is raw potential, that it can be drawn into the world through curled fingers, and that it will ground itself into nearby copper if you aren’t careful. They know this because that is how it has been ever since humanity evolved on Hevna, let alone for the entirety of their own lifetimes.
But my lovely readers do not know this, so I’m left with two options – either contrive my writing to let the readers see this knowledge in action or just tell them about it in a tactful information-dump.
Both are possible, and where possible, I try to do the former. Seeing aether in action is far better than being lectured on it, but sometimes it is simpler to just explain something as short and sweetly as possible in order to move on. More importantly… short and sweet to prevent characters from jumping through unrealistic hoops to get to the same place.
Like with everything else I spoke about in my previous post, it’s all about balance and feeling out what you are doing. Too much description, or putting it in the wrong place, and no one will be happy. This can be especially true for character descriptions. That’s one area where I agree with the ‘rules’. Describing a character outright never feels natural or compelling, it’s much better to let their features become known over time, as other people look at them, or they see themselves in mirrors or the like.
On the other side of the coin, if you have an awesome space engine idea for some new faster-than-light travel, and you did some research to make it realistic, go ahead and tell us about that noise. Why on earth would anyone want to hide from all that interesting creativity?
No Weird Speech
Because screw culture, right?
Here’s the idea behind this one: Using dialect speech makes you lazy in the rest of your writing. Dialect speech is hard to read, and your readers will get bored and wander off. Dialect speech is a cheap gimmick and proves you are an immature writer. Your book won’t sell.
Why it’s nonsense: First, it doesn’t make you lazy. I’m just going to sit here and point at JRR Tolkien’s work for the best example of what’s wrong with that point. He built Middle Earth around language, and half the names of the places his characters go are derived from the fact he spent so much time writing new languages first. Even just creating a ‘foreign’ language by shifting letters along the alphabet takes a lot of time, so any weird speech is the exact opposite of lazy.
Secondly, dialects are only hard to read if you make them so. For example, there is a certain vampire series set in the deep south. I don’t think anyone in the English speaking world has any trouble reading ‘ya’ll’ in those novels, or other southern staples.
Similarly, dropping in regional slang words (such as ‘guv’ner’ for certain parts of the UK) shouldn’t cause an issue so long as you don’t go too over the top. Words in speech used as real people use them are usually very easy to understand, at least in intent, thanks to the other words around them.
Choosing to ignore dialect because your readers might get bored is also doing a huge disservice to the IQ of your audience. If you don’t pull it off well, or just use catch word after catchword, yes people will wander off, but they did so because the text was handled badly and not realistically, not because they just got bored.
People are smart, writing and reading makes us smarter. We should not be afraid to expand knowledge and idea, in my opinion.
Third, it isn’t a gimmick if you worked on it properly. ‘Ngent’ is a common swear word in my setting, derived from the Rasaalian language. It’s a great word for my character’s to spit at people, and it’s never really explained just what a ‘ngent’ is, or how one would even do that, so I can’t offend anyone when my characters have good cause to swear.
Lots of other works have done this too. Take ‘smeg’ from Red Dwarf, ‘feth’ from certain 40k works, ‘frak’, ‘frell’, ‘drek’, the list could go on forever. We always know this is swearing of some kind by the context such words appear in (‘Rimmer is a total smeg-head’, ‘This is bulldrek’, ‘Ngent, I’m going to die…’).
Now, I’m not going to go into whether fantasy swears are a good idea or not (I like them, why would every fantasy world have only real-world swears?), but they illustrate my point – if the words are dropped in appropriately, we know what they mean from context, and it gives a certain flavour to the person using them. We know they are foreign, perhaps, or vulgar, or multi-lingual. Hardly a gimmick.
Real world cultures mean we have different accents, dialects, languages and speech habits all over our blue-green rock. No reason a fantasy world shouldn’t either – culture helps us feel like we belong in our own world, and it transports us handily to a story world when presented well.
Never Start with Weather or Speech
Why it’s Nonsense: Just going to leap straight into this one. If the weather or a piece of speech is where your story starts, it’s where your story starts.
Now, this ‘rule’ kind of exists for a reason. If you start your story with a flowery description of the weather and landscape and time of day and nothing actually happening, you aren’t drawing your reader into your world and story. You’re lecturing them. No one likes being lectured.
Similarly, if you start with dialogue and no context as to who is speaking, or why any of it matters, people have no reason to care and will wander off.
But that’s hardly every case, forever.
‘Clouds marred the June sky, obscuring the moon with the promise of rain. While a break in the month-long drought would come as welcome relief, Julia wished Mother Nature had chosen any other night to do so. The darkness was making it beyond difficult to properly draw a ritual circle.’
This is an example I knocked up in two minutes, and not the worst opening I’ve ever seen or written myself. The weather is relevant to starting the action, so I personally see no issue with it. Similarly:
“John, I’ve been around the block a few times and you aren’t fooling anyone. That’s a dragon, and it’s eating my cupcakes.”
That was the line that started it all. The day I met Farlia the dragon and began my life as a Tamer. Just a single sarcastic complaint from my mother, and a tiny dragonling with frosting on her nose.
Again, hardly my best opener, but for something I just wrote off the top of my head while composing this post, it’s not too awful. The trick is just to move into context and set-up nice and quick, as smoothly as possible,
A story starts where it starts, and if it happens to be weather or speech, so be it. Just make sure you let your reader ‘in’ to what is going on so they are there with you on the journey, not left outside. Then, write it the way it should be written, regardless of this so-called ‘rule’.
Quick Action Hook
*flailing and screeching intensifies*
There is this nasty thing I keep seeing across the internet for writers to submit a certain amount of their book opening for others to judge the quality of the ‘hook’.
Your hook is what catches the readers attention, and brings them into wanting to keep turning the pages and invest in your story. A very important thing, it has to be said. People won’t read books they don’t care about, after all (school books excluded). Unfortunately, in recent years what constitutes a ‘hook’ has become rather narrow.
Why it’s nonsense: This rule is nonsense simply because ‘hook’ has come to mean some action piece in the first few paragraphs to keep people reading as if we are supposed to think our audience might get distracted by something shiny.
A hook can be some dramatic happenstance in the first few lines to make people wish to read on, but that’s not, and has never been, the only option in the world.
Sometimes you’ll hear people talk about ‘slow burn’ books. Books that build to their drama more slowly. These are simply books with a different hook, and just as people like different types of TV show set-up, so can people like different types of book set-up.
Consider the quick drama of soap operas, where every birthday or marriage is guaranteed to come with a side of murder or other death… vs a murder mystery, where the story starts with normalcy all around and everyone quietly getting on with their lives.
Both stories are going to have their action moments – the death – but they arrive at it in very different ways. If you know you are sitting down to a murder mystery, you don’t mind the slow build to action… you even expect it. The same can be true for some kinds of book.
Knowing your audience is half the battle, but ultimately I believe it’s most important to be true to your story. A good story, starting where matters begin to impact the character, will make itself compelling at its own pace, and if written well has a good chance of hooking a reader of that genre. You do not need an explosion in the opening three paragraphs, every time.
Simple Language, Grade 9 Prose
Do I even need to go into what is wrong with this one?
Now, if you’re writing for young adults or children… yes please do aim your standard prose at the correct age range. There is no point writing a book illegible to your audience. Even then, though, add in some difficult words. A book can be more than just entertainment, it can educate.
I have wonderful, clear memories as a child of reading Swallows and Amazons and having to ask my mother about the word ‘quay’ and how it was pronounced. I remember reading the prequels to the Deptford Mice and asking about what an apothecary was. Long words are a blessing, not a curse, reading can be educational while also being fun.
As for writing for adults, if you want to use a ‘big word’ because it’s the best word for the job, why on earth wouldn’t you? Why would you be so insulting to your potential audience as to think they can’t understand words you yourself know?
No, no one wants to read heavy prose or jargon word after jargon word. Pretentious reams of doctorate terms are going to bamboozle and bore the average Joe.
But guess what? This ‘rule’ is just like all the others… it applies some of the time, never all of the time and if you use your wording carefully, knowingly and appropriately, it’s just another tool in your box. Large words, adult prose and a good vocabulary make for good adult novels. Nothing wrong with it.
As a final word on all of this, most of it gets bandied about because people want to sell books as efficiently as possible. Getting published is a massive deal, rightly so, and there are certainly trends in popular novels that can help guide where one might wish to go with a work for a maximum chance at success. I get that, I really do.
It is simply that I am one of those writers to whom the story matters more than success. I also hate the way some writers talk down to others and discourage them, not to mention how limiting these rules can be, and how out of context they are usually presented.
Taking risks, telling your story that is true to you and your vision matters so much more to me, and if any of this rambling rant gets to encourage even one person, it’ll have been worth it.
Rules are made to be broken… just make sure you know what the rule is before you smash it to pieces!