Rule Breakers: Writing Rules You Should Break & A Few You Shouldn’t

See full issue for 2016 11-21


It seems like fiction has a shit ton of rules we’re supposed to follow. Actually, there are so many, it’s tough to keep them all straight, so we never know if we’re breaking them or not. You probably are, but that’s okay. Sometimes you should break those rules, because it’s the only way to write something truly spectacular.

But I’m ahead of myself. Let’s look at a few rules you can safely break without going to writer purgatory.

Never open a book with the weather.

While it’s true you should avoid dark and stormy nights and bright sunny days, sometimes the best way to gut-punch the reader is with the weather. The key is to write it so they don’t realize you’ve just opened with the weather. I’ll let that marinate for a bit.

Passive is bad.

Yes, for the most part you should write in an active voice, because it feels more intense, and makes everything feel like it’s happening right now. However, sometimes a passive voice just works. When? Well that depends. An entire novel in passive voice? Good God, no. Here and there, a sprinkling of passive can be beneficial, because it’s the simplest method you can use and simple is better.

Write what you know.

No. Write what you know and then learn what you don’t know and write about it too. If you wrote only what you know right now, how boring would your books be? Research, try new experiences and meet new people. Observe, question, and take it all in. And then write whatever the hell you want.

The first line is the most important line of all.

You’ve gotta hook that reader in the first line. That’s what we’re told. It’s one of the first things we learn. However, it’s not entirely accurate. Every line of your story is important, not just the first. For some readers, that last line is most important, because it’s the one that they remember when they close the book. While the first line should draw the reader in, you should focus on the bigger picture and try to hook them in every page. Great first lines are always a smart goal, but don’t get hung up on that. Write what’s natural for the story, and just do it to the best of your ability. The reader will always be hooked by good writing.

Write every day.

It’d be wonderful if we could all write every single day, but when you have families, jobs, and other responsibilities, writing every day is placing an unnecessary burden on yourself. Write when you can, as much as you can, and give yourself a break. If you miss a day or three, no big deal. Sometimes the break recharges your creative batteries so that when you do find time, what you write is way better than it would’ve been if you’d written a little bit each day.

Basically, though, write in a pattern or at a rate that works for you. Some of us can and must write every day. Some of us do better with longer but infrequent bursts. Whatever works without giving you a nervous breakdown is what you should do.

Kill your darlings.

Or don’t. This rule, where you should use death to create tension and whatever is kind of lame in my opinion. Kill whoever it makes sense to kill in your story. Otherwise, leave the poor bastards alone. Live and let live. Listen, we’re not George R.R. Martin. Our story is not a Game of Thrones. Just write what makes sense and it’ll all work out in the end.

Ignore your inner critic.

No! Do NOT ignore this voice. Your inner critic is your instinct telling you when you’ve screwed something up. Ignore the voice in the rough draft if you want, but bring him out during the revision phases, because he’s your best friend when it comes to polishing a manuscript. Trust him. If he’s bothered by something, there’s a reason. Figure it out.

Rules you shouldn’t break are equally important. Let’s look at a few of the rules I feel should never be broken as well.

Show and don’t tell.

Some telly parts are natural and there’s no way around them, as I mentioned with the passive voice rule, but strive to show your reader the story as much as possible so she’s drawn into it with your characters. Showing makes for a much more intense reading experience, and your reader will love you for it.

Respect grammar rules.

If the rule you’re contemplating breaking has anything to do with grammar, take a moment before you break it. Some of these rules are there for a reason. Most improve your writing, so if you’re going to break it, make sure you understand why it’s a rule and you have a damn good reason for ignoring it. On the other hand, don’t obsess about writing with perfect grammar. We don’t speak that way, so it’s going to feel unnatural if everything is on point. Find a balance. Yeah, I know. Clear as mud. Sorry.

Stick to Your Own Style

Don’t ever try to mimic someone else’s style. Seriously. You can’t do it and the reader will know you’re not being authentic. Write in a way that’s natural for you. We all have our own voice. Let the reader hear yours and don’t try to be anyone but yourself.

Write for yourself.

For me, this is the most important writing rule of all. It’s one I learned reading advice given by Stephen King and since embracing it, I’ve had much more success with readers. Write for YOU. But what does that mean? King explains that when you first begin a story, you’re telling it to yourself. This means (in my opinion) you have to include everything you need to understand the plot, the setting and the characters. Yes, you’ll have a shit ton of fluff and nonsense, but that’s okay. It’s all part of building your world and the characters in it. When you rewrite, you can worry about the reader, and take out all the parts that are NOT story. Because you’ve written for yourself in the rough draft, you’ll know the story inside and out, and what doesn’t belong will be easy to spot.

There are a bazillion more writing rules I haven't touched on here. I'm not writing a book, after all. So please, share with us. What's one writing rule you ignore (and why) and what rule do you never break (and why)?


Renee Miller

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