Breaking the rules

I had a conversation with one of the contributors to the TALES OF FORTANNIS anthologies I edit that went something like this (adjusted for humor):

Me: You need to cut out the first six pages and start the story here.Broken Rules Falls to Chaos Anarchy Pieces

Writer: Why?

Me: Because you need to grab readers earlier. All this other stuff is background that isn’t important to the story.

Writer: But I want it to establish character. Who says I have to start off with action?

Me: That’s what every writer’s seminar will advise you to do.

Writer: Well, you don’t have to listen to the Man! Break the rules once in a while! Who are you to say we should do what they say?

Me: I’m the editor. And if you don’t do it, I won’t buy your story.

Writer: Ah, OK. Why didn’t you say that before? (grumble grumble)

All over this blog and elsewhere, authors will be giving you advice. Don’t use prologues. Introduce information gradually instead of in an “info dump.” Show, don’t tell.

There are “rules” for writing that are very common. Go ahead, google “rules for writing” and see how many pop up. The most famous (and best, in my opinion) come from Elmore Leonard:

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

But writers don’t like to be trapped. We like to be creative. We like to break the rules!

Well, don’t. Unless you can.

There are wonderful examples of writers who break the rules all the time, because they know how. They have the experience (and perhaps talent) the rest of us don’t have.

Follow the rules as much as you can when you’re getting started. People are advising you to follow them for a reason. They’re not just being mean and stifling your creative genius. You do want people to read your work, don’t you?

Jazz musicians break the rules all the time. They play notes that don’t belong in that key, change time signatures to contradict what the other musicians are playing, and just go with the feel. And they’ve spent years learning the rules to know when and how to break them.

Inexperienced newbies doing those things just make noise.

3 Responses

  1. My biggest pet peeve is when writers say “somehow.” You know what I mean…”Somehow, he escaped.” “Somehow, they made it over the mountains.”. No! Not somehow! Tell me how, and make it exciting! Somehow is a lazy excuse word for people who don’t want to write action.
    It’s also possible to establish character while writing action. I usually do a bit of writing before I work on a story to establish who my character is. That way I don’t feel compelled to spend pages on who she is before I get to “the good part.”


  2. I agree with you completely. Here’s a bit of rules-related satire I wrote when Elmore Leonard died:

    “On a hot, sunny day, an attractive young man sat in a tiny, darkened room, compulsively reading Elmore Leonard’s essay on writing. Carefully noting his ten writing no-nos, he bellowed loudly, “Fuggedaboutit! I can violate all of Leonard’s rules in a single limerick!”

    “It’s raining!” he loudly cried out.
    Then suddenly felt like a lout.
    “A mensch I shall be…”
    From this you can see
    Leonard’s rules are what writing’s about.”

    Limerick Ode To Elmore Leonard.


  3. I wrote my first short story yesterday and I am aghast to see that I broke one of the ten rules here, no. 6, specifically all hell broke loose. I feel like it works in its context though… In fact I’d appreciate you giving it a read if you have the time,


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