It has been said – by me, incidentally – that the road to hell is paved with writing rules. Too much adherence to the many rules that are out there can cause paralysis of action in your daily routine, stilted prose… or even the dreaded writer’s block. But writing rules are interesting, and there is truth in nearly all of them.
I was looking around for a compilation of various author’s writing rules and ran across this article in the Guardian from a few years back. I think I remember reading it the first time. Then, as now, I’m struck by both the consistency and the contradictions. Read through to see what I mean. With so many rules, they can’t all be right, right? Here are 5 writing rules (not all of them from the article, lest you think I’m senile) that I think can be ignored or modified:
1. Never start a book in the middle of a fight scene
This definitely depends on the book genre, but the conventional wisdom on this is that you can’t care about a character you don’t know yet, so a fight scene is emotionally meaningless. I think that this is an odd idea. The fact that the author is showing me a (probably main) character in danger from the beginning makes me care more. And you can make your opening fight scene heavy with incongruous character self-reflection or pithy banter that can give the reader important information they need in order to get to know that character quickly.
2. Avoid prologues
If you’re writing epic fantasy, this rule is right out. A thriller or romance probably doesn’t need it, but a prologue is too good of an opportunity to establish an epic feeling or introduce history to your story before debuting the main character(s). Brandon Sanderson confessed to sneaking in three prologues in his Stormlight Archive series opener, The Way of Kings. There is a Prelude, which serves as the prologue to the entire series, the Prologue of the book, and Chapter 1, another prologue-esque section. And you know what? The book doesn’t suffer for it. Robert Jordan became increasingly notorious for his lengthy prologues in the Wheel of Time series. So don’t worry about it in Fantasy. Fans of the genre almost expect it.
3. Write only when you have something to say
This depends on what is meant by ‘something to say.’ If you have a philosophical idea that you want to get across, well you better have an engaging story to use as a vehicle. If you have no story, then your fiction is going to be a non-starter. But how many great stories or novels have come out of free-writing exercises? Was there a plan there from the outset? If there was, it was probably extremely thin.
4. Stop reading fiction, read non-fiction instead
Ridiculous. If this rule (which is in the Guardian article) was less crazy, I would have ignored it. But, come on… Fiction writers want to write fiction because they enjoyed reading it so much. Why stop? And besides, it’s important to keep up with the trends and styles in your genre and make sure that you aren’t rehashing something that some other author has already covered in the same way you’re planning. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t read non-fiction. By all means, be as omnivorous as possible in your reading, so long as it’s quality.
5. Eradicate all adverbs
This will be the most controversial of my stances, I’m sure. But adverbs, within reason, are fine. It’s true that most adverbs shift emphasis away from good action verbs, so certainly don’t use them in speech attributions like in a Tom Swifty: “I don’t remember which groceries to get,” Tom said listlessly. Adverbs are a quick way to make prose seem more poetic, but don’t fall into that trap overuse them. And that’s the key: never to excess. Look… adverbs happen. Even the great adverb abolition crusader Stephen King occasionally drops one on us. And he pointed out in his glowing review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, that Rowling’s use of adverbs was “endearing rather than annoying.”
Writing rules aren’t bad things, but watch out for them so that your writing doesn’t get wooden. You’re better off taking a few to heart, then adding your own rules as you gain experience. Or you could follow Neil Gaiman’s ‘rules’ and be just fine.
What are some writing rules that irritate you? Let me know in the comments!