Wednesday, September 26

Rules, Schmules: Don't Follow the Rules, Tell a Great Story

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This might sound odd on a blog that is dedicated to ways to improve your writing, but if you're more concerned with the technical rules of writing than the story itself, you're hurting your chances of ever getting published.

Radical, isn't it?

To write well, stop trying so hard to write well.

What I mean by this crazy statement, is that we can ruin our writing by trying too hard to adhere to a lot of rules that aren't rules at all. Rules like:
  • Never use adverbs
  • Never start a story with dialog
  • Never use backstory in the first fifty pages
  • Show, never tell  

Would it shock you to hear there are over 600 adverbs in The Shifter? That thousands of best-selling novels have opened with dialog? That my "Big Six Publishing House" editor asked me to include more backstory in the opening of The Shifter? That sometimes it's better to tell and not show?

I can't say for sure why these rules became so carved in stone, but I suspect it's because it's easier to tell new writers to never use adverbs rather than explain point of view, showing and dramatizing a scene, and how to develop strong characterization. Adverbs are also something that are easily spotted and yes, if you cut them out, it will usually improve the writing. But if the writer just follows these rules and never truly learns why the sentence is better without that adverb, they never fully develop the tools they'll need to be a strong writer.

These common rules are guidelines, reminders of areas that are typically problematic to a story. They're not step-by-step instructions, and sometimes what you hear spouted as gospel is just plain wrong. It can hurt you if you follow them to the letter and forget why you're writing that book in the first place.

To tell readers a great story.

How many "crappy books" are there on the best-seller lists? Do readers care? Nope, because those books resonate with them and entertain them for as long as they turned the pages. Better, they often stick with them after the story is over. No matter what you think of a particular author's talent, they did what they were supposed to do--tell a reader a great story.

I'm not saying chuck the rules and do whatever you want. There is a certain level of professionalism required for the publishing industry. If you don't have a solid understanding and firm control of the English language, your odds are not good. You do need to revise and polish a novel to the best of your ability. Most of the "rules" flying around out there can help you if you use them well and understated what they can do for your writing.

But if you're spending hours upon hours taking out every single adverb, or never using dialog tags, or changing every bland noun and verb to something spectacular, following all the "rules" of writing and spending no time at all on the story itself, there's a good chance you're ruining your voice and killing the book.

Because your focus isn't on telling a great story to an eager reader. It's on following cookie-cutter rules.

Story is what matters. I can't stress this enough. I can (and do) offer advice on how to be a better writer and things to consider as you write, tips to try, processes to experiment with, ways to kick your writing up a notch. But in the end, your book is your book. What you do with the advice, what pieces inspire you or what tricks and techniques work for you are as varied as the stories we tell. Your novel can be as "perfect" as possible, but if the story isn't one a reader wants to read, it will go nowhere.

Yeah, I know, it's harsh.

I understand the need for those rules. The desire for a set of instructions that will help us achieve of writing dreams and improve our chances at publication. I did too when I was starting out. (Heck, I still want that. What's the key to a bestseller, huh?) We fool ourselves into thinking if we edit just right we'll get an agent. If we follow the rules and don't do any of the newbie mistakes we'll get that full manuscript request. And then it breaks our hearts when we don't, and we wonder what we did wrong. For many of us, what we did wrong was focus on the technical and didn't think enough about the story.

The reasons my first three novels got rejected were not because I had too many adverbs or used the wrong dialog tags. My stories sucked, plain and simple. I worked so hard on making them sound "like a fantasy novel" that my voice vanished and everything unique about my story and my writing went poofty.

Don't do that to yourself.

Instead of focusing only on the rules, try looking at your novel and asking questions that will delve deeper into the story you're trying to tell:
  • Does my story offer an interesting character and a problem readers will want to see solved?
  • Does my plot illustrate that story in unpredictable and original ways?
  • Will readers care about the ending of this story?
  • Are my characters likable and will readers want to spend time with them?
  • Do my characters grow between page one and the end?
  • Is there an emotional connection between readers and my characters?
  • Do my characters make surprising choices and act in ways readers won't expect?
  • Is there something larger about this story that will resonate with readers?
Good writing is important, but good writing is more than just following the rules. It's telling a great story with great characters and a surprising plot that will compel readers to keep reading.

How do you feel about the rules of writing?


  1. I feel that most rules of this nature -- don't use adverbs, don't open a story with dialogue, and whatnot -- focus too much on the mechanics of sentence- and story-building.

    They seem to be a covert way to smother the voices of fledgling writers. The no-adverb rule especially. Adverbs exist because they're needed and should be part of your arsenal as a writer. Advocating the no-adverb rule is a bit of a crime against language.

    Not all readers pick up a book for the story alone, after all. A good many want to savor the gifts and slow pleasures of a well-turned sentence, of a text that is at once lean and rich with imaginative wording.

    Don't forget non-English-speaking readers, either, who acquire English-language books to enrich their vocabulary and understanding of English grammar. Tons of people all over the world read fiction in English for its vibrancy and depth. Start removing parts of speech from the equation and you end up without either one.

    Basically, what I'm saying is I agree with your point of view. You can only follow the rules up to a point. Look at the books that have stayed with us for decades -- 1984, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, A Tale of Two Cities. Ripping yarns all of them. Do they slavishly adhere to small-minded rules? No.

    Writers are now under growing pressure to become domesticated, to serve the lowest common denominator in taste, despite their particular talents. Plenty of these cookie-cutter rules floating around on the Internet present themselves as one-size-fits-all, but the truth is they all came from different sources, they come with terrible potential for misinterpretation, and, like all monolithic advice of this nature, they risk becoming dogma.

    Dogma and writing, now there's a lousy marriage.

  2. Great post!

    I keep only one rule in my head...leave out the stuff readers skip.

    - Mac

  3. Thank you. Truly, from the bottom of my heart, thank you! Sometimes, when I've been reading "how to improve your manuscript" stuff, or when my brother tells me to write like Hemingway (ugh), I find myself looking at my WIP and questioning it.

    On those days, I think I'll come back to this post.

  4. John, great points. I think a lot of writers are looking for that magic formula, and writing doesn't really have one. Well, it does, but it's so general you can't be sure you'll following it.

    Mac, ah, an Elmore Lennard fan! Good advice, though.

    Rachel, glad I could help :) Rules are guidelines are great learning tools and good tests of a manuscript, but be true to your voice and the story you're trying to tell. Trust your writer's compass :)

  5. Great advice Janice. And very refreshing. Even the over used words are sometimes the right ones to use.

  6. I always tell my writing students they'd better know the important rules of grammar, storytelling, and their genre, and, as importantly, know for damn sure why they choose not to follow one.

    Otherwise, they are probably doomed to create an arrogant pile of nonsense that is unpublishable.

    The writers who, despite their flaws, are successful are so, not because they don't follow rules, but because their writing is so strong their story succeeds in spite of its flaws.

    If you think the rules spoil your creativity then use them during the rewrite stage, but the rules do exist for a good reason.

  7. Craft is vital. Grammar is vital. The "rules" are vital. You must know them pretty cold before you "break" or "bend" them or you will step upon sensitive portions of your anatomy.

    "Good grammar" in dialog, especially, gives that stilted, artificial feel to the character. On the other hand, if it is an Artificial Intelligence, you might want it to appear that way, at least at the beginning.

    The better your Craft where it counts (structure, character definition, etc.) the better your chances are at breaking out. A decent level of this Craft is the minimum needed now-a-days.

    But above all, you've got to tell a good story. You've gotta make the reader laugh, cry (happy or sad), and keep reading on well after midnight.

    Myself, I'll forgive some typos, grammar screw-ups, and an occasional mis-continuity (e.g., hair color changed between chapters) if the story is compelling.

    A compelling story grabs the reader and won't let him go. It gets his momentum up and enables him to ride right over the vast majority of your Craft mistakes.

    Now go write something great.

  8. I've been digging around the web a bit, and every time I find a stated rule against starting a story with dialogue, it is heavily qualified. Usually, the caution is to not throw the reader into a long section of dialogue without explaining who the characters are.

    I'm pretty sure the dialogue ban is an overly specific rule. A better rule is "don't confuse the reader with a long stretch of stuff they can't understand because in the story yet, especially in the beginning."

    My personal pet peeve is the: "drag an action scene from the middle (or end) of the story and slap it on the beginning to cover for a boring opening." I've often suspected this is something the publisher, not the author, does, but I honestly don't know.

  9. Great advice. I had a writer friend who hated "was/were". Sure, overusing them means you might be missing opportunities to use better words, but she created some awkward sentences in her attempts to avoid them.

  10. Excellent post, Janice, and excellent additional comments from John. I've been ranting against this same dogma myself.


  11. Thanks Janice. As an unpublished writer I really (lol adverb) needed to hear this. Your blog is awesome.

  12. Great advice, Janice. My sense is that as a novice, you need to start with lots of writng practice adhering to the rules,and only once you have mastered them can you get a sense of when and how it's not just ok, but wonderful to break 'em. and to read lots of authors who not just break the rules, but smash them magnificently.

    Having said that, I must be a real novice, because I've never even heard of the no-backstory-for-the-first-fifty-pages rule.

  13. You know, this is such great advice. Too often I get bogged down in all the things I should do! Not great for the creative side :/

  14. Yep! Sometimes you just have to write the damn thing, and if it's not working THEN put your efforts into working out why and how to fix it. But there is certainly room for the right adjective. Opening with dialogue - so long as your readers don't get lost - can be a very powerful method, and sometimes backstory is exactly what readers need to know in order to feel the required sympathy for the MC. I agree with Mac above ( or Elmore Leonard, as I'm fairly certain he said it, too) - leave out the bits people will skip over and you're on to a winner.

  15. Never have I heard it put so plainly!! It is the story that matters, thank you!!

  16. Natalie, exactly. What best serves the story is usually the right way to go.

    Marilynn, indeed. Know what you're doing before you break the rules. Just as important as not blindly following them without understanding them. Great tip about using them in the rewrite stage. First drafts are allowed to be messy.

    BHJ, well said.

    Bozobuttons, that "flash forward" is one of those bad rules I mentioned. Somewhere out there people advise dragging that exciting scene forward and it's never a good idea. I've seen enough authors do it I doubt it's a publisher thing.

    Cindy, we do crazy things to avoid breaking a rule like that. I always tryst me ear. If it sounds best doing what the rules say not to, I ignore the rule.

    Dario, our conversation the other day inspired this post :)

    Tan Lee, thanks! Be true to your writing voice, learn your craft, use it well, but don't feel you have to follow a set of rules to succeed.

    Jo, learning the craft is important no matter what level you're at, but the key word is learning. Understand why you do certain things and those rules won't be a big deal because you won't be doing the things they're trying to avoid. (Did that make any sense? lol)

    Not a novice at all. The backstory rule is one I hear agent Donald Maass use a lot. He might have started that one :)

    Julie, not at all! Write the story you want to tell, then worry about the technical stuff and what needs to be polished to make the story better.

    Deberlene, indeed. Rules are there to help us tell better stories, not templates to be filled out.

    Traci, most welcome!

  17. Rules about craft--like the adverbs or passive voice or such--they've never bothered me much because I'm very auditory. I tend to go with what sounds good rather than what "follows the rules." (Not saying my Craft doesn't need a bit of work, but getting the story down comes first.)

    Now, Plot rules really get at me sometimes. My first real project which has been going on and off for a while is a fantasy story which begins with a dream sequence which is set aside in a prologue. And from where I'm standing those seem to be the two biggest taboos people talk about. Now, I think it's the right place to start, and that it has enough of a disconnect from the next scene to be set off in it's own section. But sometimes it's hard listening to every set of advice about openings include "Don't do a prologue!" "And Never ever start with a dream!"

  18. Kathie S, ooo yeah, that's a tough one. Bottom line, does that prologue dream sequence work to grab the reader and draw them into the story? Does it transition well into the first chapter? In essence, does it work? If so, you're probably fine. If not, then you might reconsider. Beta readers can help there, especially those who don't know the story already.

  19. This post is a breath of fresh air. As a newbie writer, I find myself spending so much time trying to follow the rules that my voice often gets lost.

    It's not as though I want to ignor the rules. Following them has helped my story quite a bit, but only up to a point. When I end up stressing for hours over whether a paragraph has too much telling, or whether I can use "was" or not - that's what kills my progress.

  20. I follow the rules as best I can based on your awesome writing advice. But it still comes down to voice and story. I say, also listen to your gut. If it doesn't sound right, out it goes.
    Thanks, Janice

  21. I love this post. I've read a ton of craft books, blogs, ancient writing tips scribbled on the side of lost Mayan temples (maybe not...but I bet there is some) and here are the only three pieces of writing advice that actually matter.

    1) Write a lot.
    2) Do what works best for you.
    3) The story matters more than all other factors combined.

    All the rest - adverbs, tags, to prologue or not to prologue - those are all great for Editing/Revision. Trying to fix something that's not working. Apply them too soon or not needed and it is like pounding nails into a wall without reason.

    I think the most difficult part for a new writer is finding the methodology they will use for writing. Sifting through the rules, styles and advice deluge only to realize that they probably knew and were doing the 3 Things above at the beginning.

    And this post - great advice and one of the reasons why this is still one of my favorite places to stop for innovative thinking on writing.

    Thanks, Janice.

  22. Ken, that's exactly why I wrote this post. The information and lessons in those rules are good to know and learn, but when they distract you from the story they become un-helpful instead.

    Tracy, absolutely. I'm a firm believer in trusting your gut.

    Gene, totally agree with those three rules. Great comments. (and thanks!)

  23. Brilliant post.

    I was at a workshop recently where the author gave similar advice. She said: There are no rules in writing, there are only conventions. The more you understand the conventions, the more you'll understand how and when to be unconventional.

  24. Thanks for covering this issue - I was so encouraged. I'm at the beginning of the learning curve and sometimes find the rules so overwhelming I'm too paralysed to write.

    So I'm going with the tell the great story approach - and then go back and check how many rules I've broken...

  25. Jo, great comment! That sums it up nicely.

    Raewyn, that works :) When I was starting out, I would take one rule and work on that until I felt comfortable with it and understood it. Then I'd move on to the next. That helped keep me from getting overwhelmed with so many things to worry about.

  26. Amen. Amen. and Amen. I had an editor cut a story up because she said, "We don't do this anymore" and "We don't do that anymore." I very politely told her I don't always do what "they" suggest. Love your column!

  27. Suzanne, thanks! Good for you for sticking to your principles. :)

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  29. You're welcome. I should give you a byline in the acknowledgements of my next book. Ha. I think I've learned more about writing from your page than anywhere else.

  30. Suzanne, lol. So glad I've been able to help :) You just made my morning.

  31. Great post! Someone recently told me that you can write coal...because after all -- where do diamonds come from? I think it is critical to most of our creative minds to let go of the rules and let the story flow. Get it out of your head and onto the page... then take the rules (with a grain of salt) and edit. Thanks!

  32. Love this post! Some of the most repeated "rules" are the most useless. They're often based on a basic misunderstanding of what makes compelling prose. Or simply fashion. Trendy writing isn't necessarily good writing. Lead rather than follow!

  33. Karen, I saw that article (forget who myself) and that IS a great line. Monitor-worthy and a must for every first draft.

    Anne, absolutely!