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The Real Rules (*Cough, Cough*) of Writing

Some authors, editors, and instructors are fond of laying down rules for writing, absolutes that You. Must. Always. Obey. As if they're speaking from on high (Mount Olympus, maybe?) and you, the groveling peon, should tremble before their pronouncements. Or maybe they're only trying to be helpful, sharing what they've been told, or what's worked for them.

Here are a few I've heard over the years:

1. Never start a story with the weather. This one's nicely exploded by author/editor Roz Morris at her blog, Nail Your Novel.)

2. Never include more than one point of view per scene, and limit these viewpoints to a very few main characters. Funny, how often and successfully this constraint is ignored by many, many authors, including New York Times bestseller (many times over) Nora Roberts, who's been known to sneak in a dog's point of view when it suits her. In my own romantic thriller, Beneath Bone Lake, I wrote one scene from an alligator's POV, and I've occasionally written omniscient scenes along with those where the only human witness is a corpse washing downstream.

3. Never use a sports star or a redheaded man as a romantic hero, and whatever you do, don't have an adulterous hero or heroine. Apparently, (and fortunately) someone forgot to tell Susan Elizabeth Phillips (Nobody's Baby But Mine) and Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) about these restrictions.

4. Never, ever write about a character's dreams. While I agree that this is overdone (especially by beginners) and mostly cringe-worthy, I would never say never.

There are many more "rules" I've heard at conferences and the few creative writing classes that I've taken. But personally, I believe there are only two worthy of your consideration.

1. It has to work. Whatever technique, device, or other choice you make has to result in a reader becoming completely immersed in the story and its characters. Not wrapped up in/distracted by your brilliant wordplay or rule-breaking and not rolling her eyes and groaning, either!

2. Your protagonist's situation must go from bad to worse--at least until the final crisis is met and he/she is allowed to smoke a cigarette, hook up with the love interest, grieve his/her losses or what have you in the denouement.

So what about you? Can you think of any hard and fast writing rules you've been taught that haven't turned out to be so hard and fast after all? Or can you think of any additions (or exceptions) to my two "real" rules for writing?


Unknown said…
oh I like it! I love breaking rules. And you're right, there are so many "you must and must not dos" flying about. I haven't read your links yet, but I will and I'll lap them up. And I MIGHT use an adverb (shock, horror) every now and again. In my first novel (which was a finalist in a well-known award) I had a prologue AND an epilogue (giggles) - how many times have you heard you're not meant to have either?
What I do believe to be true is: everything in it's own time and if it works, then do it.
I think a lot of the "rules" proscribing against this or that evolved because people have seen them mishandled once too often. Prologues and epilogues are good examples, but when they're truly relevant and need to be set off from the rest of the book for some reason, they can really work beautifully. And even the much-reviled adverb and exclamation point have their place.
Suzan Harden said…
*snicker* Yeah, rules. *snort* Actually, my hubby was the one who got offended when an editor sent back notes on my latest erotic short story with the comment that no one wants read about married couples having kinky sex. But then, maybe there's a reason we're closing in on twenty years, and my poor editor is on her second marriage. *grin*
Anonymous said…
Explain dreams. My heroine learns about her past life through dreams.

So many rules!!!
I didn't mean to lay down any hard and fast rules. Just try to resist the temptation to have anything happen (i.e. an entire season of DALLAS) and then explain it away as "all a dream."
LOL! And good for you and hubby! ;)

Lark Howard said…
Of course I want to read the dog's POV in a scene! Some of the most interesting "people" I know are dogs.
Unpublished Guy said…
Not only did I violate the rule about beginning a story about the weather, I wrote a
story about the weather
I've written whole novels about the weather, Unpublished Guy, so I have no criticisms on that score!

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