Rules Are Meant to Be Broken

Avoid adverbs. Never use words to describe how someone spoke besides ‘said’ and ‘asked’. Never use ‘said’ or ‘asked’. I before E except after C.

“Rules” for writing are everywhere and it seems like everyone has one. Many are contradictory. What’s a writer to do? What are some of the reasons for these rules? Do they have an actual point? Do you have to listen to them? You may be wondering the answers to some of these questions as your write your book or ebook.

Let’s take a look at some of these rules and let people figure them out.

Tropes – “People don’t like tropes”. If that were true, then there wouldn’t be shelves (and ebook pages) full of love triangles, characters with abusive step-mothers, and the high school student finding out that they’re suddenly special for something. Sure, twists are nice, but as they say “There’s nothing new under the sun”. Completely new ideas are rare and changing tropes can often make people upset because they expect one thing and don’t necessarily want a different one. At the end of a romance book, people want a Happily Ever After, or at least a Happily Ever After for now that sets them up for a sequel. So be careful you don’t rely too heavily on tropes, but don’t ignore them either.

“Show Don’t Tell”/Info Dump – There’s always going to be a certain amount of telling in a story and sometimes you’ll just need to spend some time elaborating on a concept, especially if you’re writing in a fantasy world with foreign rules and histories. Do your best to work this information into the story, but sometimes the reader just needs the information. Unless your character has some legitimate reason to start talking about the history of gods to someone who doesn’t know, you’re going to have to find a way to convey this another way because it’ll look weird if the main character just starts talking about it. Do your best to follow this rule, but know that sometimes there are times to break it.

Avoid Pop Culture – Here I say it’s best to keep them to a minimum unless you’re writing something where they’re heavily needed (a comedy book, maybe), but you don’t have to avoid them entirely. You’re writing for the here and now and so long as you keep the references well known and current or recent, most people will probably get the reference. If they don’t they’ll either look it up or just most past it. If you write carefully, they’ll get the general gist anyway.

Prologues – There’s a lot of advice out there that most people don’t read prologues and that you should get your ideas in your books. But sometimes, especially in fantasy novels, it’s good to have a prologue. Perhaps with the perspective of a character or characters who we otherwise wouldn’t get otherwise hear from. Or there’s a backstory to the world that otherwise wouldn’t fit. Some of the most famous fantasy series of all time had prologues.

Your Main Character Must Be Likeable – Not every main character is strictly likeable or that’d be boring. Even ‘likeable’ characters have flaws. You must make the character have something relatable, though, and know that it is trickier to get people to read about a non-likeable character, but it’s not impossible.

Write What You Know – If this is true, then nobody would ever write about fantasy worlds or far away places they’ve never been or jobs they’ve never done or…on and on and on. Writing what you know can be more convenient and perhaps more easily realistic, but that doesn’t mean you’re stuck. Research is key here. Know your fantasy world well with lots of preparation ahead of time or to add after the fact. If you’re writing mostly real world, do a lot of a reading, talk to people who do know what you’re writing, and feel free to take a little bit of liberties so long as you’re careful.

Never Use Passive Voice – To some extent this is true. Passive voice can slow down the story significantly. But maybe this is what you want? And there are times when the best way to express something is through passive voice. Use this carefully and it can be very powerful.

Never Use “That” – This rule is like the one above. If you’re not careful, your story can be overbloated with this word. When you’re editing, pick out all the instances and carefully evaluate whether ‘that’ is necessary or whether you can write the sentence more clearly.

Don’t Use “-ly” words – Ah, the dreaded “-ly” words. They can “quickly” weaken a “strongly” written novel. They can also add emphasis in the right places. Don’t rely on these words to convey the mood or what happened. If they came down the stairs, don’t say they “quickly” came down the stairs unless you can’t convey their haste elsewhere or you need to particularly emphasize your point (see what I did there). Use them sparingly and they can be a powerful tool.

Don’t Start Sentences With And or ‘But’, End on Prepositions, or Split Infinitives – Like the above couple of rules, this rule is designed to be broken carefully. Occasionally each of these concepts can be used as emphasis, but the more likely place it’s acceptable is in character speech. You can break a lot of rules in speech so long as it makes sense to the character because people who speak don’t sit down and think of rules as they talk.

These are just a few “rules” that exist out there. If you take the time to understand the rules, then you can learn where to break them and why. In the end, your story is your story and you need to write the way that makes sense to you, just know why you’re writing what you write.

What rules do you tend to break? Why? Any that are not listed here? What rules do you never break?

Leave a reply or connect with me on Twitter at @alexisafurr.

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