You’ve probably been told there are rules for writing fiction — eternal, immutable rules that, if broken, will cause publishers to consign your novel/novella/short story to the flames and leave your name writ on water.
But that just ain’t so.
People like to talk about rules. Rules are supposed to make things clear and easy, and knowing the rules makes you look smart. But are there really rules of writing?
As I’ve argued elsewhere, mere rule-following is not a virtue in art, but it’s hard to tell whether you’re producing avant garde art or a dumpster full of smouldering rubbish unless you have some external benchmark. This, of course, is why people trot out THE RULES that they hope will save them from dismal failure. But, sadly, nothing can save any of us from failure, and avoiding failure can also mean dodging success. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what some brilliant minds have to say about the rules.
Whether you love him, hate him, or just wonder what the hell got into him, you have to admit that Chuck Wendig’s got style. He also has a thing for rules or, as he has said in at least one article, laws. Mind you, I can’t always figure out what he calls rules or why he calls them rules, and his definition of “law” makes the science-y part of my brain want to implode, but he gives his readers a lot to think about. He’s also hilariously profane and, therefore, not everyone’s cup o’ tea.
Editor James Harbeck has an MA in linguistics and a razor wit that has left many a myth in tatters. Here, he argues that the rule-seeking many native English speakers engage in is little more than a sasquatch hunt and that we should look for explanations, not rules.
Lexicographers spend their days studying the written word to discover how we actually use language, and it appears that some of the rules we impose on ourselves don’t necessarily reflect the way we communicate. The subtitle of this article says it all: “omit needless rules.”
Everyone has their own way of doing things, so when someone gives you a rule to write by, you might want to ask whether that’s a good rule for every writer or if it’s a good rule for that writer or for people who write in a certain genre. Perhaps each individual story needs some rules to call its own.
The author doesn’t refer to these tenets as rules, but this kind of advice is often preached to writers as thought the Almighty Himself etched them onto stone tablets. But sometimes you have to ask whether well-intentioned advice is actually inhibiting your ability to write well and should be abandoned. Don’t worry — no one has ever been struck dead or plagued with locusts for “telling” too much in a story. I don’t think.
And now for something a little bit different. Writer and filmmaker Andrew Stanton’s Ted talk on storytelling is an amusing and insightful look at the evolution of his own storytelling skills and what makes a good story. Along the way, he says he learned that “storytelling has guidelines, not hard, fast rules.”