3 Writing Rules You Should Break

11/01/2015 Lists, Writing 6

3 Writing Rules You Should BreakIn fiction writing, there are a few generally agreed rules that anyone who has ever done any kind of Creative Writing course will have probably had drilled into them. But are these ‘rules’ really set in stone? Or are they more like the Pirate Code (well, the one in Pirates of the Caribbean anyway), and more a set of guidelines really?

Well here’s three writing rules that I personally think are more guidelines, and are fine to break sometimes (and I’d love to know what you think!):

Write what you know.

As much as I’m sure C.S. Lewis was forever nipping through the back of his wardrobe into Narnia, and Dan Brown spends much of his spare time decrypting codes in search of the Holy Grail, most of us don’t live exciting enough lives to simply ‘write what we know.’ Maybe I’m taking it a bit too literally, as I guess the intended meaning is more, ‘let what you know inform your writing’, but the great thing about writing (and reading) is the freedom to be someone else or go somewhere else, and experience things you have never, and maybe never will experience. Therefore sticking with what you know seems needlessly restrictive. I mean, what did J.K. Rowling know about being a famous boy wizard when she wrote Harry Potter?

Show don’t tell.

Whilst for the most part showing instead of telling is what separates the bad writers from the good, I think there are cases where it’s fine to simply tell your reader something. If absolutely everything in a story was implied, it’s fair to say it would all be pretty cryptic, and I think especially in sci-fi and fantasy where the world of the story has completely different rules, a bit of subtle telling is in order.

Just use ‘said’.

Those tricky dialogue tags…what to do? The common consensus these days is ‘if in doubt, just use said’, and writers are often urged to not use too many adjectives in dialogue tags. But you know what? If you want your characters to yell, bellow or sigh, then I say go for it – just don’t overdo it. Or alternatively, you can just not bother with dialogue tags at all. So long as it is somehow clear who is speaking then I’d rather just let the dialogue do the talking (if you’ll pardon the pun!). For example:

‘Ben sat down on the plastic waiting-room chair across from Dan and produced a packet of mints from his pocket.

“Want one?”

“I’m good, thanks.”

“You sure?”

“Sure.”

Ben shrugged and popped a mint into his own mouth.’

So this isn’t exactly prize-winning writing (in fact it is probably one of the most boring things ever written!), but you get the idea. You can see clearly who says what from what comes before and after the dialogue, with no need for any ‘saids’.

So what do you think? Are these writing rules there for a reason, or is it OK to be a rebel now and then?

6 Responses to “3 Writing Rules You Should Break”

  1. Gemma

    Great post! I completely agree about breaking all of the ‘rules’ you mentioned, especially the third one. For one of my creative writing projects at uni my tutor advised me to take out the ‘saids’ and I haven’t looked back since! I think you need them sometimes, but often the dialogue can be more powerful without them. But, then again, it’s absolutely fine to use them! I suppose these ‘rules’ are meant to be broken… 🙂

    • Laura

      That’s so true – dialogue can definitely be more powerful without the ‘saids’. I try and just use them where otherwise you wouldn’t be able to tell who is speaking, and I do throw in the odd ‘exclaimed’ or ‘muttered’ here and there for variety (although most creative writing tutors seem to hate that! But as you say, rules are meant to be broken!) 🙂

  2. Sarah Kay Moll

    I think the “said” versus “miscellaneous thesaurus words” debate is largely stylistic. I really like books that have been done both ways. My writing tends to be very simple and clean, and very stylized, and so “said” works much better for me than “stated” would. I make an exception for volume words: yelled, shouted, whispered, mumbled. But my thought is that if you say “‘it’s too easy,’ Tommy explained,” the ‘explained’ is not necessary as we know from the dialogue he’s explaining. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use ‘explained,’ just that you don’t have to. It’s up to you.
    I get a lot of crap for only using ‘said,’ though.

    • Laura

      It really does depend on your style of writing whether you tend towards using only said or using various dialogue tags. I know my writing is quite descriptive, so a lot of the time I do use descriptive dialogue tags, although I do try and avoid them altogether where possible. I have seen it done well both ways though too, so I think it just depends on how you write. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Renee

    Great post! I’m in the middle of my first draft, and I went with the write what you know tip. It was the story I wanted to write, but not everything in the story is my personal experience. I think the write what you know should be taken as write the type of book you like to read. If you’ve never read a fantasy book, then don’t try to write one, you don’t know fantasy and will likely ostracise many fantasy lovers if you don’t conform to the basic expectations.

    I agree, there needs to be some balance between show and tell. The story will drag if it’s all show, you need to tell the boring bits to speed up the pace.

    I’m trying to not use dialogue tags as much as possible. I like the way it flows without them, so long as it’s obvious who is speaking.

    • Laura

      That’s definitely a great way to interpret the write what you know rule! It’s always best to write a genre you know and love, and the end results will come out so much better if you’re familiar with the type of book you’re writing.
      Balance is definitely the key with show and tell. I totally agree with you!

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