In 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.
“I’m good, thanks.”
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?