Rules for Writing Fiction? There are thousands. Don’t kill a puppy. Never use an –ly adverb. Exclamation points are the mark of an amateur.
I’ve heard these rules for writing fiction and dozens of others from the time I started pursuing publication. And I’m ashamed to say, when I was new, I even believed some of them.
The fact is, writing is an art, and in art forms, there are no absolutes. But when we’re new and hungry for success and validation, it’s amazing the things we take to heart.
Mention the mere word “rules” in any group of writers, and you’re bound to start an animated, opinionated conversation. And the thing is, there are reasons most of these rules for writing fiction have been circulated for so long. Usually pretty valid reasons.
As the cliché goes, you need to know what the “rules” are and understand why they’ve been perpetuated. Then…then you can break them.
You Can Break Rules for Writing Fiction
Adverbs that end in –ly, for example. When I was green, it was hammered into my head…avoid them at all costs! Having since judged countless contest entries of unpublished writers over the years, I feel confident in saying why this rule developed. Because some inexperienced writers rely on –ly adverbs too much. Frankly, these words can be the tool of a lazy writer. A lot of times, -ly adverbs tell the reader instead of showing.
Take, for example, these sentences:
She turned around, cautiously. Suspiciously.
Okay. The sentence tells us how she is acting. But what if we tried to show the same things instead?
She inched her body around, her eyes narrowed. Waiting. Dreading.
Which example can you see more clearly? Hopefully, you said the second.
You can tell the reader your heroine is cautious, or you can let the reader see for herself, by your heroine’s actions and mannerisms, that she’s cautious. The easier it is for the reader to “see” your character and what’s going on in the story, the more engrossed the reader will become.
When it Comes to Rules for Writing Fiction, Say No to Absolutes
However, there’s a flip side. That whole “absolute” thing. I distinctly remember having a discussion with my editor in which she questioned where the “no –ly adverbs” rule originated. She described submissions that had authors rattling on and using long, convoluted phrases to avoid one single –ly word. And as she summed it up, sometimes the –ly adverb is the very best way to convey something.
Should you keep an eye out for –ly in your manuscript? Certainly. Should you ban all –ly words? Not necessarily. Use them when they’re the best option, which is sparingly. It’s kind of like swear words in a story—the less you use them, the more impact they have when you do throw one out there.
A few other rules for writing fiction that a wise writer should take with a grain of salt:
- Avoid “was” because it’s a passive verb. Well…it can be. The dog was hit by a car. The ball was thrown from the top of the bleachers. The bed was made. Yep, those are passive. The subjects of each of those sentences are being acted upon, not being active.
However: The dog was barking nonstop. The little boy was lost and terrified. The man was searching for the ring he’d dropped. Passive? No. The subject of each of these is either acting/doing and “was” is a part of the verb phrase, or “was” is a linking verb. So before you go searching for every “was” in your manuscript and striking them all out, consider that it doesn’t automatically signal passive verbs.
- Semicolons and em dashes have no place in fiction. Umm, really? I’ll admit, overuse of either can be clunky and distracting, but I’m a big fan of em dashes. And correctly using semicolons is far better than run-on sentences.
- Never use “and then.” I don’t get this one. Go ahead and use it. The hula dancer dropped her hoop, and then she ran off the stage in tears. Sometimes “and then” is fine. But again, don’t overuse the phrase.
- Don’t start a sentence with “and.” Every now and then, it’s fine. Again, though, starting every other sentence with the same word, whether it’s “and” or something else, is going to get the reader’s attention, and not in a good way.
The next time you hear a rule for writing fiction, I urge you not to take it to heart. First, figure out why it may have come about. Watch the books you’re reading for authors who break that rule. Analyze. Did the no-no distract you? What about if it’s overdone? Does it bug the heck out of you? Do you see a theme here?
Again, writing is an art form. The “rules” should be viewed as suggestions. The more you understand them, the better you can get away with breaking them effectively.
And that puppy you killed in chapter six? Who’s to say it wasn’t a baby Cujo?
Amy Knupp is the author of 12 contemporary romance novels for Harlequin and 2 self-published short stories, as well as a freelance copy editor for Blue Otter Editing LLC. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband, two sons, and five cats. She graduated from the University of Kansas with degrees in French and journalism and feels lucky to use very little of either one in her writing career. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, buying books in excess, traveling, breaking up cat fights, watching college basketball, and annoying her family by correcting their grammar.