There are many rules about writing prose fiction. Any creative writing course will drill those rules into you. But don’t be fooled. These “rules” are merely guidelines that help you focus your prose. But they aren’t commandments. I think there is only one real rule so far as prose construction goes:
Rules about writing should be followed, unless they shouldn’t.
Mordecai Richler, in his book “The Best of Modern Humor,” wrote that “the only way to write is good, and how you do it is your own damn business.” Rules of writing should not be followed so slavishly that you can’t create.
Since these are strong suggestions and not commandments, you should let your sense of artistry determine if you should follow the rules or not. In general, these rules are fine, but there are always extenuating circumstances.
If you’ve read enough prose (and as a writer you REALLY should) then something wrong with a sentence should feel, well, wrong. Like an off-note in a musical performance, a wrong step in prose will take the reader right out of the story. Sometimes you can err by following the rules.
Here are four examples of famous writing rules that are sometimes wrong.
Show, Don’t Tell
If this were the game show “Family Feud,” I think this would be the number one answer on the board, the question being “what bit of writing advice do you hear the most.” “Show, don’t tell:” it’s the “Stairway to Heaven” to creative writing courses.
It highlights a great bit of advice: put your reader where you want them to be. MAKE them be there. They should be located in the time and space of your narrative, and since this isn’t television, you’re going to need to show them where they are so they can keep track.
But how much do you really want to show? How much detail goes into this?
I subscribe to Kurt Vonnegut’s rule: every sentence must do one of two things – reveal the character or advance the action. Spending time telling your reader how the bathroom smells doesn’t do anything to keep the story moving. You’re telling a story, not selling real estate.
Show in action, yes. That’s great. But sometimes you have to tell your reader that a character is sad without having to go through their entire day and list all the reasons why they’re sad.
In another example, suppose we (the readers) are brought to a room where the antagonist will confront the protagonist. How much of this room do we need to know about? Suppose we know there’s a couch in the room. Do we really need to know its color? Do we need to be SHOWN a couch?
If it doesn’t advance anything, then no. Just tell us what we need to know and let’s move on.
Write What You Know
You’re pretty screwed with this rule if you write Sci-Fi or Fantasy. What real-world knowledge do you have about the details of a faster-than-light drive or how magic works? None, that’s what.
There’s a reason why they call it “fiction.”
But suppose you’re not writing Sci-Fi or Fantasy. There are no aliens in your story wanting others to show them this Earth thing called “kissing.” There is no prince waiting to be rescued. There’s just a bunch of people going through a messed up situation. Should you write what you know then?
Ever read any Stephen King? Chances are you have. In many of his stories at least one of the protagonists is a writer. He’s writing what he knows. He’s a writer, so he puts a writer in the story. And I really wish he’d stop that.
Write from a place of knowledge, of course. Make up the details in fiction, create your world, people it with three-dimensional characters, give them situations where they will react naturally, use your past experiences, use the experiences of others, make your own fun, and engage the reader. But don’t limit things to what you know. Write what you can dream.
Never Use Adverbs
A great idea if you want your prose to read like Elmore Leonard’s. However, I think this is an idiotic piece of advice.
Adverbs are one of the four contents of speech needed to construct sentences. It’s like saying that one of the other three (verbs, nouns, and adjectives) are not necessary and should be excised from your manuscript.
Adverbs aren’t just words that end in “ly.” They qualify adjectives and verbs and can tell the place of an action or where/when it occurred or even describe the extent of an action. They intensify words.
Don’t hobble yourself with this rule. Be careful with adverbs, of course. But be careful with EVERYTHING you write. Use every tool at your disposal to shape your prose.
Passive Voice is El Diablo!
Oh, poor passive voice. So despised. So hated. So unfairly treated.
The advice should be “don’t RELY on passive voice.”
In action, you should, of course, make the sentence as active as possible. Mention the action itself first. It drives the story forward. But passive voice is fantastic for expressing general truths or sayings.
For instance, “rules were made to be broken” is passive voice. “People who make rules make them to be broken” is active voice. Which one do you think is clumsy?
Now when it comes to anything actually happening in your story, “active” it up!
To Put It in a Nutshell
Use your own sense of prose to determine when to follow the rules. Often the advice listed above is good, within their own limits. But don’t make things more difficult for yourself. Writing is hard enough as it is.
There are stylistic suggestions, but it all comes down to one thing: how you use your words. As a writer, your knowledge of words and how to use them is the most important thing about your art and craft. Your style comes from your words.
So make it your own damn business on how to write well. Take advice gladly, but know when to follow your own style as well.