Writing rules: what to ignore and what to follow

Like any craft there are rules for prose writing. There are formal grammar rules, but there are also other rules for fiction, some good, some slightly ridiculous. I’ve selected a few rules to demonstrate that the rules of writing are never straight forward and there are always exceptions.

Write “authentic” dialogue

I once wrote a story for a nonfiction course I was doing. Each student was required to write a narrative of a true event and to be as accurate as possible, down to quoting individuals. I wrote about a helicopter pilot (Jack) who’d taken my family and me up to Fox Glacier in New Zealand. In the narrative, I relayed Jack’s commentary as we ascended and landed on the glacier. His words were etched in my mind so I wrote verbatim what he’d said. After posting the narrative online for group review, one student said that he didn’t believe Jack’s dialogue, telling me ‘he’d never say that’. I was very diplomatic in reminding him that this was an account of an actual event with an actual person and that my step-father could verify the events and his statements, but he was convinced people don’t talk that way – that Jack’s explanations weren’t authentic. This puzzled me until I realised that many writer’s experiences with written dialogue have been through fiction rather than nonfiction. I wanted to ask him what “authentic dialogue” meant, but I suspected he wouldn’t be able to tell me. Spoken dialogue is often unrehearsed, clipped or broken, contains redundancies or obvious statements like “nice weather”, and is often clichéd. To mimic every day speech in fiction would be to break too many other rules of fiction, so rather than try to write authentic dialogue, we should concentrate on writing effective dialogue that compliments the story. Effective dialogue

  • avoids formalities and technical language unless it is relevant to the story or character;
  • reflects character idiosyncrasies
  • reflects language and speech diversity
  • identifies speakers
  • can use body language or gestures to compliment the dialogue
  • avoids character’s indulging in self-aggrandising, since it is unnatural for most of us to do this
  • should at times be inappropriate, provocative and even irrational
  • should balance with the prose and not seem like an interruption with each new quotation mark

For more information on dialogue read On dialogue in fiction

Avoid cliches

Clichés can turn a good novel into a colourless and flat work and reflects the authors laziness. They can even reflect a writers ignorance. By clichés I mean overused phrases, cliches involving characters, clichéd scenes, even genre clichés. Some cliches are more obvious than others and are easily avoided. It’s the sneaky ones you need to look out for, so to avoid clichés:

  • write originally all the time
  • don’t use archetypal heroes and villains (Prince Charming, or the Wicked Witch) or stereotype personalities (a “nutty professor”)
  • Avoid racial or national stereotypes everywhere
  • avoid writing prosaic death scenes, love scenes, birthing scenes (I recently read a book where I felt like the same birthing scene was repeated several times throughout the book, only using slightly different words each time)
  • avoid genre-specific clichés like the murderous butler in crime fiction or alien invaders in sci-fi fiction, or damsel in distress in romantic fiction. Of course, if you can come up with an original slant on any of these overused plots there’s no reason it can’t be written.

Sometimes you might find clichés unavoidable – such as character dialogue (although one of my lecturers even said we should avoid this), but mostly cliché should be cast-off.

Exclamation points

Exclamation points are like little bee stings at the end of the line. In prose writing they’re redundant. For example,

“Don’t leave!” he shouted.

Experienced writers use language to convey mood, meaning and tone rather than punctuation marks, like exclamations, or tags for that matter. Which brings me to the next rule:

Show, don’t tell

Anton Pavlovich Chekov rather eloquently said “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”. Today, the show don’t tell mantra is too often quoted and has become a bit of an obsession for writers. It is true that readers don’t want to be told that a sunset is pretty, we want to experience it, but some writers have taken this to the extreme. The prose becomes overburdended with sensory words, gestures and lengthy pontificating. Showing is a skill all writers need to learn and employ, but sometimes it is enough to say that the smell was like raw sewerage rather than trying to give the reader a complete olfactory experience. The wisdom is in knowing when to show and when to tell.

The mantra should be show and tell

Sentence size

The general rule for fiction writing is to avoid lengthy sentences and never to use sentence fragments or one word sentences. Long sentences can be hard work to write, much less to read. Generally long sentences are a device employed by more formal documents (like legal notices and contracts, science and university texts). Still, some fiction writers have a preference for a slightly longer than average sentence. The rule of sentence fragments or one word sentences, on the other hand, seems to be increasingly ignored in contempary fiction, at least in the kind of fiction I read. Sometimes small sentences are more effective than lengthy ones, and some writers use this to stylise their writing. It’s up to the individual writer to decide on the shape of each sentence. The trick is to balance short sentences or sentence fragments by using them in combination with long (though not excessive) sentences.


About Sharon

Writer, bibliophile, dreamer and student of everything
This entry was posted in ME ON WRITING, Writing rules and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Writing rules: what to ignore and what to follow

  1. vanyieck says:

    This may sound a tad simplistic, but a storyteller once told me that the first thing to do when telling a story is tell the story. Storytelling isn’t the same as writing, but its a lesson I’ve tried to apply when writing a story. As a result I don’t have a lot of extraneous explanation and my dialogue is heavy with significance.

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