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5 Cardinal Rules of Writing and How To Break Them

Here on the blog I’m usually giving everyone advice on how to write, and telling you all about the “rules” of writing. I hope my readers have learned a few things, or taken inspiration from me, or at least gotten a few laughs from my awful attempts at humor.

Now today, WE’RE GOING TO BREAK THE RULES! Oooh, you naughty writers, you…

You’ve probably heard some of the “rules of writing” so many times you’re sick of them. They don’t even mean anything to you anymore, but everywhere you go, seasoned writers tell you the same things, dispensing their regurgitated pearls of wisdom like an oyster with the stomach flu. If one more damn person tells you to “write what you know,” you’re going to write a book about brain surgery just to spite them (unless of course, you are a brain surgeon–in that case, write about ballet, or the rise of disco, or something). These rules don’t even seem to make sense when you really analyze them, or they’re contrary and limiting, so let’s figure all that out right now.

5 Cardinal Rules of Writing and How To Break Them

  1. Show, Don’t Tell. Uuuuuuugh you knew this one was coming, didn’t you? This is the first thing any writer will spout when you ask them for advice. Of course, we all know it by now. Don’t say she’s sad, show her crying. Don’t say he’s mad, show him throwing a chair. The advice you never hear is that you don’t always have to show. You can tell. Showing too much slows things down. For example, if Becky gets fired from her job, but something important to her future and the plot happens the next day, it’s probably not a good idea to clog up the flow with thirty pages describing her going home, crying for an hour, eating all her roommate’s food, drinking two bottles of wine, throwing up, and passing out. It’s okay to just say “Becky had a long night full of bad decisions,” and maybe show her hangover in the morning. Get to the point fast, and stick to it.
  2. Never Use ‘Said.‘  The dialog tag “said” has been demonized by writers and editors alike. Of course, you shouldn’t overuse it. By far, the best dialog tag is an action beat. Instead of, “I used to love wine,” Becky said. “But not anymore.” It’s better to go with, “I used to love wine.” Becky glanced at the two empty bottles in the recycling bin, and her stomach turned. “But not anymore.” However, of course you can freakin’ use “said” here and there. I actually saw an editor one time suggest that you should search and replace all instances of “said” in your manuscript. This is not sound advice to me. Sometimes you HAVE to use said, anything else is awkward and intrusive. Just don’t OVERUSE it. No one is going to chuck your book across the room because Becky “said” something.
  3. Write What You Know. I’ve gone over this before on the blog (and really, all these things). This is terrible advice because it’s not clear. It doesn’t mean if you’re a writer from Maine your characters should only be writers who live in Maine (yes I’m looking at you, Stephen King). It doesn’t mean you can’t write about a place you’ve never been or an experience you’ve never had–that’s what research is for. It means write what you know about people, about the human condition, about the human heart. Write life as you’ve experienced it, and you’ll discover just how many people can relate. It should be changed to “write about the world as you understand it.”
  4. Never Info-Dump. By all means, you shouldn’t tell us everything there is to know about your character and their world all in one go. Don’t write a story like you’d tell a friend about something crazy that happened at the bar last night (“see there were these three guys, one was this huge guy and he had tattoos on his face, and one was this really short guy with a big bushy mustache, and then there was a third guy and I think he only had one eye…) Feed it to us slowly over the course of the story, as it becomes important. But this doesn’t mean you can’t EVER give us a bunch of information all at once. If your space captain suddenly has to use the LazerMatic3000, and we have no idea what the hell that is, it’s okay to insert some details and explanation. This can be done in a number of creative ways, including having it explained to them by another character, or by having the captain recall fond memories of using the LazerMatic3000 during his high school football games.
  5. Write Every Day. Yes, practice makes perfect. Doing something repetitively makes you good at it. Writers also have jobs, bills, kids, lives, and other responsibilities. Of course, to be a writer, write. But also don’t throw yourself off a cliff if you can’t do it every single day at 3 p.m.

There you have it, some of the rules you hear ad nauseum and how to break them–and still be a good writer. Or are you a bad writer? A very, very bad writer? 😉

 

Megan Morgan View All

Paranormal and contemporary romance author.

12 thoughts on “5 Cardinal Rules of Writing and How To Break Them Leave a comment

  1. Writing is such a subtle activity that every rule is really more a guideline 😉
    How about ‘write what you know’? I’d be damned if I could only write what I know by experience. I write fantasy story set in America (I’ve been there only once and not in the right place), with mostly male protags (I’m a woman), set at the beginning of the XX century (I was born in the second half of the century) and of course with all manners of things and creatures that never existed.
    I suppose I’m doomed.

    And about the dreaded info-dump, Tolkien taught me something recently, as I reread The Lord of the Rings. When the Three Hunters meet Gandalf the White in Fangorn Forest there is a long section of info-dump, I mean a few pages, about what had happenes in Middle Earth while things we read about the Felloship were happening. And I knew fully well that was exactly what I was reading, a bunch of info-dump (thought masterfully written), but I didn’t care. What I cared was knowing what had happened in Middle Earth outside of what I already knew. I WANTED to learn those things.
    And I think this is the key. Storytelling is all about timing information. It’s giving to the reader what he/she wants to know in the moment he/she most craves to know it. If we time this well, there will never be info-dump 😉

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    • Hahaha you’re definitely doomed! 😉 Imagine what books would be like if people ONLY wrote what they know. Books would be so much like the real world they’d be INSANELY boring. We read to escape! We need our fantasy worlds, and we need the people who make them up!

      And that’s a very good example of a proper info-dump! Writers are telling stories, after all. And readers want to know what those stories are.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. I really hate the write every day advice. Some writers (me) can’t do that. It’s not how our creative minds work. I’ll get days on end where I will write every day, but I don’t like being made to feel guilty when I don’t. I’d rather tell people, write in a way that is conductive to yourself.

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  3. I’ve never heard the rule about never saying said – I’d always thought it was the opposite. I love using said. It’s simple and using too many alternatives can effect the writing, and not in a good way! As for the writing every day. Pfft. If I wrote everyday I would have burn-outs much quicker. Today, for example, I didn’t write simply because the thought of doing so exhausted me. We all need our breaks!

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