Breaking the Rules

I said a few things at the meeting last night that I realize might come back to bite me. When I said that “rules” don’t make good feedback, I meant something very specific. I don’t refer to grammar rules, spelling, etc. We all still have to start our sentences with capital letters, there’s no excuse for not knowing the difference between it’s and its (or there, their, and they’re), and we shouldn’t all throw out our dictionaries just yet, no matter how sloppy we are when we text message.

What I was referring to was the subjective “rules” on writing novels that usually begin with  “never” or “always.” Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Never use a substitution for the word “said.”

While it is wearing to read dialogue like the following…

“Hello, handsome,” Chloe cooed.

“Hello, yourself,” Jack sneered.

“What’s the matter?” Chloe questioned.

“You missed writers club last night!” Jack ejaculated.

… there is really no substitution for a good “shouted,” “whispered,” or “sobbed” when used sparingly. As with anything, if you overuse it it loses its potency (like swear words) and you’re not letting your dialogue speak for itself, but a few well-placed descriptive substitutions for “said” can be highly effective. You don’t want to waste time writing “Jack said in a hushed voice” when you could write “Jack whispered.”

2. Never start an opening scene with dialogue.

The purpose of this “rule” is to keep us from starting a novel with a big chunk of dialogue that leaves the reader scratching her head, wondering who is talking, who is listening, where it’s taking place, and, most importantly, why she should care. If these questions are immediately answered after a short, intriguing bit of spoken word, then it’s a non-issue and the “rule” doesn’t apply.

3. Always show, don’t tell.

Like 1. above, this is a good piece of advice in general. There are other schools of thought that recommend that you not explain in dialogue what could more easily be summarized.   Back story is no more interesting in a clichéd flashback than being explained by a trustworthy narrator at the right moment. Trust your readers to understand what you show them (don’t tell them too), but there are times when showing only detracts from the story and telling is much more effective.

Finally, the real reason I don’t believe these “rules” make for helpful feedback is because they are cookie cutter. They’re not tailored to the writer’s story. As writers, we all want to know whether what we’re doing is working or not. When we receive generic feedback, all we’re being told is that we’re not coloring within someone else’s arbitrary lines.



3 Responses to “Breaking the Rules”

  1. 1 Uninvoked November 12, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Some of the biggest arguments I’ve had while writing my noveling blog, (shameless plug: Read Uninvoked! Leave Comments! Rate Posts!) is over those cookie cutter rules. I like my dialog tags. I don’t use them all the time, and I don’t think “ejaculated” should be used in any form of verbal communication. >_> Maybe I’m the only one with a gutter mind, but I’m not thinking of that sort of excitement when I read the word.

    I did drastically reduce my use of adverbs (that’s the only one I’m gonna use. Honest.) and it DID help my writing. It takes all kinds I guess.

    I think “the rule” to follow is to be aware of everything you do when you write. It’s okay to have adverbs, but notice them, don’t type off into oblivion and pretend they aren’t there. Use dialog tags, but notice those too.

    And if it’s a rough draft…why are you even here? O.o Rules don’t matter till the second draft.

  2. 2 Kate November 13, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    I agree with you Mallory. Although, as I get farther into this writing thing and learn more ‘rules’ I have to wonder at most of them. (aside from the obvious ones) I started reading the classics, Dickens, DeFoe, Austin, Melville, Doyle… in Jr. High. They broke almost every rule that I have been hearing. There has never since been been more that 24 hours between books for me. All sorts of genres and styles. I think there are as many styles of writing as there are authors out there and for every style there is someone who prefers that style. As we talked about the Time Travelers Wife the other day, those who liked it and those who didn’t. If everyone followed the rule of the day, then all the books would sound the same. It is all a matter of taste. I liked the flowery prose the new guy (can’t remember his name) read Wed, and I like the old detective style and I like your style. With me it depends on my mood. Don’t let me start on clichés… Anyway, I think the ‘rules’ as I have been hearing them are stifling and counterproductive to creating art of any kind.
    There, that’s my two cents worth.
    Loved your letter and love you too,

  3. 3 Sue November 14, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    George Bernard Shaw once said, “No generalization is worth a damn, not even this one.” I think this is a good guideline when writing. Besides, rules are made to be broken – even the one about using complete sentences. If breaking the rule creates the picture you want in your reader’s mind, then I say go for it!

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