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When (and How) To Break the Rules
by Anne Marble

Return to Writing Romance · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

After you've read a lot of writing articles, you'll notice one thing. There are a lot of rules out there. Many of these rules are absolutes. Yet when you're writing a novel, absolute rules don't always apply. The trick is deciding when to follow a rule, when to bend it, and when to run screaming from it.

Show, Don't Tell

This is one of the most quoted rules about writing. Of course, that means it's one of the most misunderstood. Don't worry -- sometimes, even the people telling you to adhere to this rule don't truly understand it.

In its most basic form, show, don't tell means that you as a writer must rely on narration rather than exposition. For example, instead of telling the reader that the hero is tall, you show the reader that he is tall by describing the way he has to duck his head to avoid hitting the heroine's chandelier. Or maybe, when he poses for a picture with the heroine, he ducks his head a little so that she doesn't look so short next to him -- that tells us he cares enough about her to do this. You can show things to the reader with some of your most powerful tools -- action, dialogue, description, and lots of active verbs and concrete nouns.

While show, don't tell is usually great advice, at times, you can follow that advice right off a cliff. Not everything in your characters' lives is important enough to be shown. Some details are better off being shown, especially if they aren't that important. Background details, even important ones, can be hard to tell without resorting to flashbacks. Now and then, it's even safe to let yourself say "He was tall." (If you have to, you can always change it later.)

If you show everything, you could very well end up with a 1,000-page novel. For example, it's OK to tell readers that your heroine went to the store and picked up a quart of milk -- as long as that trip to the store isn't all that important. Readers don't want to plod through the heroine's dull experiences in the local Safeway only to learn that the whole scene was about getting a quart of milk. Yawn!

Write What You Know

Write what you know comes close to show,don't tell as one of the most quoted pieces of writing advice. In most cases, it is good advice -- to a point. If you have first-hand knowledge of something, then when you write about it, not only will your writing be more accurate, it will be more immediate.

Naturally, write what you know doesn't mean that you can't write about things, feelings, or places you've never experienced. Never let this rule limit what you write about. I've never been a gay male barbarian thrown into a prison of mages, nor will I ever be. Yet I know what it's like to be the fish out of water and to be disliked by some of the people around me. (Hint: It was called summer camp.) I'll never have to worry about being flogged by a prison guard, but like my fellow campers, I had to worry about breaking rules and making friends. So I can extrapolate from my own experiences to what my character went through. Most of all, I can imagine the rest. So can you.

By the way, remember that this rule is usually quoted as "Write what you know -- and if you don't know, find out." I'd add to that, "If you don't know, imagine yourself in the character's position."

Don't Use Adjectives and/or Adverbs

Always be wary of writing advice that starts out with "Don't" or "Never." These are often overgeneralizations. It's true that the best words are active verbs and concrete nouns. It's also true that adjectives and adverbs often do weaken the narrative. But that doesn't mean you should never, ever use adjectives and adverbs. Why should you follow a rule that will prevent you from using some of the tools in your tool chest? Nouns and verbs aren't the only tools -- adjectives and adverbs have their places, too.

Think of the English language as a desktop. The things you use most often -- such as pens and pencils -- are nearby. The figures of speech you use less often might be the stapler, staple remover, and tape dispenser. If you've ever run out of tape in the middle of a project, you know how it feels to be restricted from using adjectives and adverbs. From time to time, you need to modify a noun with an adjective. And heresy of heresies, you may even have to use an adverb.

When you do use adjectives and adverbs, be sure to use them sparingly and to know when to take them out. Do be especially (whoops, there's another adverb) careful of adverbs. Is that adverb really telling the reader something they don't already know or can't figure out from the context? If not, considering cutting it out. Could a stronger verb do the job just as well? If so, try the verb instead.

"Never Start a Story with Dialogue!"

There are a lot of pieces of "Never Start" advice -- never start a story with a character alone in the room, never start with the main character waking up, and so forth. Many of those make sense. After all, who wants to read pages and pages about your heroine getting out of bed and brushing her teeth? We want to read about conflict, and that usually happens only after she meets the hero.

On the other hand, never start a story with dialogue is silly and arbitrary. If starting with a line of dialogue is so bad, why do so many other experts suggest starting with your story with dialogue? Sure, starting a story with dialogue can be asking for trouble. When you start with a line of dialogue, it comes out of nowhere, so you run the risk of the reader not caring because they don't know who is saying the line. But if the dialogue is interesting enough, they should want to find out.

I checked the romance novels on my shelves. Without trying hard, I found six books that started with a line of dialogue. There were books by a wide range of authors, from Rosemary Rogers to Lisa Kleypas. Edith Layton's To Wed a Stranger starts with dialogue, and it works great:

"I do," she said, and only then allowed herself to wonder what she'd done.

Always Start with a Hook

No, I'm not telling you to give your stories dull beginnings. You must give your stories interesting beginnings that lure the readers into wanting to find out what happens next. The first line is vital, and the first page is extremely important as well.

If you read enough writing books, you will get the impression that every story must start with a line like "Suddenly a shot rang out." (Shades of Snoopy!) Or "The creatures sound like leaves scraping against the sidewalk." When it's done well, a good hook will make readers want to know more -- like the beginning of the Edith Layton novel in the section above.

If you can write a hook, great. But if you can't, don't despair. You can make the beginning interesting without relying on a snappy hook. You can even start with a description or the weather (oh the horror), if that's what best suits that story.

Hooks aren't perfect. Sometimes, the "hook" is obviously contrived, a witty line the author came up with because she knew this was the first line of the novel. Even worse, there are times when the hook is unsuited to the story. No matter how interesting the hook is, don't use it if it doesn't fit the story. Readers might feel cheated. Even worse, the editor will feel cheated, and readers might never get a chance to find out that the rest of your book is great.

Never Include Dream Scenes, They're the Sign of a Rank Amateur

I know, I know, dream scenes often do suck. They can be the sign of a rank amateur -- I know this because I often used them in those stories I wrote in high school. For example, I wrote a suspense novel about a young man who tried to kill the father he never met, a famous author, and I kept including dream scenes where he dreamt of trying to shoot his father and failing. By the end of those scenes, the boy wasn't the only one sleeping.

The mistake I made in that novel was putting nothing new in the dream scenes. The whole story was about this boy trying to kill his father and failing, and the dreams showed him... trying to kill his father and failing. They didn't give the reader any new insight on him.

Dream sequences don't have to be a waste of paper. As is true in real life, a character's dreams can tell us more about the character -- or that the character should cut down on the spicy foods before bedtime. Use them sparingly -- but don't give up on them completely. However, if you ever end a story with the so-called surprise revelation "It was only a dream," I will personally show up in your dreams and throw Nerf balls at you.

Never Use Flashbacks

Flashbacks are a major challenge. They can disrupt the flow of the story. They can put the writer to sleep. The transition from the "present day" of the story to the flashback and back again is always a bear.

However, telling writers they should "never use flashbacks" is like telling painters they should never use perspective because it's so hard to learn to do at first. Flashbacks are sometimes necessary to tell the story. Make them exciting, and readers will be sucked in before they realized they are in a flashback.

Late last year, I read Richard North Patterson's legal thriller Silent Witness. Shortly after the beginning, the book went into a very lengthy, but very crucial, flashback about the murder of the hero's childhood sweetheart and how he coped. The flashback went on for nearly 100 pages, and there was even a flashback within this flashback. But you know what? I couldn't put the darn thing down. I wanted to know what happened to the hero and his friends, so I kept reading. That doesn't mean every writer can get away with a 100-page flashback at the beginning of their novel. Most can't. Patterson himself was already an established writer before he attempted this.

Never Include Scenes Where the Character Looks in the Mirror

Many experts warn against falling back on scenes where writers sneak in description by having their character look at herself in the mirror. They are right that you should generally avoid this. (For more information, see Fundamentals of Fiction: Avoid Those Beginners' Blunders, by Marg Gilks.)

However, some people take this advice to mean that you should never let your characters look in the mirror. Never mind that the scene isn't being used as a sneaky way to describe the character. The scene has a mirror! So it must be the sign of a rank amateur. These overdone reactions remind me of a vampire in a movie I saw once -- whenever he saw a mirror, he would hiss and break it so that people couldn't tell he had no reflection.

Writing Rules Are Made To Be Broken

Now this is one rule I actually agree with. Don't get me wrong -- I don't believe in breaking the writing rules "just because." I don't even believe in breaking them most of the time. But keep in mind that most of the rules of writing are guidelines. Not edicts carved in stone. One of the most important aspects of learning to become a better writer is learning when to stomp all over those guidelines and do what you know is best for your story.

Find Out More...

Fundamentals of Fiction: Avoid Those Beginners' Blunders, by Marg Gilks

Copyright © 2004 Anne Marble
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Anne M. Marble has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.


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