OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
This is a guest post from author K.M. Weiland who has recently released instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.
You can’t end a sentence with a preposition!
You can’t use more than one modifier in a row!
You can’t use a whole paragraph to describe the weather!
You can’t use dialogue tags like “snickered” and “howled”!
If you’re a dedicated writer, you’ve probably already spent a hefty amount of time and money studying your craft. How-to books written by bestselling authors, magazine subscriptions, workshops, classes, software programs—we plunk down our money for them, trusting they will teach us the secrets to writing good fiction. We’re on a mission to learn how to follow “the rules” of writing, because once we’ve mastered them, we’ll be ace writers… right?
It’s far too easy to become obsessed with the need to put a little red check beside each and every rule. We stifle our creativity when we try to shackle it within the confines of ironclad conventionality. The whole idea that these rules are even Rules at all is a mistaken notion. Writing, as a form of art, is all about experimentation, innovation, and expansion. Within the confines of standard expectations, you can only expand so much. In truth, there is only one rule of writing: All rules are made to be broken.
The rules, as we know them, are really guidelines—techniques that have been proven to resonate with readers over many decades. The rules aren’t static; they’re always evolving and redefining what the world considers good literature. What was good in Aristotle’s day wasn’t good in Dickens’s, and what was good in Dickens’s wouldn’t be accepted today. All of art has to bear up under the strange dichotomy of both following set patterns and breaking those patterns. Writing is certainly no different.
As writers, it’s our responsibility to learn the rules—to study fiction we enjoy (and hate) and the techniques of authors we admire—and to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Ultimately, that’s the only “rule” that matters. If your sentence sounds better with a preposition on the end, why not write it that way? If that paragraph-long description of the weather is beautiful prose that advances the plot, don’t hesitate to include it. If a descriptive dialogue tag here and there brings clarity to your character’s and tone, there’s no reason not to use it.
None of this is to say that, as writers, we haven’t a responsibility to study our craft and apply established techniques to our stories. We can’t expect to flout conventions for no good reason and get away with it. To just throw up your hands and ignore the rules indiscriminately is stupid. To break a rule without knowing you’ve broken it is ignorance.
Before you can go around smashing (or even poking at) the esteemed foundations of literature, it’s true that you first have to understand those foundations. But the rules of fiction should never be a prison for our creativity. Instead, the rules should be a launch pad that shoots us off into the wild blue yonder, allowing us to stretch our artistic and creative skills to their limits.
Top Image: Flickr CC Ed.Ward