Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rules? I Don't Need No Stinking Rules!

You know how they always say you have to know the rules before you can break them? Ha ha. I've pretty much got the "writer's rules" tattooed inside my eyelids. Yet as a reader, I can't help but notice that authors plunder the rules with impunity. Here are the ones I see broken most often ...

1. Dialogue tags.

"I'm not kidding about this one," I said seriously. "It seems like EVERY author in the world uses dialogue tags. But I can't even tell you how many times I've read editors and agents dumping on authors for using them. Figure it out, people! Yes or no!"

2. Passive voice.

Yeah. Right. Sure, you get rid of it where you can, but loads of books are still rife with passive voice. And these are often books that I like a great deal. They are frequently written by authors for whom I have the greatest respect.

3. Show don't tell.

I've had it up to my eyeballs with this one. How many books do I read that contain a paragraph blurb about every character at some point, pretty much telling us what we should think/feel about said character? OK. So Cormac McCarthy actually follows this rule. But almost no one else does ...

4. Don't shift POV.

This rule is so widely mocked and ridiculed, it needs therapy. And I'm not even talking about authors who write from multiple POVs. I'm talking about the dreaded "head hopping" or shifting briefly into omniscient POV to give away plot points that would otherwise be very difficult to get across.

5. Don't rely on coincidence.

And again, ha ha. Personally, I think it's just lazy plotting. If only my life had so many fortunate coincidences ...

I'm sure there are others, but these are just the obvious ones to hop to mind. The sad thing is, indoctrinated as I am, I'll still strive not to do any of this stuff as a writer, even while wallowing in it as a reader.


Amy Sue Nathan said...

Reading like a writer gives us a lot of insight. I'm reading a book right now, am on page 101, and I'm not sure anything has really happened yet. There's lots of stuff going on in the main character's head. Yet, it's interesting. I'm not captivated though - but hey, the author has published three or four novels and I have not. I think breaking rules might be the way to go.

Mark Terry said...

Having seen the latest Star Trek movie and enjoyed it immensely, I find it quite the coincidence that Kirk gets stranded on a freaking frozen moon and manages to run into old Spock while trying to escape a monster, and in an even larger stunning coincidence, finds Scotty working at the Federation station there--exactly the person possible who, with a little help from old Spock, could transport them onto a moving starship (without even knowing where the damned ship was).



Melanie Avila said...

These are great. I'm so tuned in to showing and not telling that I sometimes have to remind myself that a little telling is okay.

I avoid dialogue tags like the plague. :)

LurkerMonkey said...


I'm reading an MG book right now that inspired this post. It wasn't a huge book, but it was pubbed by Scholastic, so you'd think ... But, man, the coincidences! The head-hopping! The dialogue tags! I was starting to think maybe I'm just crazy.

LurkerMonkey said...


Possibly my favorite preposterous movie plot point ever: when Jeff Goldblum uses an Apple computer virus to disable an advanced alien star cruiser in Independence Day. Bwaa haa haa! I was laughing out loud throughout.

p.s. Why can movies get away with such crap?

LurkerMonkey said...


"I avoid dialogue tags like the plague," she said archly.


spyscribbler said...

Jon, it's not head-hopping. It's called toggling narrative distance. ;-)

I hate the telling. I was studying the Anita Blake series in depth, and the next chapter I wrote was all telling. Grr. But it seems to bring her success, LOL.

I'm most particular with it when it comes to emotions. If you have to tell the emotions to a reader, then you haven't elicited those sympathetic emotions from your reader. And if you have elicited them, the telling is redundant and risks killing the ones you've created. Just my opinion, and given the number of she felts I read, I must be in the minority on that one.

Jude Hardin said...

To me, writing is best when it's invisible. There aren't really any "rules," of course, but writing that calls attention to itself with head hopping, adverbial dialogue tags, huge coincidences, etc., tends to take me out of the story. I know I've read a good book when I remember the story and not the writing.

Eric said...

I'm still struggling with most of these from time to time, but then again, I'm new to it anyway. Nice post though.

LurkerMonkey said...


Toggling narrative distance rules!

LurkerMonkey said...


That's the funny thing for me. I totally agree that good writing is invisible, but a lot of times, I'm not pulled out of a story by these kinds of things. I am, however, pulled out by run-on sentences and overly long descriptions, etc. But in some cases, I even find dialogue tags to be helpful. There. I admitted it.

LurkerMonkey said...


Yeah ... I still struggle with some of these, too. And honestly, others I've just decided I'm going to break the rule if I want.

Erica Orloff said...

I'm with you on overly long descriptions . . . that's a sure thing to have me jump to the next paragraph.


Melanie Avila said...

Jon, lol!

Spy, emotions are where I really try to make sure I'm showing. That and when my MC is in "pain." I apparently used that word A LOT instead of describing the pain. That's one of my top things I'm watching for on this pass-through.