The Rules of Fiction: Follow, Break, or Write ‘Em Your Damn Self?

Remember The Rules?  It was a really popular relationship book giving advice like “never call a man first,” “don’t accept a date for Saturday after Wednesday,” and other things that made perfect sense to some and seemed like a fifties throwback to others. I have no personal experience with The Rules, as I was invested in the Tireless Pursuit of Douchebags Method at the time, but I know there were many who found love by following them—or so claimed the self-help franchise, anyway.

Finding love and writing fiction are two of the most personal activities out there, so claiming there are rules to either one is bound to create as much controversy. Like any personal endeavor, what works for some may not for others, and vice versa. Are writing rules like love and you’ll just know when they feel right? Will you succeed in publishing by the hand of fate? God, I hope not. I’m working too damn hard for that!  But how do you know which rules to follow and which ones to break? This is the first entry in a series detailing the possibilities and pitfalls of rule-breaking in writing. For today’s introduction, I’ve broken them down into groups.

Group 1: Grammar, Syntax, and Overall Mechanics of Writing

Ignoring these and expecting to get “the call” from an editor or agent is like expecting the natural progression of a 3 am text to include a romantic brunch with engagement ring popped into the mimosa. To/too, misplaced apostrophes, and missing commas aren’t just topics of internet snark, they’re code for “not ready to submit.”  But what if you think grammar and punctuation are for sheep? You, however, are the next Jack Kerouac, or James Joyce reincarnated. You are an artist. You have a concept. If that’s how you feel,  it’s best to also show how unique you are by hand writing your query letter on scented paper—and don’t forget to add a spoonful of glitter before sealing that baby up! Let me know how it goes.

Group 2: Craft

I’d put these in the category of Proceed With Caution—successfully breaking these rules equates to finding a long-term relationship at a frat party. It’s been done before, but it’s not advisable for rookies. POV is a big one here. One writer’s idea of multiple characters’ perspectives might be an editor’s idea of head-hopping, or just downright confusing to a reader. Dialogue is here too. To tag or not to tag, adverbs, and dialect are all shaky ground for newbies. In other words, “Yuh gotta know whatcha doin’ or yuh’ll have a big ole’ rehd hawt mess, y’all!” Sydney exclaimed heartily.

Group 3: Story Structure and Genre

This, in my opinion, is a serious no-no. This is the writing equivalent of cheating on your spouse—not cool, dude. Not cool. If your story has no climax, or satisfying resolution to the major plot thread (even in a long-term series, some major plot point should be resolved at the end of each book), it’s not a story, it’s journaling. I’ve been guilty of this myself (the writing part, not the cheating part, just to clarify a bit). Another aspect is the expectations of the genre. If you’re violating those expectations, you’re cheating on your reader. Imagine paying nine dollars to go see the latest blockbuster movie, and Bruce Willis or Denzel Washington is racing toward the nuclear warhead with the timer ticking down to seconds and as he’s fighting the bad guys, the clock flashes three, two, one and then big explosion and fade to black…. Yeah, probably a lot of shit’s going to get hurled at the screen.

Group 4: The Tropes

Everyone finds love differently—and hopefully, we enjoy the journey! I like to think these are the rules that are meant to be broken, or at least played with. Otherwise, we’d all be reading and writing the same stories over and over again. A romance where the virginal heroine is taught the ways of love by the hero who’s been around the block so many times he’s worn a groove into the sidewalk? How about writing it the other way around? I’d read it. The tropes are there because they work, but play them too straight and you’ll have a boring story full of clichés at worst, or something that feels done before, at best.


Of course, following all of these rules is no guarantee of success. We all could probably come up with a bestseller or two that break every single one of them–the literary equivalent of screwing a stranger in a bathroom stall at a Nickelback concert and finding a soul mate in the process, if you’re keeping track of the relationship references. There’s no surefire recipe to publication any more than there is to finding love, but we put so much of ourselves into our writing, so why settle? Go in with open eyes and work at it to create the story that is the one—that will land you the agent, the editor, and the readers of your dreams!


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