Absolute Rules and When to Break Them

I have what is either a profound advantage or a disadvantage over successful writers. No one ever taught me how to write.

That is, I have never taken a writing class, unless you count high school English. Now, granted, most would consider that to be a distinct disadvantage. Any writer with half a grain of integrity would stop writing – immediately – and get a writing degree, take a class, or a workshop. My God man, at least buy a good writing guide.

Well, I did do some of those. I took a writing class and a poetry class. I quit both. Not surprisingly, except to me, they were not teaching me how to write. Instead, they were teaching me how others have written.

You see, one cannot teach the future. Instead, experts do one of two things: they either tell you what other successful people have done, or they tell you what they have done (irrespective of whether you would consider them to be successful.)

Now I would be the first one to admit that having a strong framework of fundamentals is important to anyone wishing to develop a craft. With writing, there are tools that all writers need: good grammar, knowing how to craft a cohesive story, being able to identify non-essential elements (or words) and remove them, etc. However, I have been amused at how many Absolute Rules there are for writers. Having been a photographer before I was a writer, I saw the same phenomena as I do here. There are “purists” who “know” how to do things the “right way” and admonish anyone deviating from their perfect norm.

But see, there’s the rub: I don’t want to write like anyone else. I am not trying to write for readers in the past. Hell, at my age, I’m not even trying to write for the present. What about those of us who are trying to leave a legacy? What of the writers who hope to have future readers discover their work and fall in love?

Will Absolute Rules developed in 1937 play in 2089? Nope. In fact, I would go so far as to say Hell to the Naw.

No one ever became successful by breaking the rules. Right?

Okay, so then what about the rules? Instead of Absolute Rules, let’s say we consider them General Guidelines.

Let’s take, for example, the ten rules developed by the illustrious Elmore Leonard, author and screenwriter. Mr. Leonard’s rules are as follows:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
  5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6.  Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Sounds like pretty good advice, no? And, in fact, I do agree – generally. However, what if I were to tell you that another Rule of writing is to use good grammar? And then, what if I told you that Mr. Leonard was famous for … adapting, shall we say, grammar rules to his liking? Yes, the man Stephen King once called “the great American writer” has been known to violate grammatical rules just to make the read quicker.

Know who else did that? Suzanne Collins with the Hunger Games. I have never seen a book with more sentence fragments. But it did help readers zoom through the book’s staccato pacing.

So, rules are meant to be broken, if you are skilled enough to know when, and how, to break them. Let’s look again at Mr. Leonard’s rules.

  1. Never open a book with weather.  Okay, it was a dark and stormy night. Who cares? I agree – here, the rule isn’t about weather. It is about opening a story with unimportant details. Here, we can substitute his broader rule, and simply say, if the detail is not important to the story, ask yourself if you need it. Breaking the rule: If people like the details, who cares if the story slows a little? Perhaps a quickening and slowing pace is interesting. Ever heard of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Talk about details. 65,000,000 sold. Yep.
  1. Avoid prologues. I agree. That doesn’t mean you should never do them. However, you need a reason to add one. The fact that it seems cool, is not a good reason. Breaking the rule: Use if you have a backstory that you cannot resist telling, and it doesn’t fit into the story. An alternative is to start your story in the middle, grab the reader, and reveal the backstory in bits. Better, I think.
  1.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Good advice, for the most part. This rule should be used when you are trying to write crisp dialogue, and pacing is the key. Here, Mr. Leonard is advocating having the narrator stay as invisible as possible. The idea is to allow the language to tell the story, and not have a third party relaying the dialogue. Breaking the rule: Sometimes, the dialogue is part of a larger scene. In this case, speeding the reader through the conversation is not necessarily as important. “Shush,” she whispered. When you do deviate from said, do so because you want to be visible, and you are trying to tell the reader something important. Then use simple language.
  1.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. Yeah, well, adverbs suck. Kill them. Breaking the rule: Please don’t, unless there is a real emotional context you want to convey, without spending a lot of words. There are better ways of doing so, however. For example, “You’re an idiot,” she said, smiling. We describe an action, a visual, not an imprecise descriptor.
  1.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. Who says? What if you have a character who is overly excitable? Throw this rule in the bin. Just make sure you don’t end up looking like a comic book. All the unneeded emotion will wear your reader out. Besides, exclamation marks are like shouting. People don’t shout all the time in real life.
  1.  Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” Let’s make this more general: never use hackneyed expressions, unneeded adverbs, or elaborate language when simple, clear language is available. The real problem with “suddenly” is that it is like the word “very.” Easy to write, but it doesn’t really add anything. For the most part, if you take the word out, the sentence doesn’t change. Breaking the rule: What if something did happen suddenly? I’ve used it when I didn’t want to waste three extra words when boring old suddenly fit. Use like medicine – sparingly, or all hell will break loose with your editor.
  1.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Our guest blogger, Wayne Zurl, wrote about this in detail. I will encourage readers to join that debate elsewhere on this blog.
  1.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Bite me. Sorry, that slipped out. This rule is stupid. Some readers hate descriptors. Other readers will tell you that they can’t visualize the character unless you tell them who they are.  Breaking the rule: If it’s relevant, break the rule. I describe my main characters in detail, because I want you to know what they look like as the story progresses. It is often an important detail. A better rule is one we’ve already said: don’t add ANY unimportant descriptors. Do not spend 4 paragraphs describing a character who will live for two paragraphs afterward. Don’t tell me everything that is in a room, unless there is a test later. Just describe what the reader will need to know for the story. Take the rest out during editing – your story will flow that much better.
  1.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Again, unless those details are important. And, to be clear, they aren’t important just because that’s where the character is. In the Stream, the story takes place in eastern Virginia, yet I never really describe eastern Virginia. Know why? All the cool stuff happens in the dream world. I describe the fuck out of the dream world. Breaking the rule:  If you have to do world building, it kind of seems silly not to share that with readers.
  1.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Would those be current readers, or future readers? Leave out the bits that don’t help your story. You have NO WAY of knowing what people skip. My best friend skips all the descriptions to get to the dialog. Another close friend skips dialog to get to the descriptors. Readers come in all varieties. I, being a poet, tend to take a poet’s viewpoint – if you can take it out, and not alter the piece, do so. It’s extra.

Just tell a good story, and take out the crap, if you can find it.

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8 Replies to “Absolute Rules and When to Break Them”

  1. Number 4 made me laugh out loud – don’t we generally try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip? Who adds those parts?

    I tend to love prologues – *sigh*

    It’s funny – I never took a poetry class because I was aghast that there would be rules to expressing my inner-self. However I do try to conform myself to the writing rules – thank you for putting them into perspective.

    1. I think a better overarching rule is if you write it well, they will read it well. Rules, regarding anything, tend to stop applying the more skillful you get. It’s like basketball: coaches will tell you not to take a certain shot – knees up, off-balance, awkward positioning. However, Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks takes these shots all the time. Why? Because he hits them. If you hit the “mark” no one will notice which rules you ignored to get there.

  2. George Orwell opened Nineteen Eighty-Four with “a bright cold day in April”. But then he added his immortal caveat.

  3. And the one who started it all….

    It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. – Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

  4. Someone told me that it was important to know all the ‘rules’ and why they are here so you know when to break them. I love description and while I do need to thin mine out in the editing stage- I leave a lot of it in. One of the things I love about self-pubbing is we get to write and read books that don;t fall into today’s ‘rules’

    1. My issue is with absolute writing rules, as if there is such a thing as an absolute reader. The key is developing skill, and being unique, which one cannot due without taking risks.

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