I like rules.
Rules exist to keep chaos at bay. Personally, I don’t like chaos. But sometimes my naughty side comes out to play, and I find my toes dipped in dangerous waters. Funny enough, the exhilarating change of pace can make way for amazing possibilities.
Take writing for example. There seem to be an infinite number of rules. Any direction you turn, you find different advice on how to be a better writer. But what happens if you break them? What happens if you let your naughty side take over?
Sometimes? Amazing things!
In fact, part of being a great writer is knowing when and how to break the rules. Don’t worry; it’s not a requirement, but keep in mind that some moments in our novels could use a little rebellion.
Here are three solid rules, that are okay to break:
Rule #3 — Avoid “telling”:
Show vs. tell, is a top rule in writing. They say you should never tell what’s happening. And sure, when a writer knows how to “show” it can make for powerful writing. Having a reader lost in the imagery and feeling you’re conveying with your words is priceless.
But what if you get carried away in purple prose? What happens when those details become too much? Believe it or not, there’s such a thing as too much description. I’ve read books that made me forget the plot. I could tell you, however, how amazingly romantic I felt when reading about that garden exploding with violet and pink roses. The melodious sound of birds chirping, and the tune of the smooth cascades flowing through the amethyst cupid in the water fountain. All of which intensifies the perfume emanating from the . . . oh, sorry! Did I lose you?
If you go overboard with showing, you can drown your readers in unnecessary words. There’s a balance. You can and should tell some things. Don’t focus on the little details, just keep the story moving and don’t forget to use the five senses.
Rule #2 — Never use adverbs:
Advising writers to cut all adverbs is like advising a string quartet to get rid of the cellist. I’m not sure about you, but I’m not a fan of shooting myself in the foot. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not in love with adverbs, but I’m not handicapping my writing willingly.
Adverbs are an indispensable part of speech, and they aren’t just words that end in “-ly”. Other words like “tomorrow,” “sideways,” “fast” or any other word that modifies a verb’s time, place, or manner is an adverb. As far as the “-ly” ones, you can master the right way to use them with practice, but whenever you can cut them, please do. Saying, “She smiled happily” is redundant.
That being said, it does have its place. An adverb used in the right context can be seductively bewitching.
Rule #1 — Write what you know:
This is understandable advice. Some of the best work ever written have followed this rule. Personal experience allows us to portray exactly how we felt in any given situation. But imagine if J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and any other beloved author wrote JUST what they knew. There would be no supernatural, fantasy, or even incredible sci-fi books out there. And if I wanted to write an erotica novel—what would that mean for me?
All fiction writers reach the point where they have to write what they DON’T know. And they pull this off through research. Writers are explorers, after all, so it can be second nature to most. But staying grounded by what you do know is key. If you combine both strands and speak with authority, you can create realistic out-of-this-world adventures.
Extraordinary things happen when you ask that “what if” question, and step out of your comfort zone.
So there you have it! Rules are meant to be broken (once you understand them). So go ahead and take a chance if you’re feeling a little rebellious. 😉
S. Katherine Anthony