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There are many rules to writing, but some I consider more like guidelines. (Like pirate rules) I’ve been working on this list of guidelines for a while now. I combined several other people’s lists and added a few of my own. (Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, and 10 Storytelling Clichés to Stop Using are two of the most popular lists out there.)
1. Prologues, flashbacks, and dreams (oh my!)
Prologues, flashbacks, and dreams distract from the story. They can be confusing and boring, so unless they’re relevant to the story, skip them. Prologues– When a reader picks up our book, we want to hook them, not make them wonder what the prologue has to do with anything. Flashbacks– When using flashbacks, the reader has to know when a flashback is taking place, and when it is. As writers, we know everything about our characters, but the reader doesn’t have to know everything we do. Dreams– The dream scare has been overused in popular media, so no one is falling for it. To show a character’s fears it’s better to go with a real life example than a dream.
2. Take your reader out of the story
Said is ingrained in readers, we ignore it, so every time an author uses a word instead of said, (or asked), or uses a adverb to modify said it makes the reader realize they’re reading. Another example is having your characters break the fourth wall (they know they’re in a book).
3. Broadcasting an upcoming plot twist
If something dramatic is going to happen, don’t warn the readers ahead of time, then it isn’t a surprise anymore. (Words like suddenly actually have the opposite effect.) Giving your heroes a deadline is a good way to add tension, but everyone knows that somehow the hero isn’t going to save the day until the last possible second.
4. Regional dialect and accents
Regional dialect or accents sound like a good idea to add flavor to a story, but if the reader doesn’t understand what the character is saying, or has to figure it out, then it doesn’t read smoothly.
5. Overly detailed descriptions of characters, places, and things
As writers, we want to describe everything in absolute detail, so the reader feels like they are there and can picture our characters, but as a reader I usually zone out during long descriptions, they’re boring. Give enough details, but let the reader fill in the blanks themselves.
6. Cut out or summarize the boring parts (traveling and everyday activities)
The reader doesn’t have to know every time your character eats, sleeps, or changes clothes. It’s even more important for the beginning. Don’t open with the weather or getting dressed. Catch the reader in the first sentence. (It’s called a hook for a reason.)
7. Inside jokes and references
If your readers have to watch a certain movie or read another book to get all the inside jokes, then they don’t work. Limit these to one or two per book and have them subtle, so those who don’t get it don’t know they’re missing anything.
8. The chosen one
The hero foretold by prophecy to save the world is a cool storyline, but the problem is it’s been done, and done. If a hero saves the world because they were always supposed to, then their achievement doesn’t mean as much and it isn’t as suspenseful. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with prophecy, but it has to be done well.
9. Love at first sight
Disney has ruined love at first sight. Now readers want to understand why these characters are in love beyond the initial attraction. We want to know why they love each other and watch their relationship develop.
10. Bad guy had a tough life
Writers want to show how the bad guy became evil, but a rough life isn’t reason enough. It might be a contributing factor, but we have to show their motivation too. Why are they doing what they are?
Diversity in books is sometimes hard, but in fantasy, the native helper or noble savage is getting old. If an author wants to show more races, they need to be added more creatively than that. It’s the same when creating another race, there’s no reason to describe them exactly like the Chinese, but call them something else. (Some authors do this for animals too, describe a dog, but call it a plat or whatever.)
12. Unrealistic injuries
Humans are surprisingly frail creatures. If your character is a normal human, they need to have all the strengths and weaknesses of a human. They can’t survive multiple gunshots and sword stabs. Knocking a character unconscious is a good way to get them somewhere else mysteriously, but they’d probably need a hospital for the concussion.
13. Best friend saves the day
The hero needs to be the hero in the end. They can’t be saved by someone else. (Unless it is obvious your narrator isn’t the hero, like Sherlock’s Watson.)
14. One dimensional characters
The good guy is always nice, always happy, and the bad guy is always mean. The woman warrior is always touch and not at all girly. Cut out people feel like characters not people. Real people are complicated and messy with depth and conflicting emotions. These cut out people only represent one side of a person, but we all have more than one face.
15. Static characters
Just like characters have to be complex, they should change after they go through an experience. (Not always for the better) A happy go lucky joking goofball wouldn’t still be all happy if one of his parents dies tragically. We are changed by our experiences and the people we meet. Little kids grow up and mature. Characters need to grow too.
I call them guidelines for a reason, and next week I’ll show examples of when it’s okay to break the rules. I tried to include all that I could think of. Please let me know if you can think of something important that I missed.
What do you think is the most important rule not to break?
Mine would have to be flat characters. The characters make the story and if I don’t care about them, then I don’t care about what happens to them.