3 “Rules” for Fiction Writers that May Lead You Astray — and What to Do Instead

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Some “rules” for fiction writers are so well respected they’re treated as scripture, and writers are warned to ignore them at their peril. But trying to strictly adhere to them misleads many writers, especially novice writers. Here are three “rules” we’ve all been taught that we should treat with caution — but also use to our advantage.

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photo by Sandis Helvigs

1. Write What You Know: This pearl of wisdom is strewn more liberally than beads at Mardi Gras. Is this good advice? Maybe, but don’t let it hold you back from delving into what you want to write about, and don’t let it stifle your imagination.

If all writers took this advice too seriously, we’d have no science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction. Writers would only portray one kind of character, in one culture, living one life.

Authors can write effectively about experiences alien to their own, in part, because we possess the gift of empathy, which novelist Gail Godwin once defined as “respectful imagination.” We can put ourselves in another person’s shoes — in another culture, another time, or another planet — and feel their joys and struggles. We can immerse ourselves in our characters’ lives and feel — emotionally and viscerally — what it’s like to be in their skin.

Should you write what you know? Absolutely. You have experiences and memories that will enrich your writing, regardless of the characters, setting, and genre you choose. You probably know what it’s like to fall in love and to feel passion — for a person, a professional endeavor or hobby, or a cause. You may know what it’s like to be betrayed, have your heart broken, and grieve the death of a loved one. All these experiences help you create characters and experiences that are vivid, rich, and believable. You may not have faced a mage in battle, but you’ve faced overwhelming challenges and felt fear. You may not have mourned loved ones lost in a pre-apocalyptic plague, but you know the debilitating pain of grief.

Your experiences also help you create vibrant settings, using vivid descriptive details that haven’t been overused to the point of being cliches. Everything you experience in the world around you — walking barefoot in cool, dewy grass on a summer morning, studying the night sky, wading through knee-deep snow — enriches the settings you create.

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photo by Anders Jilden

2. Show, Don’t Tell: Playwright and short story writer Anton Chekov famously said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” This is excellent advice, but it should be practiced in moderation.

All fiction is essentially a combination of scenes and summary. A scene plays out in real time — we experience the setting, hear the dialogue, and see the action. Often it includes descriptive details appealing to all four senses. Instead of telling readers about a walk in the forest on a bitterly cold winter morning, we let them see the sunlight glistening on icicles, hear the crunch of snow under the character’s feet, smell the scent of pine trees, and feel the burning sensation of inhaling frigid air. We don’t tell readers that a battle was fought — we let them watch it, blow by blow, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the battlefield. This is showing not telling. A summary, on the other hand, takes us from one place to another. “They spent the next five weeks hunkered down at the encampment…”

Including scenes is important — a story that’s mostly summary would be cold and detached, not letting readers into your world or your character’s experiences. But a story overloaded with scenes would move at a snail’s pace. The trick is finding the right balance.

Also, authors who’ve been inundated with this advice sometimes get off track. They find themselves saying “water poured from the sky” to avoid telling readers it’s raining, which leads to overwriting. Sometimes it’s OK just to tell readers what they need to know. Choose your scenes carefully and develop them vibrantly and imaginatively, giving your reader the experience of I feel like I’m there, and I don’t want to put this book down!

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3. Vary Word Choices: Without a doubt, using the same words repeatedly tends to sound redundant. When writers rely too heavily on “crutch” words, it’s also a missed opportunity to exploit the rich array of nuances that language provides. Warm is a perfectly serviceable word that conveys its meaning. But tepid describes something weak and lifeless, while balmy conjures a soft, sensuous moonlit night.

On the other hand, some readers worry too much about reusing the same words in a sentence or paragraph. A word should be chosen with careful attention to its exact meaning and connotation — is this the best word to fit this context? Overzealousness to find synonyms for a word, to avoid repetition, sometimes leads to odd lines like “she unhinged her eyes” or “the horned ungulate stood in the moonlight.”

Trust your ear. Read your work to yourself — preferably aloud — and listen to the rhythm of the language and the sound of your words. If something in your writing strikes you as repetitive, change it — these changes revisions will probably improve your writing. Substitute a synonym, but only if it really fits. And don’t be afraid to use a character’s name repetitively in the passage. Many writers try to avoid overusing a character’s name by substituting other monikers: “the large man,” “the aging colonel,” “the gray-haired behemoth.” This is likely to be awkward and confuse readers.

As with anything, take any advice (including this article) with a grain of salt. Glean what you can from it — most of these “rules” contain kernels of useful insights — but don’t be confined by them. Learn to trust your own ear for language as you continue to grow as a writer and your style continues to blossom.

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