Be a Rebel…Break the Rules – by Alicia Dean

I have received a number of submissions over the years where the authors tried very hard to follow the ‘rules of writing.’ They tried so hard, in fact, that their stories were stiff and poorly written. I’m guessing it was the work of well meaning critique partners and overzealous contest judges. Don’t get me wrong, having input on your manuscript can be beneficial. All comments and suggestions should be considered, but if they don’t improve your writing, ignore them.

Some of the rules that actually shouldn’t be rules are…

1)      Do not use ‘was,’ especially ‘was + ing’  (sometimes, they just work)

2)      Be descriptive (to a degree, but readers don’t need every little detail)

3)      Show don’t tell (this is a good rule, but shouldn’t always be followed)

4)      Do not end a sentence in a preposition (Sometimes, you just gotta)

5)      Do not use adverbs (use them sparingly, but adverbs can be your friend)

6)      Do not use fragments (Sometimes, they add emphasis)

If I followed all these rules, I might write something like this:

I drove down the street when a figure shot across the road in front of me.  I slammed on the brakes and shoved the silver gearshift with the black vinyl knob into park, then opened my car door and climbed out.   I scanned the sidewalk. The only people in sight were a couple standing outside a convenience store.

The woman shouted, “This is it. You’ve cheated on me for the last time.”

“It was nothing. You’ve got it all wrong,” the man said.

“Yeah, right.” The woman clenched her fists at her sides. “Don’t lie to me! I’m sick and tired of all the lies.”

Whoever had run in front of me was nowhere in sight. To where did he disappear?

The roar of a motor caught my attention. I whirled. A man was behind the wheel of my car, driving away. I stumbled after him and fell to the sidewalk, scraping my knees on the concrete. Pain radiated up to my chest, and tears sprang to my eyes. I rose to my feet. I was screwed. I was totally screwed.

Here is the same passage where those rules are ignored:

I was driving down the street when a figure shot across the road in front of me.  I slammed on the brakes and shoved the gearshift into park, then opened my car door and climbed out.  I scanned the sidewalk. The only people in sight were a couple arguing outside a convenience store.

Whoever had run in front of me was nowhere in sight. Where did he disappear to?

The roar of a motor caught my attention. I whirled. A man was behind the wheel of my car, driving away. I stumbled after him and fell to the sidewalk, scraping my knees on the concrete. Pain radiated up to my chest, and tears sprang to my eyes. I gingerly rose to my feet. I was screwed. Totally screwed.

This is not a great scene, for many reasons, but it serves the purpose of providing examples of the rules that shouldn’t necessarily be followed. Below I’ve pointed out where the first passage went wrong.

I drove (This sounds like something that has already happened instead of an action that is happening now) down the street when a figure shot across the road in front of me.  I slammed on the brakes and shoved the silver gearshift with the black vinyl (We don’t care what the gear shift looks like) knob into park, then opened my car door and climbed out. I scanned the sidewalk. The only people in sight were a couple standing outside a convenience store.

The woman shouted, “This is it. You’ve cheated on me for the last time.”

“It was nothing. You’ve got it all wrong,” the man said.

“Yeah, right.” The woman clenched her fists at her sides. “Don’t lie to me! I’m sick and tired of all the lies.”  (You don’t need to ‘show’ the argument, just tell us they were arguing. In this case, inserting the argument only clutters the scene and moves the focus away from where it should be.)

Whoever had run in front of me was nowhere in sight. To where did he disappear? (This sounds unnatural until you put ‘to’ at the end)

The roar of a motor caught my attention. I whirled. A man was behind the wheel of my car, driving away. I stumbled after him and fell to the sidewalk, scraping my knees on the concrete. Pain radiated up to my chest, and tears sprang to my eyes. I rose (gingerly indicates caution due to the pain) to my feet. I was screwed. I was totally screwed. (“I was” sounds repetitious and doesn’t have the same emphasis as simply ‘Totally screwed’)

The secret is to write your story to where it sounds natural and vivid. Read it aloud, listen to the rhythm, and if breaking rules makes it sound better, then by all means, break them.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Be a Rebel…Break the Rules – by Alicia Dean

  1. Good post, Alicia. When I was a new writer, I did the same thing myself. Eventually, you figure out what rules need to be bent, and which ones thrown out the window.

  2. Good post. Now I’m running my opening and some of my chapters over and over again in my head and thinking, “I’m screwed. Totally screwed!”

    • Hahaha, Jess. Well, at least that flowed and didn’t sound repetitious. As the editor for your short story, I’ll try to catch those passages where you’re totally screwed, if there are any. 🙂

  3. Liz T.

    Enjoyed the post. Thanks for the advice!

  4. Nice post, Alicia. Not the best example? Maybe not, but it served the purpose IMO. One thing I find in writers new and multi-published is not keeping action ‘in the moment’ so it doesn’t read passively. That’s the first thing I watch for when editing my own writing–and, still, usually the first thing my cps catch! lol

  5. I love the example, especially “To where did he disappear?” Cracks me up every time I read it!

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