When it comes to fiction writing, rules abound.
Some of us can recite them in our sleep.
Use exclamation points sparingly.
The only acceptable dialogue tags are said and asked.
Rigid adherence to rules is one of Twelve Troublemakers that plague me as a writer. I’m exploring one a week. This is the seventh in the series.
A rules fixation can stifle the joy of creation.
Think back to the days when you crafted your first story. Many of us experienced the thrill of discovery as we plopped words on the page. Because we knew little about the writing craft, we were free to create the stories of our hearts.
Over time, we learned the various elements every good story needs. As a result of our ongoing study, we became aware of a long list of writing rules that rivaled the I.R.S. code.
While knowing the rules can serve us, rigid adherence to them can squelch our creativity and squeeze the life out of our stories. It’s important to keep the rules in perspective.
Redefine the Rules.
Rules, according to Merriam-Webster, are “a prescribed guide for conduct or action.” They’re set, fixed, and apply in all situations.
Think of a sports team or grammar. If a baseball player swings at a pitch and misses, it’s a strike. A sentence begins with a capital. Those are the rules.
In creative writing, however, we have leeway. A paragraph can contain a single word. An occasional fragment is perfectly acceptable. The grammar police won’t knock on our doors if we begin a sentence with a conjunction or end one with a preposition.
Grammar isn’t the only area covered by rules. There are many craft-related rules, too, such as those at the beginning of this post. However, I’m sure we could find plenty of examples where published authors used an adverb, exclamation points, or dialogue tags other than “said” or “asked.” Clearly, writerly rules aren’t as rigid as one might think.
Here’s a thought that can bring a rules obsessed writer relief. Instead of referring to the guiding principles as rules, . . .
Use the Term Generally Accepted Guidelines.
A guideline, says the online dictionary in my Word program, is “a general rule, principle, or piece of advice.” Even though “rule” is used in the definition, the modifier “general” in front of it introduces the element of choice, which is inherent in the word “advice” as well.
I realize this is a matter of semantics, but we’re writers. We’re all about making wise word choices that most clearly convey meaning, right? So, why use the word “rules” with its rigidity when the word “guidelines” is available and more accurate?
See how that subtle change offers relief?
While the guidelines are in place for a reason, knowing our manuscript won’t be rejected if a character “squeaks” a line of dialogue or addresses another character in a “sickeningly sweet tone” can relieve the minds of the rules obsessed. (The examples quoted are from the manuscript my agent sold, proving that there’s hope for even those as hung up on rules as I tend to be. :-))
In my next post, I’ll talk about the reasons for the guidelines and how to best use them.
Your Thoughts . . . and a Drawing
Have you been overwhelmed by the sheer number of “rules” at times?
Do you find the use of the term “guidelines” more fitting than “rules?”
Are there certain guidelines you disagree with or have questions about?
One person who leaves a comment and answers one of these questions will win the raccoon pictured above. If you don’t have a use for this cute little Folkmanis finger puppet, you could always share it with a child or grandchild. Plus, I’ll add a surprise for you.
I’ll hold the drawing Sunday, March 27th and include the winner’s name in the post published the next day, when I’ll introduce the next of the Twelve Troublemakers.
Lil’ Stinker, the self-defeating skunk from last Monday’s post goes to Erin.