Just kidding. There aren’t any rules that can’t be broken when writing fiction. But these are the things I choose to abide by when I’m writing my stories. My personal rules. There’s absolutely no reason you need to follow any of them.
1. At least one person should want something specific.
This specific thing does not mean “to be happy” or “to be left in peace”. Don’t get me wrong, those sorts of nebulous ideals are fine, but within the story world you have to specify the characters approach to obtaining what he wants. So, “to be happy, he wants to go out with the pretty girl at work” or “to be left alone, he builds an electrified fence around his home”.
It’s what he does that defines his desire. And he may well be wrong. Going out with the pretty girl from work may not bring any happiness. But the reason you give the character a specific goal is because that’s how you learn about the character.
2. At least one other person should try to prevent them getting it.
Not society, not their own insecurities, not effort (as in “This mountain is very hard to climb”). An actual person. That person can represent a greater truth, but the concept of institutional racism is vague and intangible. A racist policeman is much easier to write dialogue for.
I realise the antagonist can be something inhuman, a pack of wolves, Hurricane Katrina, an inability to forgive etc. But if you don’t personify that opposition in some way, or have separate individuals messing with your MC as they face their fears, you’re going to have a very difficult time creating a sustained dramatic narrative. Not impossible, but really very difficult.
3. Characters should not say what they mean.
Lying to each other works wonders for drama. Sometimes the person lying may not even know they’re doing it. The more obvious to the reader that at least someone is lying the better. People who just speak the truth end up sounding like they’re being interviewed.
4. Every character should have specific reasons for what they say and do.
You don’t have to reveal these reasons. The characters may not be aware of their own true reasons. But you (the writer) have to know what those reasons are. You can start writing without knowing and hope the characters will speak to you and reveal their true motivations, but I read a lot of WIPs and the vast majority who choose that method end up with predictable and clichéd motivations. Or they left the reasons unspecified, which screams ‘couldn’t think of anything’.
5. No Guns, No Car Chases.
The guns thing is more to do with me being British and we don’t have a gun culture, so whenever guns make their way into our books and films it tends to feel fake and contrived. Not that we don’t have some guns in this country, but the kind of idiots who carry them do so thinking they’re cool, which I feel is an excellent reason not to write about them.
Car chases, on the other hand, just seem stupid in print.
Do you have personal rules to write by?
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