Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Indestructible Rules Of Writing

These are the rules you must never, never, never break when writing.

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?
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


27 comments:

Tyrean Martinson said...

I think 1, 2 and 4 work for me, but 3 is something I have to think about . . . I like my "good" characters to be honest . . .however sometimes they do hold their secrets close to their vests . . .good list!

Nicole Pyles said...

Is it overly American for me to say that without the car chases it would feel weird? (I'm kidding!) :)

One rule I try to follow as a genre writer is know the stereotypes of my genre. For fantasy there are a TON, so I know them, and try to avoid them. And I am better because of it!

Also, I avoid adverbs as much as possible!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Well, I screwed up number two a bit in my second book. Sorry.

Botanist said...

Car chases are made for the big screen rather than print. Oops...I just remembered, I have an air chase in my WIP. In my defense, I keep it brief and the focus is more on the MC's feelings and reactions than on the visuals of the chase.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sorry, thought I had your email, but here's a review of Cabin in the Woods that hints that the trailer gives away nothing - http://www.joblo.com/movie-news/review-the-cabin-in-the-woods

Mary Mary said...

All good rules except for the guns. We Americans have quite the gun culture and unless it's a shoot 'em, bang 'em up film they usually don't feel contrived. BTW, love the Moses pic at the beginning!

Diane Carlisle said...

Great post. But I like a good car chase if there is some character development revelation. How a character reacts in a high stakes scene can be pretty fulfilling.

Patricia Lynne said...

My only rule is to write. I can understand the no car chases in print. Just trying to figure it out, makes it seem boring to read.

Damyanti said...

Useful rules for all writers!

---Damyanti, Co-host A to Z Challenge April 2012


Twitter: @AprilA2Z
#atozchallenge

Sunny Smith said...

Haha, the last rule made me chuckle! All good rules to follow:)

mooderino said...

@Tyrean-I think you can make honesty work for you if it costs something to tell the truth.

@Nicole-genre tropes and cliches are many and varied. Definitely a good idea to know your subject.

@Alex-apology accepted.

@Botanist-I'm sure it will look great in the move version.

@Alex-I read the review, they don't really say that. In fact they say they're not willing to give away as much as the trailer.

@Mary-an American story without guns is probably quite the rarity.

@Diane-true, but the actual chase can feel very mechanical.

@Patricia-good rule.

@Damyanti-cheers.

@Sunny-thanks.

emmakerry said...

Useful rules. I totally agree with number 5. My main rule is to avoid adverbs as much as possible, and 'he said/she said'. (I'm guilty of both in my drafts.)

Bish Denham said...

They all work for me, including #5 because I write light-hearted MG, so... no need for guns and car chases.

Cherstin Holtzman said...

Wonderful post! It is always nice to see other people's rules. I'm guilty of the gun scene, however, but I'll just consider it now my "American duty."

;-)

Happy A to Z!

mooderino said...

@emma-i think the technical stuff like adverbs vary on a case be case basis. But certainly you shouldn't over-use them.

@Bish-glad someone agrees with me!

@Cherstin-well, it is in the constitution.

Heath Lowrance said...

Excellent as always, Mood. But regarding #2, well... some of the most dramatic stories I've read have been flat-out man-vs-nature type stuff-- the antagonist doesn't always have to be flesh-and-blood. Sometimes that bitch of a mountain or that horrendous blizzard works very well on its own, right? And sometimes it can even reveal the antagonist inside the heart of the protagonist.

As far as #5, well... here in the States, we gotta have our guns!

Emily said...

I like your rules. when i was reading them, i realized i follow by all of them anyway! i dont have rules to writing though. i like making my books as fun and unique as possible.

mooderino said...

@heath-definitely. but it's also the hardest way to write a story (for me anyway), expecially if the protagonist is on his own. takes a lot of skill to keep it interesting for more than a short story.

@emily-i find the more i give myself limitations, the more fun and creative it makes the process. that's just my approach though.

Annalisa Crawford said...

I like the idea of characters lying - I don't think I've used that as a device.

The only rule I seem to subconsciously apply is: don't write in a genre that'll be far too EASY to sell.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

My rule is to always learn. I try to keep in mind that my writing will always get better. This means that although I now have a published book, the second one should show growth in my writing. If I were not to learn from the first in some way, then I would not be growing as a writer.

Gail M Baugniet - Author said...

My favorite of your rules is to have at least one person trying to stop the protagonist from getting what he or she wants. In the mystery genre, the game would not be afoot if nothing stopped Sherlock.
http://gail-baugniet.blogspot.com Theme: A World of Crime

Nicole said...

I can get with all of the rules on this list except for the lying and car chases because, well....I like car chases when watching them at the movie theater and while I agree that lying is good for dramatic fare, I think that honesty can stir just as much emotion or encourage audience engagement, depending on how it is structured to be revealed within the story.

I'm all for characters wanting something. Otherwise, it's boring and why should we read it or watch it or listen to it, you know?!! -- even music contains at least one person who wants something -- Carrie Underwood wants to get revenge on her boyfriend in "Before He Cheats" and Michael Jackson wants his girlfriend back in the Jackson 5 tune "I Want You Back" -- both clearly WANT something! LOL

Cheers!

~Nicole
Blog: The Madlab Post
@MadlabPost on Twitter

mooderino said...

@Annlisa-lol, I should add that rule.

@Michael-always more to learn (which is quite annoying).

@Gail-helps keep things interesting.

@Nicole-I love car chases in movies too. It's in novels I think they're silly.

Selim Yeniçeri said...

I agree with all the rules of yours, but one. I'm aware that especially in novels it's hard to create the thrill of an action scene, but it also depends how it's written, just like how it's shot in the movies, because it's always great with car chases or gun fights in movies, either. I remember a scene from a book (I won't give the title, sorry) I translated, where the main character was trying to get away from the bad guys, driving his Fiat mini through an iron castle gate that sinks its metal teeth into the top of the car's cabin. He was driving through it, shredding the top. I questioned that scene, because I drive real good (I'm an amateur rally pilot), and I know quite a lot when it comes to the cars, so it appeared to me just as fantasy which based on no-facts. If it were an American muscle car, or some sports car with a huge engine, it might appear realistic (perhaps), but with such a mini car, well, c'mon! See what I mean? It all depends on what you're writing about, and how good you're at it. If you feel weak about some topic, yes, you shouldn't write about it just for the sake of being "commercial." So I can say I agree with you at half on this rule. :)

running4him said...

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mooderino said...

@selim-I think anything can be made to work, it's just that car chases don't for me.

@running-thanks!

J.L. Campbell said...

Useful rules. Your set up sounds good for conflict. Conversely, where I come from guns seem to be all the rage. They don't feature heavily in my writing, but some crime usually does happen. I'm a product of my environment, I think. I do agree though that we shouldn't glorify criminals in our writing.

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