When we start looking into writing, be it for a hobby or for a new career, it's not uncommon to start looking into what the rules are. The dos and don'ts of the craft. What makes good writing good, and what flaws or creative decisions can take your story out of your reader's TBR stash and added to their DNF pile.
The thing is, not every writing rule is carved in stone.
Writers are rule-breakers, or rule-benders at the very least.
After all, we're the crowd known for changing and updating history, ruling over our characters with the power of a god or other deity capable of designing them and controlling their fates, creating entire worlds from scratch with nothing beyond the stroke of a pen or the taps of fingers on keyboards.
Every genre has its conventions, things that the reader expects from that particular kind of story. Some, like a happy ending in a romance, are non-negotiable. Others can be twisted.
In a fantasy work, you might see the princess saving the prince—and then choosing not to marry him because she's in love with the princess of a neighboring kingdom. The story may be set in Scotland during the 1600s is overall a typical historical fiction novel, apart from the clan of vampires overseeing everything. The lines between genres may be blurred, and you find yourself writing a science fiction work with a strong, slow-burning romance at its core, with your protagonists trying to keep two planets from going to war while keeping their feelings in check.
These changes may be for the better, as they can spice things up and keep the readers on their toes and at the edge of their seat.
Then, there are rules that are harder to manipulate. These can include punctuation, maintaining the same POV throughout (i.e., not starting a chapter in third-person and unexpectedly shifting to first-person midway through), and knowing the differences between words like Too, To, and Two. The publication process has its own rules like formatting standards and not sending your erotic novel to a literary agent who only represents biographies and memoirs.
But what are the rules you can absolutely break? That list is going to look different for every writer depending on their genre, the age category they write in, personal preference, and the boundaries of the story itself.
Some inclusions on mine might seem arbitrary or rules that should never be broken, but half the fun of writing is experimentation and going against the grain.
Few punctuation marks have found themselves at the center of as much debate as the Oxford Comma.
The Oxford Comma's main job is to lessen ambiguity. By separating each thing on a list, it prevents it all from becoming a jumbled mess, and it also better reflects typical speech patterns.
We had coffee, cinnamon rolls, and scones at the cafe.
Personally, I favor the Oxford Comma.
However, back in my college newspaper days, I ran into some trouble with my affinity for it. In journalism, the Oxford Comma is dropped.
The aforementioned example would be written as We had coffee, cinnamon rolls and scones at the cafe.
Some argue that the Oxford Comma gets in the way or disrupts the flow of the sentence.
However, that extra flick of the pen or tap on your keyboard allows for clarity and separation. It's the difference between
Thanks to my parents, Harrison Ford, and Julie Andrews (three individual parties).
Thanks to my parents, Harrison Ford and Julie Andrews (implying your parents are Harrison Ford and Julie Andrews).
As far as my writing is concerned, the Oxford Comma is here to stay.
This falls under the more arbitrary category.
When we were learning sentence structure circa third grade, our teachers drilled it into our heads that in order for a paragraph to be counted as such, it needed to consist of three sentences as a minimum and no more than five or six.
Part of this is good.
While there are going to times where you need to extend beyond five or six sentences to complete that thought and provide enough detail to support an idea in an essay or create an image that's clear enough for the reader to envision what is going on, you don't want to have a block of text that is too large. It can be draining to read or risk losing your audience's attention, and frankly a bulky, awkward mess to sort through rather than an enjoyable escape.
However, that minimum paragraph length is only so helpful and a rule I tend to break throughout my narration.
I might add in a mini paragraph between lines of dialogue, shifting the focus to something the speaker is looking at or interacting with. This can also create a brief aside for the reader to peek at that character's thoughts to see how they are reading a situation.
But I'll also use it to drive points home or bring more attention to a specific thing.
Leah's fist clenched at her side, her glare firming with each step Richard took from her. Thoughts whipped through her mind, indiscernible amid her frustration. How he could be so reckless, even when blinded by grief, was beyond her. Foolish and foolhardy as ever. He was bound to regret his decision for far longer than it would take to carry out this half-baked plan of his.
She had to go after him.
As its own fragmented paragraph, that final line can act as a transition for whatever is to come after Leah's realization she has to intervene in Richard's plans, as well as emphasizing her making a decision to do so after sorting through the "thoughts [whipping] through her mind"; it stands apart from the chaos.
I'll do stuff like this throughout my WIPs for various reasons, from raising and emphasizing stakes to directing the reader's focus to where I want it to be.
While this isn't something I could have necessarily have gotten away with when writing essays in school, it does have its purposes in the fiction I'm writing as an adult.
Along with the length of paragraphs, the length of sentences is also something I'll mess with in my WIPs—even if it means going against the rules.
It wasn't something I paid much attention to until I hit college and I was introduced to Gary Provost's This Sentence Has Five Words, which demonstrates how repetitive your writing can become if you don't vary your sentence lengths. This lesson really drew my attention to the clunkier areas of my writing and made me more aware of what to look out for even now.
But that doesn't mean I've kicked the habit altogether.
One of the reasons for varying your sentence lengths is to keep the rhythm flowing and changing, but there are times in writing where it makes sense to keep things short and sweet.
When you're writing a fight scene, for example, you might benefit from choppiness. Chances are your character won't have a chance to slow down and describe the tinier details, or any at all. Their thoughts are probably on the action that they're caught up in. Lengthy sentences sweeping across the page won't fit. Relying on a collection of short sentences can quicken the pace of the scene and make your reader feel like they, too, are being pulled into the chaos.
On the other hand, those lengthier and flowing sentences have their purposes.
These are the sentences I tend to favor overall in my writing, in part because these are the sentences I find myself becoming wrapped in as a reader, pulling my attention deeper and deeper into the story I'm reading.
And no place is it truer when the story takes on a more intimate tone.
Just as I'll use shorter, quicker sentences in writing a fight scene, I'll string a lot of longer sentences together times where it makes sense to linger. This might be a romantic embrace, a chance to slow down after they've endured a rougher ordeal and need time to regroup, or simply taking in the scenery.
When a character finds themselves in a tender moment they would want to savor, slowing the narration down is the better approach. Here, you want the narration to take its time. If you write a bunch of snappier sentences, the pacing might feel rushed. Your characters won't sink into the experience. The important stuff might feel glossed over. Your reader might feel whipped around from one focal point to the next.
Most times, you should take Provost's advice and write with varying sentence lengths. However, there are times where it's better to use a bunch of lines that are similar in length in order to create the desired effect.
(Maybe Don't?) Talk Dirty To Me
Heads up, friends! This section is for mature audiences only.
Readers of romance or erotica, and really anyone who's encountered a scene of the sensual and steamy kind of the page, has likely come across some interesting substitutions for body parts and the act of them getting tangled up with one another.
Typically, these euphemisms intend to make things a little more delicate or descriptive, or a little less disjointed.
Her eyes fell to his erection and Her eyes fell to the ridge straining the denim of his jeans both describe the same thing, but the former may seem a little crass to some. Although they describe the same action, He inserted his penis into her vagina might seem off-putting compared to He slipped into her folds. Getting anatomically correct like this takes the scene from tender or steamy to clinical.
Writers will favor these alternatives for various reasons, like personal preference or comfort level, the intended audience, genre, or publisher guidelines.
When used tactfully, they help maintain a smoothness to the scene or soften what is an otherwise intense moment.
Some, however, are laughable.
Phrases like Throbbing Stiffness and Warm, Silken Flower can take the reader right out of the moment just as easily as the actual name of the body parts they are standing in for.
Because of this, writers are advised to refrain from getting too creative with their sexy synonyms.
However, this is another bit of writing advice I don't always adhere to.
In my writing, you'll often see me describing male parts as a Phallus and lady-bits as Folds or Her center, and a few other alternatives. This is in part a genre decision. I haven't seen too many romances use the technical terms in these scenes—granted, that relates to the level I'm comfortable reading and writing at.
Understanding and respecting your comfort zone is another key component in the writing process overall, and especially if you're writing those spicier scenes.
I personally find these easier to enjoy when simmering at a medium heat. It's also easier to describe these body parts when they're not pointed out directly, which can let you get more into the nitty-gritty details kick the temperature up a few degrees, too.
To recap, avoid Rods and Roses, yes, but don't feel obligated to use Penis and Vagina or Cock and Clit, either. Do what pleases you.
Adverb Advocate In The Making
Adverbs can help your writing as much as they can hinder it, and they're often at the core of debate for writers.
I used to be staunchly rooted in the anti-adverb camp, save for dialogue.
Most of us have heard some iteration of Stephen King's quote, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs," and that line was one of several influences when it came to my stance. Many consider their inclusion to be lazy on the writer's part, or something that should only be done in books geared towards younger readers.
Adverbs are tricky. They can add a little more description to your writing, but they also have a habit of getting in the way or making your writing weaker, hence why you may be encouraged to find a stronger verb in its place.
He walked quickly to the door and He hurried to the door convey the same image, but the latter is a stronger sentence and more succinct.
But there are also instances where adverbs can be helpful to you.
She smiled happily is redundant because when we picture someone smiling, it's likely because they are happy or experiencing a similar emotion such as amusement or joy. She smiled sadly, however, conveys a different image.
With this example, you could also write A sad smile marred her features or something of a similar ilk, and that's usually the direction I go in.
Adverbs simplify things, and that's not always as problematic when it's made out to be.
Among the biggest problems I ran into in my desperation to avoid adverbs was convoluted narration. In trying to avoid using one word ending in -ly because that was a renown rule among writers, I'd end up using three or four in its place. Things became overly complicated and hard to sort through. My narration was clunky and awkward as a result.
Only recently did I start slipping adverbs into my narration and, much to my absolute astonishment, it wasn't entirely bad.
All the same, you don't want to overload your WIP with adverbs when you can use a better word or phrase to present the reader with a stronger image. My biggest tip is to use them sparingly and to do so with consideration.
Let the deciding factor be clarity.
Said Is Dead
And, at last, we've come to the entry on this list of writing rules I break with reckless abandon, and the one plenty will disagree with.
Writers of any experience level probably know "Said is Dead," which pertains to dialogue tags.
Dialogue tags are there to keep track of who is speaking. They might also inform you about how something is being said or what the speaker is doing, the latter of which is called an action beat if not attached directly to a dialogue tag.
Said is Dead is based in what some writers consider an overuse of said as a dialogue tag, encouraging alternatives like exclaimed, screamed, or argued.
However, plenty of writers still favor said over all others. Said is, well, said to slip under the radar like a form of punctuation, undetected and not drawing attention.
The thing is, I always notice it. More than any other dialogue tag. Said has always stood out to me when I read, so I have a habit of avoiding it in my writing.
There is also a redundancy to it. Dialogue tags indicate the words they surround are being said, so telling me they're being said feels a bit repetitive.
Replacements, however, can be more detailed. In addition to informing the reader which character is speaking, they provide insight to how it's being said, whether it's in the tone of voice or their volume. Throwing in action beats for good measure help establish a better sense of what is happening in the exchange. Body language can be even more telling!
I'll be the first to admit that some of these Said substitutions can get ridiculous can break your concentration as a reader, and I make an effort to avoid those, but Said itself is very much dead to my narration.
Writing is one of the most creative fields out there. For the most part, writers are free to do as they please in storytelling.
But like the art itself, the list of rules you obey and defy is subjective. Some come down to what you've been taught or advised to do. Others you find through experimentation and personal preference.
The rules you follow, and those you break, make your writing unique. It's like having your personal signature woven into your words.
And making your writing stand out is one rule you shouldn't aspire to break.