Questionable: How Important are the Rules* of Writing Fiction (*Really More of a Guideline”)

Jeanine asked:
I know you’ve said that every writer has their own process and they must discover what works for them. Nonetheless, in your discussions of the craft of writing, you often speak of guidelines for writing or, at least, for the finished product. For example you speak of things to avoid, such as prologues or flashbacks. Have you encountered any occasions where the writer completely breaks the rules or ignores the guidelines that you’ve established (at least for yourself), and what shouldn’t work, works brilliantly?


All the time. That’s why I slap the “many roads to Oz” disclaimer on everything I teach. 

The thing about rules and guidelines is that most of them are there because they protect the reader from the writer. 

Take prologues, since you mentioned them.  Writers love prologues, as a writer I love prologues, because they’re the easiest way to get back story in.   But as a reader, I hate prologues because I want to get to the story, and there’s all this crap in my way.  Here’s the thing: when your reader opens your story, she wants to love it.  You own her for the first page at least, she’s on your side.  Now what are you going to put on that page, the protagonist you want her to invest in for the entire book, or some stuff from the past that you need the reader to know before she meets the protagonist?  Because if it’s the stuff you need her to know, she’ll try to connect with it, only to find out that the character in the prologue is not the protagonist of the story, she’s the protagonist as a little kid or the antagonist plotting evil or whatever.  So you’ve just thrown away your best shot at grabbing the reader and for what? Because it was easier for you? Prologues are stupid writing.

Pretty much every rule or guideline out there came out of writers being self-indulgent and caring more about making their jobs as writers easier than about taking care of the reader.  That’s why it’s as important to understand the theory behind the rule as it is to follow the rule.  That way when you decide to break it, you’ll be able to tell if it really will make the book better, or if you’re just screwing the reader over because you’re too lazy to take the high road and do it right.

Having said that, I’ve read some rules for writing that are just bonkers, so be careful what you read on the internet.

The best writing rule ever comes from Elmore Leonard: “Try not to write the parts people skip.”

That would be the prologue.

20 thoughts on “Questionable: How Important are the Rules* of Writing Fiction (*Really More of a Guideline”)

  1. Wasn’t it a prologue in Good Omens where Adam and Eve got tempted, ate the apple, were deported, and were loaned a flaming sword? That one worked. Or was it just a flashback?

    1. Book or TV show?
      Either way, I can’t remember. The third episode was basically “Previously in Aziraphale and Crowley” showing their lives for 30 minutes of montage. But the thing about Good Omens is that it’s omniscient, which means that somebody is telling the story in real time, skipping around as She tells it (God), so time doesn’t work the same way as it does in third limited or in first.

      1. LOL, it’s so funny, but I was just browsing your post about the Good Omens (you did it for the book club in 2017, I think — January?) and you mention that even though you hate prologues, you liked the one in the Garden of Eden.

        The answer *I* was looking for (but didn’t find) is who is the protagonist of Good Omens? I asked on Twitter if Good Omens was a hero’s journey (basic laziness on my part) and Gaiman said it wasn’t, and it wasn’t in either of their minds when they wrote the book (so I’m assuming that means it wasn’t a reaction to the hero’s journey, either).

        Then someone else asked something. And Gaiman said he didn’t even know who the hero would be in that story. And someone said it was Adam, obviously, to which I replied, that was one long-ass prologue, then.

        I lean toward Aziraphale as the protagonist, but this sort of thing always confuses me and makes my brain hurt. Aziraphale and Crowley are doppelgangers/two sides of the same coin. It’s a buddy movie, but just like Thelma and Louise, somebody drove the story, and owned the story, while the other one facilitated and added some gas.

        1. One of the problems in adapting the book is that there is no single protagonist. Adam has his story. Aziraphale and Crowley have theirs. Anathema has hers. The Four Horsemen have theirs. Then there’s the Witchfinders. That should be a main plot and three subplots but there didn’t seem to be a focus in the book, probably because of the way it was written. It was early in both of their careers and I think they were still learning the ropes. The TV show seems to favor Aziraphale and Crowley, but the others seem like interruptions of that plot. Adam shows up, the Horsemen show up, the Witchfinders show up, and I just want them to get out of the way so I can get more Aziraphale and Crowley. I didn’t feel that way in the book, but I think the book is more leisurely than the series.

          But if Aziraphale is the protagonist, then Adam and Eve aren’t a prologue, they’re the beginning of his story with Crowley, the place where he disobeys God for the first time and gives Adam the flaming sword. It’s the first time he sides with humanity again his orders. For him that’s the beginning, and Crowley is right there, his opposite number.

          Really is Aziraphale and Crowley’s love story.

          1. (-: It’s wonderful when the rules are broken wonderfully! I don’t think anyone went in planning to break rules, but it just happened in the course of the story. More and more, I think rules are diagnostic tools when something is going wrong. It helps to know the rules, but more on a subconscious level.

            I do love Aziraphale and Crowley, though. Watching it now with my husband, who doesn’t have a Judeo-Christian framework except what he’s picked up from other movies and books. It seems to be working for him, too.

  2. I tend to skip villains’ povs. They’re generally written to be unlikable and I feel as if I’m forced to spend time with someone I don’t like.

    Frankly, you don’t even need to write what you know, you can learn it as you go along!

    1. I have loved writing the few antagonist PoVs I’ve done, especially Xan in The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes and Clea in Faking It. So much fun to write completely selfish people.

      1. Yes, but they’re also engaging, because you can see a sliver of right on their side; you can have a little empathy with them. The villains I skip over are the monsters: nasty and unconvincing – and boring, because they’ve no redeeming features.

        1. Oh, yeah, the ones who get up in the morning and say, “Today, I’m going to be evil.” Yeah, they don’t work for me, either.

  3. That is the best writing rule ever. I’ve never seen that quote.

    When I send manuscripts out to betas, that’s often what I ask for. What parts did you skim over? Where did you flip the pages trying to get to the next “good stuff?”

    1. Yep. My two big questions are “What do I need to cut?” and “What must be saved at all costs?”

    1. I think it’s more, “Don’t be selfish.” First draft, you can be as selfish as you want. Rewrites, you have to think of the reader and not write the parts she’ll skip, like infodump and explanation and indulgent description and overwriting. Maybe the first rule is “Be kind. Rewrite.”

  4. I was about to leap to the defense of the prologue–after all, *rules* are meant to be broken, aren’t they?–because sometimes they are enticing leadins to the story. But since I can’t come up with an example of one, I stand corrected. Also, in my current work-in-progress, what started as a prologue is now a current and active part of scene 1. (Slaps hand and yells, “No more lazy writing.” )

    1. If you want to write a prologue, have at it. Your book, not mine. Many roads to Oz.

      But good for you for not writing a prologue (g).

    2. I think a prologue is like any other scene. If deleting it doesn’t change the story, delete it. If keeping it makes it a different story, figure out if you want that difference, and make the decision from there. In Tangled, the prologue lets the audience know that Mother Gothel isn’t really Repunzel’s mother, she kidnapped her, which changes the nature of the whole rest of the story, because the audience knows something Repunzel doesn’t. Or the Beast getting cursed in Disney’s Beauty & The Beast (cartoon, i.e. good version)

      Most prologues can be deleted without losing anything, or without losing anything good, in my opinion. Every now and then I read a good one though. I think maybe good one’s are more common in fairy tale fantasy? When you’re telling a story that’s got that sense of scale, and draws a direct line from something happening long ago to the core conflict of the story, I think it’s a little easier to have prologues that actually shape the story.

    3. One of the post-apocalyptic things I wrote had a totally useless prologue. I tried to convince the “author” to leave it off, but they wanted it. I’m pretty sure anyone picking up that book is going to stop reading before they get to the real story because that prologue was boring. I mean I tried to make it something, but it happened years before the start of the real story and could have easily been dealt with in the body of the story.

      They clearly did not know the rules. And they thought they knew better.

  5. I am a horribly lazy writer. What’s the fasted way to get words on the page? Dialog. Go.

    Then I make things up.

    I’m afraid this ghostwriting gig is going to ruin me for real writing. Or make me fabulous. I suppose it could go either way.

  6. I have kinda sorta written prologues in several novellas. I think one of them I even originally labeled a prologue, but changed that when I rewrote the novella. All of them were scenes with the protagonists which occur well in advance of the main action of the story, generally scenes where the protagonists first meet. I have rewritten these things so comprehensively that I *think* I’ve killed an early tendency to infodump. 🙂 The more time I spend with my characters the more I love them, so I am constantly trying to improve the stories, because I want a first-time reader to fall directly in love too.

    This is the real pitfall of publishing as soon as something is ‘done,’ you risk putting something out there that is imperfect. But I still believe if I hadn’t hit ‘publish’ on an imperfect thing, I might have gotten stuck on trying to make it perfect, which nothing ever is.

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