The Rules of Writing

by Stewart Leiwakabessy

Therese here. Please welcome powerhouse French author Marc Levy to Writer Unboxed. Marc’s auspicious career was kickstarted when his debut novel, If Only It Were True, was acquired by Steven Spielberg and made into the movie Just Like Heaven–a 2005 #1 box office smash, starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo.

Since then, Marc has been writing full-time, and has had thirteen novels published to date overseas. His third release here in the states, All Those Things We Never Said, is now available as an e-book. It’s the story of an estranged daughter and father, and their journey together from New York to East Berlin, saying “all the things they never said” throughout the span of six days.

To further increase awareness of Marc’s book in the U.S., 
”The Marc Levy Paris Getaway Sweepstakes” is currently underway on his Facebook page. The First prize winner will receive a long weekend for two in Paris, including roundtrip airfare and hotel. Other prizes include an iPad loaded with Marc’s novels and a full library of Marc’s novels in ebook. To be entered to win, participants need to answer 5 questions about Marc Levy’s novel All Those Things We Never Said, and enter before February 10th. Winners will be announced on Valentine’s Day.

I also want to snip something from Marc’s website:

The combined sales of Marc Levy’s thirteen novels, translated into 45 languages, have surpassed the 27 million copy mark worldwide. Marc Levy is the most read French author in the world. (Source for all rankings and figures: Ipsos/Livres Hebdo/Le Figaro)”

So let there be no question. This. Is a man who knows a thing or two about writing. He’s with us today to talk about those things. Without further ado, “the rules of writing,” by Marc Levy.

The Rules of Writing

  • Stop trying so hard to find a subject.  Let your subject come to you and relish in it!  Remember—writing is one of the rare jobs where you can stare at a palm tree for two hours and pass it off as work.  This doesn’t mean, however, that you should choose your activities arbitrarily.  There is a saying: “Writing comes from writing.”  What does this mean, exactly?  If you want to write brilliantly, you should make it a habit to read.  Don’t watch television, unless your goal is to write the script for the next episode of CSI.  Reading often leads to writing.  Newspapers are a great resource.  They tell stories that come from real life, but are often even more difficult to believe than fiction.  I can’t tell you how many of my books were inspired by stories I had read in the New York Times.
  • Writing is about people.  The first goal of writing a novel is bringing an imaginary character to life.  (Exceptions to this rule include nonfiction and biographies.)  People are not one-dimensional.  Each of your characters should have their own psychology and voice—if you succeed in giving them a proper set of attributes, a reader would be able to understand the dialogue between characters even if the dialogue tags of “said John” (or Peter, or Emma) were removed.

    Streets, cafés, buses, subway cars are filled with people.  Observe them.  Listen to them.  Note their behavior.  Then, perform a bit of surgery.  (No blood involved, I promise.)  Grab a piece here, another there, and reassemble.  If you are waiting in line at the DMV or post office (where there are always long lines), it’s a fun way to pass the time.  Try to imagine why the woman next to you has tried to reread the same page in her book for the past hour, why the boy behind her looks so nervous, or why the guy in back is mumbling to himself while texting.  Everyone around you has a story.  Imagine, for example, how they would react if something unusual were to happen where you are.  Even if they have nothing in common, with your imagination, they might all just share a moment as characters in the same story.

  • Don’t show too much, don’t tell too much.  What is not said can be as important as what is said; sometimes, it can say even more.  Marc LevyRemember that, in real life, silence can prove more powerful than a lot of blah, blah, blah.  Don’t show too much by trying to make your book into a series of images—you are not a movie producer.  Describing the main character’s bedroom can be telling and also captivating, but not if it takes three full pages of unnecessary detail.  Most of the time, one detail is enough to infer several more.  For example, if you say that the carpet in a room hasn’t been changed for 25 years, the reader can probably deduce that the wall hasn’t been painted recently either.  The same concept applies to people.  One tiny detail can reveal a lot about a character and give plenty of freedom for the reader to imagine the character as he or she wants.  This is all to say, don’t use too many words when a few are enough to say what you want.
  • Dialogues are conversations.  They are not poetry, nor are they beautiful feats of language that no one would say in real life.  A dialogue is a conversation between characters, not a tool for writers to impress their readers.  Dialogues should also reflect their time period.  Two women having dinner at the restaurant in the 1930s would probably not ask the waiter if their vinaigrette was low-carb.  Likewise, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton would probably not speak to each other in modern slang.
  • Don’t be afraid of writer’s block.  It’s a part of the job.  But when you really feel stuck, just try to imagine what might happen next in your story if a few very simple things were to occur…Perhaps the refrigerator breaks, or a woman who has been married for twenty years suddenly tells her husband she wants to have passionate sex, or a young girl suddenly develops a crush on her waiter in the middle of dinner.  Play some scenarios out, just to get your mind flowing.  Just try to imagine—it comes before writing.  Don’t forget to tell a story.  Things have to happen, or it will be very boring.
  • Have fun.  Finding the right word, shortening sentences, expressing your ideas can be quite painful, but the greatest gift of writing is the freedom it gives you: the freedom to be with the characters you have created, in places you have chosen to lead them.  Enjoy the journey if you want your readers to enjoy it, too.  The safekeeper of this freedom is, in my opinion, humility.  Look at what you write, and never look at yourself while writing.  The moment you step back and look at yourself as an author instead of focusing on the writing itself, you lose this freedom.  You must be willing to dive wholeheartedly into the imagination, where truth meets fiction, and in your writing, you must be as discreet and invisible as a puppeteer.
  • There are no rules. The last rule, which is the most important rule of all, is that there are no rules.  If there were a few simple steps to great writing, everyone would have figured it out by now, and the job would be very boring.  Everyone is different.  Be yourself, and invent a few of your own rules.

Thanks so much for being with us today, Marc! Readers, you can learn more about Marc on his website, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Write on.



  1. says

    Holy mackerel! What a post! This may be the best of the several years of excellent WU posts. Upbeat, approachable, incisive, encouraging. LOVE it!

    Two points particularly resonate:

    * What is not said can be as important as what is said.
    * Don’t use too many words when a few are enough to say what you want (like poetry).

    Re the last: so much for ‘bulking up’ a MS.

  2. Carmel says

    I’m sorry to say I haven’t read If Only It Were True, but I loved the movie made from it!

    Wonderful advice, especially about gathering up bits of people to make a character, and telling/showing only the details that serve the story.


  3. says

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Love the idea of keeping it simple in dialogue and remembering that you have to observe the world in order to create new ones. Thank you

  4. Dede says

    I seriously never comment on things, but you all are knocking it out of the box with this weeks articles. I loved reading this and plan to force my hubs to read it as well. Thank you!

  5. Denise Willson says

    Thank you, Marc, it’s always refreshing to get back to the basics.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  6. says

    Thanks, Marc,
    I liked what you said about choosing one detail to suggest the whole in description, since adding concrete details–but not dragging down the story in the process–is my current focus.

  7. says

    Thanks so much for sharing this list. All of these tips are right on the money, but I especially like the second bullet: Writing is about people. I fundamentally believe all great stories are rooted in strong characters. Thanks again for sharing your wisdom with the WU community.

  8. says

    I remember Bill Watterson of Calvin & Hobbes fame saying that his process included holding a blank sheet of paper and staring off into space. And he had to keep daydreaming like that because he never knew if the next hour would be more wasted time or the most productive hour of the day.

    I love the stuff on showing versus telling. In my opinion, too many writers are afraid of telling. Showing is great and should be what we do most, but there are times to tell. However, a lot of folks hear “SHOW SHOW SHOW,” and when they can’t bridge the gap between what they want to say and how to show it, they get lost. Thanks for sharing that.

  9. says

    very much enjoyed this post; had first seen marc mentioned on the french word a day site, glad he’s getting this exposure

    i like all the “rules” and esp favor the first, “Stop trying so hard to find a subject. Let your subject come to you and relish in it!” –

    though, the balance of “show” vs “tell” is also one of my pet fav’s ;-)

    all the best wishes ;-)

  10. says

    Good post.

    In my opinion writers block is a warning sign that what you are writing will suck.

    Oh yes, It will suck.

    Because you don’t want to write it.

    That’s why you’re mind is blocking you.

    The same reason why you hate going to that job and eventually you quit.

    Find your inspiration:
    1. Read who your favorite authors read.
    2. Watch a documentary on your topic in another language.
    3. Call 10 random people and ask them about your idea.

  11. Jenny Citron says

    I LOVE these rules! Your explanations are great and fun. “Don’t be afraid of writer’s block” is a great one. I like your ideas and the understanding that you might not be as blocked as you think you are. You make writing sound so simple and life-like which I think many people forgot about. You don’t need extreme plots or characters to have a good story.
    Thanks so much for these tips!

  12. says

    Marc thanks so much for the words of wisdom :-) I like what you said about one tiny detail can reveal much about setting and character. I’m going back and rereading my manuscript.

    Great Post!

  13. says

    Oh. I love these, Marc, especially the don’t tell/show too much. Yes, assume your reader is intelligent, I remind my students (and more frequently, myself).

    And thanks for justifying my habit of observing what’s in people’s grocery carts while I’m in line at the supermarket. I create mini character sketches in my mind of their lives…

  14. says

    Thanks, Marc. These are all great reminders. My favorite: don’t be afraid of writer’s block. It reminds me of something my actor mentor used to say, “That which grows simplest, grows best.”

    Thanks for sharing a part of your journey.

  15. says

    I really enjoyed this post. You reaffirmed all the things we as writers forget when in the throes of creating. I especially enjoyed the reminder not to use more words than you need to get your point across. Thank you for the much needed mental shake-up.

    Chrinda Jones’s most recent blog post… Confessions of a Closet FF Writer.