Rules and Tools

photo by marfis75

I once had a client tell me she’d heard that sentences should never run more than fifteen words. To this day I have no idea where that rule came from, though it was probably from someone who either had a short attention span or had read way too much Henry James.

The rule is nonsense, of course. It wound up making all her characters seem like they had short attention spans. But it shows one of the dangers with trying to write by the rules – you wind up limiting your characters or story so you can color within the lines. Sure, more sophisticated rule-givers (George Orwell, for instance) try to get around this danger by giving you the rules on when to break the rules, and maybe even rules on when to break those. My head usually starts to hurt by that point.

Are there guidelines that can help you shape your writing? Sure. I co-authored a book full of them. And I recommend that you learn as much about them as you can. The danger lies in treating these guidelines as rules. It’s much more accurate – and safer – to think of them as tools.

Rules are made to be obeyed. Tools are made to do specific tasks. They’ll do one thing well, and another not so much. Once you know what various tools can and can’t do – what’s in your toolbox – you can pick the right tool for the job. (Full disclosure: I‘m saying this as someone who has, on occasion, used a socket wrench as a hammer.)

Various writing techniques do specific things. Shorter sentences quicken the pace, first person generates more intimacy than third, and beats reveal character. When you treat these tools as rules, the techniques you use become more important, more authoritative, than the story you’re trying to create. But if you think in terms of the best tool for the job, then your plot and characters control the techniques you use, rather than the other way around. That’s the critical difference.

Take, for instance, Elmore Leonard’s rule to “avoid prologues.” Prologues are certainly the wrong tool for the sort of terse, immediate writing Leonard usually does. But for other kinds of stories, they can foreshadow some key event and generate tension as readers anticipate what’s to come. A prologue showing some major development that happened before the main story begins can be an efficient way to lay in background. Dick Francis started Whip Hand with a prologue that did nothing more than introduce the main character – through a dream sequence, no less. (“Avoid dream sequences” is another popular rule.) Prologues can be useful tools, depending on what you want to do. And so can dreams.

“Never insert a flashback in an emotional scene.” (This is one of Jessica Morrel’s.) Generally it’s not a good idea, since flashbacks pull your readers out of the moment, which can undermine an emotional scene. But if the flashback is a literal, PTSD flashback that’s happening to one of your characters, it becomes part of the emotional scene. It’s also possible that a flashback can reveal information so surprising and so critical to your readers’ understanding of the story that it’s worth interrupting an emotional scene for. Even within an emotional scene, a flashback may be the best tool for the job.

Then there’s “chick lit should always be in the first person.” (I’ve seen this in various places around the web.) Well, chick lit is usually about self-discovery, and because the first person gives you so much intimacy so easily, it’s usually the tool of choice. But if you want to center your story around several characters, or if you need to build tension by revealing information your main character isn’t aware of, then third person can be the tool you want. Riley Ford uses it quite effectively in Carpe DiEmily.

So can you just forget about your craft in the name of being free of the rules? Of course not. You need to learn your craft in order to write well. But as you read all the books and blogs, remember that your story is as unique as a snowflake and about as delicate. So translate all the rules you come upon into tools and make sure you understand how and when to use them. When your tool box is full, you’ll have the resources you need to write the story you want.

 

So what is your favorite writing “rule?”  How could it be better understood as a tool?  What tasks does it do best?

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

Comments

  1. Leila Wilson says

    Excellent article and really helpful when your brain becomes addled by all the “rules” From now on I will think of the varied advice as “tools” Thank you

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  2. says

    I’m working on a scene outline in preparation for a rewrite, and it’s a very revealing exercise. But one of the criteria of the format for the outline I’m using is “Ending Crisis.” Though the majority of my scenes end in crisis, it’s interesting to take a look at the ones that don’t, and to consider why they don’t and if they should. I’m guessing I’ll be breaking this “rule” for some scenes, but at least I will have examined my reasoning.

    You’re right, Dave, the knowing and consideration makes the rule a tool.

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  3. says

    Well, we’ve certainly seen what the no-adverbs rule has presented in terms of crazy modifiers. And the folk who want uniformly short sentences may not have an understanding of cadence, which can only come from varying sentence length and structure.

    Good post, Dave. For those of us with a rebellious bent, rules can form a foundation that, once understood, will allow us to color outside the lines.

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    • says

      One of the rules people most commonly yank out of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is “Thou shalt not use -ly adverbs.” I remember a participant in the old Writer’s Digest online Writer’s Clinic who was upset that he had to indiscriminately delete all -ly adverbs indiscriminately.

      I explained that, using an -ly adverb usually means you have two words to convey a single concept. You can make your writing more concise and more powerful by finding a single word to do the same job, and it costs you absolutely nothing. So why wouldn’t you? Not always, but most of the time.

      I think that was when I recognized the difference between rules and tools.

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      • Scott McGlasson says

        I could not, for the life of me, wrap my head around the passive/strong voice connection with using -ly adverbs until the following two sentences were presented.

        John ran quickly across the field. (weaker)

        John sprinted across the field. (stronger)

        That made it all fall into place nicely. (lol)

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        • Sevigne says

          The problem with that rule is that people never give “worthy” examples of when an “ly” adverb is necessary. For example, “hummed (or sang) loudly,” is not interchangeable with “shrieked, shouted, belted,” etc. To hum is something specific and yet may require one more layer of depth, depending on what else is going on for the character.

          Whether to use any adverb depends on the action (the verb). Does the verb need to be modified because its application is otherwise too broad?

          There is a difference between ran (quickly) and sprinted. Sprints are for very short distances. But one might run swiftly for long stretches. Also, running swiftly and sprinting conjure two different images and moods.

          As Dave said (or didn’t say but I believe is implicit in his article), writing is not always blunt. Often it is nuanced. if there’s any rule I have for myself it’s “Find the nuance.” Because that’s what brings me (and I hope the reader) as close as possible to the *exact* idea, mood, imagery, I want to share.

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          • says

            And, while we discussing adverbs, let’s remember that removing an ly does not necessarily do the trick. “He breathed heavy” keeps showing up in published books, making me want to scream. An adjective can’t pretend to be an adverb. Those editors either need to change the verb or put the ly back in and let it do its job.

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            • says

              “He breathed heavy?”

              Okay, I’ve never seen that particular sin against the English language. I’ll have to watch for it.

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              • Scott McGlasson says

                I tried a couple iterations of it and came up with “He crouched, breathing heavy.”

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            • Scott McGlasson says

              As I’m a newb and still hazy about the whole adverb thing, I’ve got an entire file of what I believe are illuminating or otherwise useful comments on the subject. This one is going in there right along Sivigne’s.

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              • says

                My take on adverbs is that they are often very useful in adding nuance and flavor when used in conjunction with adjectives. With verbs, most often–but not always–a strong verb can do a better job of description than an adverb and a weak verb. I think the “hummed’ example is a good one. But they can be terrific with adjectivs.

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  4. Van Schembri says

    15 words in sentence? that’s nonsens, at least for me.
    When I write articles I hardly ever match this limit, it’s always more

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  5. Scott McGlasson says

    If you’re in the attic working on something and the closest hammer is in the garage, the socket wrench in hand is worth two hammers in a far away toolbox. I’m not sure how that applies to writing, but I’m sure if I thought about it for a couple of years, I could take three or four more years to write a book about it.

    Signed,
    Scott The Procrastinator

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    • says

      Um . . . yeah, I know. It’s also been said that standard and metric wrenches are interchangeable if you hit them hard enough.

      But this sort of thing you can do in private. Do it with your writing, and the world will know.

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      • Scott McGlasson says

        I still love the W Somerset Maugham quote, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

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  6. says

    Dave, thank you. This is the voice of reason that eludes so many writers.

    One of my favorite “guidelines” is to put the most powerful word at the end of the sentence. This allows it to resonate across the period/white space/paragraph break/line break/chapter break. It ensures that an important concept won’t get swallowed by the sentence or lost in the belly of the paragraph.

    It is also the most important reason, in my mind, for the “rule” that you shouldn’t end a sentence in a preposition—why give a seat of prominence to a word so indistinct? Yet good writers break that rule all the time—especially in dialogue, so our street-wise character doesn’t have to go around saying, “Dude, it’s late. I can hear your jabber all the way upstairs. With whom are you speaking?”

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    • Sevigne says

      The voice of reason would be heard a great deal more often if so many so-called writing rules didn’t now abound the ocean of the writing world.

      As for prepositions…the rule of not ending a sentence with them went by the wayside a number of years ago. That said, I too like the suggestion of ending sentences strongly (if that’s what they require). I was in a class with Margie Lawson a couple of years ago. That’s one of her big teaching tools. However, even more important than what word ends a sentence is the overall cadence and rhythm of the sentence. (Something Normandie Fischer touched on in her comment.)

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      • says

        I think you encounter rules so often in the writing world because they’re easy. Famous authors (or fans of famous authors) take the techniques that the authors use and boil them down to a set of clear, unambiguous commandments. The implication is, “Do these things, and you’ll write like [famous author].” But it just doesn’t work to try to write like anyone but yourself.

        If I might be allowed a slight plug . . . You can learn a lot from general sources — articles, books, blogs. But to find the right techniques for your specific story, you may need someone who is both objective and knows a wide range of techniques. Someone who will read your story thoughtfully and guide you to what you need. I.e., a professional editor.

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        • Sevigne says

          Objectivity is paramount for the writer as well as the editor or critique partner. From experience I have learned I can be objective in receiving feedback only when I am certain that I’ve written the story I believe in all the way through. And that there’s nothing left inside me that wanted to be on the page but didn’t quite make it. Because with this I have nothing left to defend and i am open to hearing anything and everything that will improve my ideas and my writing.

          But before the objectivity of an editor or critique partner, and before all writing rules, one has to know one’s voice. It’s sort of useless to hear from editors and agents, “I can’t define what voice is, but I know it when I hear it.” I mean, it is true that voice is undefinable because it is unique. But that’s exactly the point: find the story *you* believe in, because that is the story that has *your* voice and no one else’s.

          Meg Rosoff, who I believe will be writing a guest post here next month(?) has written beautifully on what voice is, and pulls it out of attendants to her workshop on this critical, No. 1, facility of the writer.

          Voice to the writer is what brushstroke is to the painter. If you speak with any great dealer or curator on the authenticity of a work, they will tell you they rarely consider the signature on a painting as the arbiter of authenticity. A painter’s signature, they say, is in every brushstroke. Likewise, an author’s voice is in every word on the page. *Every word.* How I write the same meaning of something in a sentence will be different from that of another writer. Why? Because how I hear the idea I want to convey in words, the cadence, its rhythm, how I choose to construct that sentence, will always be determined by *everything* that I am…not only who I am as a writer but also who I am as a person.

          The biggest problem with ALL writing rules is that they are in danger of killing authenticity, which is another way to define voice, and why any rule should be taken with nothing more than a grain of salt. I like Ursula Le Guin’s distinction between craft and skill. She says, learn the craft until it is a skill so integrated into your being it has become automatic. This is how great painters paint and how great composer create music. Skill is the boat of craft left behind when one has crossed the ocean to the shore beyond.

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  7. says

    Any rule that uses the terms “always” or “never” is a bad one, especially when you’re WRITING a story. When you’re EDITING you can dabble in, say, getting rid of your adverbs if you want to, but when you’re writing you shouldn’t be thinking about things like that. I think writing is about the story you want to tell; revising is about making everything fit together, bringing your characters alive, finding connections within the story you didn’t know you had and then playing those up, etc.; and editing is about taking a look at the “rules” and seeing which you’ve inadvertently trampled over, which you want to try to “obey,” and which you can simply ignore.

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  8. says

    I love this post. It appeals to my English-teachery obsession with grammar rules, which I can – and have- cited with little to no encouragement. Know the rules so that you can break them effectively.

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  9. says

    I love this: “So can you just forget about your craft in the name of being free of the rules? Of course not. You need to learn your craft in order to write well.”

    I have read a lot of “rules” related posts, which really were “tools” instead (such as the “no prologue” rule.) The comments always had someone saying “well, I’ve used prologues, and it was fine!” However, I’ve never seen anyone comment “I’ve bored the living hell out of my readers in my opening scene, and it worked out wonderfully!” :)

    Understanding why we make the choices we do is the key, in my opinion. Thanks for a great post!

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  10. Rita says

    Dave,
    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Oh how distracting are the “rules.” Mandates from well-meaning, writing experts can become jailers and take our imaginations prisoner if we don’t keep them firmly in their place.

    I plan to reread your posting a few times so the wisdom can sink in.

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  11. says

    The hardest path for a any writer developing their individual style is one fraught with too many restrictive rules–I know I’ve fallen prey to it.

    I love your advice, Dave. Your point about understanding why the rules are there to begin with is key. In this cyber-world filled with so many blogs there are innumerable rules to consider and too little comprehension (or too many individual interpretations) for why.

    Any tool used improperly is likely to be ineffective, and/or harmful to the user.

    Great job!

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  12. says

    The old adage, “Show, don’t tell,” was brought to life for me by John Grisham when we worked together on a thriller. He’d offered to mentor me and of course I accepted. At the beginning of the novel, I had a lot of backstory to get across and when he read it, he said, “It’s boring, tedious, dead writing that will put your reader to sleep. Have your hero go to UVa and deliver a lecture, make him a computer jock and have him illustrate his talk with animated graphics, make a spellbinding movie out of it.” “Show, don’t tell,” immediately came alive for me and anytime I find myself explaining something, I grab myself by the scruff of the neck and shake my brain into finding a way to bring the words to life

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  13. says

    Dave-

    Every writing “rule” can be broken. The trick is knowing how to do it.

    My favorite is “show don’t tell”. No question, story is strong when it’s active, external and visual. Yet there are electric moments in our lives–and on the page–that are entirely internal.

    There’s the “ding” in your head when you realize the true reason that your wife threw your anniversary roses in your face.* There’s the moment on the tennis court when late in the match you know, deep down and despite the tie score, that baby-baby you’re going to *win*! **

    There’s the instant, empowered, grateful roar of 100,000 people on the Great Lawn of Central Park during a concert to mark the first anniversary of 9/11 when, after a meaningless remote broadcast speech by the President, Billy Joel settles at the piano, live, and plays the opening notes of “New York State of Mind”. ***

    Capturing the essence and reality of intangible moments–telling not showing–requires wielding the mother of all rule-smashing tools: the unexpected emotional conflict that readers don’t at first see but which the artful novelist pulls into view and details. ****

    * 22 words
    ** 28 words
    *** 54 words
    **** 40 words

    “Show don’t tell” is a good rule, but there’s a tool with which to break it.

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  14. says

    Great post!

    If I had to guess about the origin of the 15 word sentence rule, I’d point toward text statistics like the Fleisch-Kincaid index, Fog index, and other similar metrics.

    Amazon used to post text stats on individual book pages, but sadly they’ve pulled them down. For those of you who are curious, I can cite the following actual numbers, which I had saved.

    Words per sentence average:

    By Stephen King
    IT 13.1 words per sentence
    Cujo 12.8
    The Shining 12.2
    Carrie 11.7
    Salem’s Lot 11.2
    The Dead Zone 11.1
    Long Walk 9.6

    By Dean Koontz
    Hideaway 16.7 words per sentence
    The Bad Place 16.0

    By James Patterson
    5th Horseman 10.6 words per sentence
    Cross Country 10.4
    Quickie 9.9

    Sorry I don’t have any literary examples. But I do know they generally have longer sentences.

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    • says

      This is fascinating, David. So the “no more than fifteen words” rule is really akin to “Aim your writing to an eighth-grade (or whatever) reading level?” You may be on to something.

      It’s probably true that if you pitch your writing to the reading level of the majority of the population, you’ll find a bigger audience. It might even work, if dumbing down your natural style didn’t leave you with an unpublishable hot mess.

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      • says

        Yes, 15 word sentences (or less) is literally appropriate for an 8th grade reading level. I think the 10 word sentence is around 6th grade. Keep in mind that’s an average word count. Short sentences like

        “Yes,” he replied.

        counter-balance sentences longer than the average. So in the examples I listed, you will find 20 or 30 word sentences (and longer) mixed in.

        I remember reading a blog post somewhere (which I can’t seem to find) that aspiring authors were frantically trimming down all their sentences, hoping to make their books more sellable, when this information was circulating the blogosphere a few years back.

        Of course, sentence length has no bearing on story content. A book’s worth of 10 word sentences that tell a boring, emotionally un-engaging story still leaves you with a boring, emotionally un-engaging story.

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  15. says

    My favorite rule is that there are no rules. If it woks, it works. On a recent edit of fantasy fiction, I suggested a number of additions. I later learned from my client that my suggestions were the way she had originally written it, but that she had deleted things because of a “rule” that she had read.

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    • Scott McGlasson says

      See, now, I was going to mention stir-fry and decided to let it slide…

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  16. says

    Great article! I was thrilled that you mentioned my book, Carpe DiEmily! I had fun writing it in third person, and that choice seemed to work well for my neurotic character.

    Thanks so much for the mention!

    Riley J. Ford

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    • says

      Hey, Riley,

      Good point, and thanks.

      Another thing the third person POV does effectively is to give you distance from characters who, though lovable, may be a little overpowering. Readers might not want to spend 300 pages in the head of a neurotic character. Third person lets you give them a break.

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  17. says

    I think rules are more like guidelines, being broken when the situation calls for. One rule I adhere to is never use cliches. But I think it is suitable if a character wants to sound cliche.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] editor Dave King introduces some much needed sanity into the craft with Rules and Tools on Writer Unboxed. His core point is that guidelines followed too closely—as iron-clad rules, in […]

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  2. […] of this post, I want to discuss three recent topics that resonated with me. The first one is from Writer Unboxed titled “Rules and Tools” by Dave King. Dave writes of suggested guidelines and the danger of turning them into rules (Never write a […]

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