March 12th, 2006


Writing and Rules

I was emailing with a friend today about writing. She's having some POV issues with an otherwise fantastic short story, and we started talking about POV shifts and how she's not sure she understands when they're justified and when they're not. Then the conversation turned, as writing conversations often do, to that nebulous and tricky subject of "rules."

She asked:

Are there some basic tenets akin to "show, don't tell" or "use sensorial details" that I should be following?

I replied:

I don't believe in rules. I believe only in what works for each individual story. Does it need passive verbs? So be it. Does it need more telling than showing? Let's rock. Rules will only mess you up as a writer. Listen to the story, nothing else. It will never lead you astray. It will, however, fight you if you start making the wrong choices for it based on rules.

Aside from the fact that it sounds a little artsy-fartsy, I really do believe what I told her. These so-called rules (only active verbs! show, don't tell! don't use adverbs!) will only mess you up as a writer. They leave no room for voice, style or experimentation. It's like someone read some Hemingway or Spillane, decided anything written differently was rubbish, and then slapped on a mind-control device and tried to make everyone else believe it too, until hordes of zombified writers could be found wandering the streets muttering, "No...more...adverbs...No...more...adverbs..."

And you know what? Sometimes passive verb structure is better. Compare the following two examples:

I sat on the divan. An army of mummies broke through the French doors.

I was sitting on the divan when an army of mummies broke through the French doors.

Personally, I think the second example is better. There's more voice to it, and more rhythm too. And yet it utilizes a passive verb structure ("I was sitting") rather than an active one ("I sat"). Go figure, huh? That's because these rules you've heard so much about are just plain wrong when applied as absolutes. Which is why I will now put the word rules in scare quotes, like so: "rules."

So I say chuck out those "rules," writers, and just write your stories the way you want to. Because, more often than not, you instinctively know how best to tell your own story. The "rules" will only mess you up.