Yes, I said rules. Not guidelines or suggestions. Rules. Why? Because there are some rules that are completely unbreakable. The rest really are more like guidelines and suggestions but I’m sticking with the term rules.
UNBREAKABLE WRITING RULES
1) Spelling – get it right. Between the computer spell checker, your own knowledge of your primary language, and your ability to utilize dictionaries and proofreaders, there is no excuse for spelling errors. If big name authors can put out 900 page novels with less than two spelling typos in the finished, published product, you can too. Alien languages, ancient spells etc. are exempt of course, but keep your spelling consistent.
2) Grammar – get it right. While there are more grey zones in grammar than in spelling, and the rules are more complicated, you should put the effort in and get it sorted out. Getting the words of your sentences in the right order is critical for reader understanding.
3) Punctuation – there’s wiggle room with some punctuation marks, and you may need to use some marks in weird ways if you are conveying alien languages or ancient rituals but there are rules to follow. Learn them and use them properly.
4) Sentence Structure – part of this is grammar, part of this is punctuation, part of this is identifying sentence fragments and run on sentences, part of this is identifying places where the sentence is confusing. If the story is not readable people won’t read it. Craft each sentence carefully so its meaning isn’t lost.
5) Consistency of Facts – yes, people lie. Yes your characters will lie. Yes you can use that to build suspense within a story. But a fact is a fact is a fact. Don’t let characters change names or identifying features without explanation. Keep geographical features consistent. If there’s a lie involved that needs to be explained, either at the time of the lie or when the truth comes out. If you lack this consistency you’ll confuse the reader to the point where they put down your book and never pick it up again.
6) Consistency of Tense – if you’re writing in past tense, stick to it. Same if you choose present tense. Yes, there are a few, rare, situations when you need to switch tense, most of them dealing with flashbacks or occur within dialogue. But overall you’ll need to pick past or present and stick with it for the entire piece.
BENDABLE WRITING RULES
Why are these bendable? Because while it’s a good idea to follow them, most of the time, there are more occasions when you’ll want to soften them, or forget them completely.
1) Consistency of Point of View – there are multiple POVs to choose from: first person (I did, I thought), third person singular limited (image a parrot sitting on single character’s shoulder, whatever that parrot sees or hears can be related to the reader), third person singular omnipotent (like the parrot example, but you can hear that character’s thoughts), third person multiple limited (or fly on the wall, your fly can follow anyone anywhere so lots of events can be related to the reader), third person multiple omnipotent (like fly on the wall but you can hear anybody’s thoughts when needed), second person (you saw, you did – VERY hard to write) – some are easier and more common than others and each serves a different purpose. MOSTLY you’ll pick one POV and keep it for the entire piece. Sometimes you’ll change POV, alternating between two first person narrators for example. This is allowed but the change needs to be clearly marked.
2) Dialogue Tags – this is the part that comes before or after the dialogue that identifies who’s speaking. MOSTLY you’ll use very simple words like ‘said’, ‘shouted’, ‘asked’, ‘replied’ or ‘whispered’ – and of those ‘said’ is used most often. For the most part we do just speak to each other. Sometimes you’ll need to put some force behind some dialogue, or some emotion, or some action, and that’s okay. “Get the hell off my property!” he bellowed – is very different from – “Get the hell off my property,” he said through gritted teeth, his hands tightening on the shotgun. OR “Kiss me,” he whispered VS “Kiss me,” he demanded. Those descriptive words exist so use them, but rely mostly on ‘said’ and other things like actions and separate descriptive sentences to get emotions across to the reader. Variety is the spice of life after all.
3) Adverb and Adjective use – some very strict writing instructors will tell you not to use them at all. It’s impossible. However, you can make your writing heavy and slow if you overuse adverbs and adjectives. Space them out, use them sparingly to brighten up your writing, and avoid cliches. Golden hair is so overused – why not sun-kissed blonde, or ‘like a wheat field’ or glowing blonde? Try to find interesting new combinations of descriptions, one unique descriptive phrase is worth 10 cliches.
4) Character Names – Yes, you need to name them, or at least give them a title to refer to them by. As a suggestion, make the names most of the way pronounceable. Avoid randomly changing the spelling of a common name (writers often replace the letter ‘i’ with the letter ‘y’) unless you have a reason. Same for “hippy” names or culturally uncommon names – they should have a reason for being there. For a true life example – a woman I knew lived in Vietnam and had two children, she and her husband and those first two children had traditional Vietnamese names. Then they moved to Canada and she worked for my grandmother for many years. Here she had a third child and she wanted to give him a good Canadian name (she chose Patrick and no one had the heart to tell her it was Irish). If your character isn’t Asian (or if you’re not in a future setting where Asian culture has dominated the world) then don’t give your character an Asian name. Alien and fantasy settings do have their own “rules” for naming characters but give each race or cultural group a style of names. One other point, I always try for variety in the first letter or overall sound of the name. Having an Aewyn, Aelwyn, and Aelfhaven in the same book (a prince, a goddess, and a place respectively) would be too confusing (so Aewyn got his name changed because the other two were culturally based and had to stay). I’ve honestly put down a book because I kept confusing the first two characters because the names were too similar. Now, I do have a Jonathan, son of Johann and a Ronan, a Richard, and a Robert in the same family. In some cultures that’s the way naming within generations worked (There’s a Robert, a Robb, and a Robin in Game of Thrones after all). The best thing to keep in mind is that you want to keep things fairly easy and straightforward for your reader.
5) Scene Order – it makes sense to write from point A to point B to point C and on to the end. But sometimes we need flashbacks or memories, and sometimes we want to write completely out of order, placing a nearly last scene first (Megamind) or even more scrambled (The Time Traveler’s Wife). Always keep scenes clearly marked if they are not in chronological order! If there’s no good plot or presentation reason to mess with the natural order of time then leave it, just for simplicity’s sake. But there’s nothing saying you can’t play with your timeline as long as the story remains interesting and understandable.
6) Format – who said a novel had to be prose anyways? You can write it as a series of letters, like CS Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” or as poetry like Ellen Hopkins “Crank”, “Glass” and “Fall Out”. Remember, when someone picks up a novel they are expecting something familiar. If you’re going to step outside of the traditional here you need to grab people, and keep the clarity of storytelling.
THE BREAKABLE RULES
These are rules that shouldn’t even be rules. They’re more like conventions.
1) POV choice – you can choose anyone to “tell” your story. 1st person, 3rd person, I read a story that was told by the house plant of all things. It was very good actually. Some are more common than others. Some are easier for short pieces while others are better suited to long pieces. There really is no rule here except clarity and consistency. And we already know consistency can bend as long as clarity is maintained.
2) Tense choices – immediate past tense and present tense are the most common choices. You can choice either of these or play with others (like far past tense which is used for extended flash back stories, or future tense). Present is hard to maintain in longer pieces. There is no rule for which to choose, only preference and how which works better for your story. (Oh, and scripts are in present tense).
3) Language Choice – I don’t mean English vs. French. I mean using technical jargon, profession specific words, and fancy language. Don’t go to the thesaurus just to spice up your writing, but if there’s a little used word that is perfect for your work, use it. If we all use the same dreary words over and over again we’ll lose all creativity!
This is way longer than I intended, and I’m sure I’ve missed rules. If I get enough comments on things I didn’t cover I’ll do a part 2.