Rules For Writing Fiction


Elmore Leonard used ten rules to help him remain invisible while writing fiction:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

His most important rule is one that sums up the ten: If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

Kurt Vonnegut had eight rules for writing fiction:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Somerset Maugham said “there are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

I have but a single rule: Everything in service to the story. If something doesn’t advance the story, develop the characters, give information necessary to understand the stakes of the story, then it doesn’t belong. This rule is especially important in this anything-goes publishing world, where people dash off novels in weeks to sell on Amazon. Atrocious writing, an intrusive number of typos, or a decided lack of story telling skills are not in service to the story, and need to be remedied.

Whether we adhere to rules or create them, certain aspects of writing fiction are important. You need a beginning that hooks people, a middle that makes them want to keep reading, and an ending that satisfies. The writing has to be comprehensible. No reader wants to read the same sentence over and over again, trying to make sense of it. They want to find out what happens to the character. Most of all, you must have a character who wants something desperately enough to drive the action of the story. Even if the character is unwilling to take action at the beginning, somewhere along the line she needs to take things into her own hands. A character who is unwilling to participant in her own story gets boring after awhile, and no matter how things change, that first commandment of writing will always hold true — though shalt not bore thy reader.

So, what traditional rules do you follow? What rules do you make up? If you create your own rules, how do you make your story work?

1 Comment
  1. Avatar of Jack Eason
    Jack Eason says

    I only have only one rule Pat – ignore all rules! 😉

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