I like directions. I am, moreover, very good at following directions. Lately, however, I find myself balking at one particular set of directions: writing rules. Now I’m the last person to suggest that everything about writing is subjective and therefore any rule should be kicked in the gonads before it even walks through the door. But I have become quite impatient with how some of those general guidelines are presented: as implacable absolutes.
Offending rule #1: Don’t start a book with a prologue
I used to shrug at that, even when I was a rank beginner. Surely, I thought, since there are so many good and successful books that start with prologues, that fallacy would die a natural death before long. Sadly, I was wrong. I last came across someone asking serious questions about whether a prologue was verboten only a month ago.
A quick trip to my own bookshelves returns with some very prominent titles that start very prominently with prologues. Lord of the Rings, for example. The Da Vinci Code, yes. Switching genres slightly, The Secret History by Donna Tartt also features a prologue. Strictly speaking, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone does not have a prologue. But if your chapter 2 starts with “Nearly ten years had passed since the Dursleys had woken up to find their nephew on the front step,” I’d say your chapter 1 is a prologue in everything but name.
Closer to home, Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase opens unabashedly with a prologue—and that book has sat at the top of the All About Romances Top 100 Romances poll for at least a decade. And Born in Ice, the first Nora Roberts book I ever picked up? You guessed it, prologue!
Don’t write boring prologues, if you must have rules about prologues. But let’s stop badmouthing prologues in general. If a book opens well, who cares whether it is a chapter 1 or a prologue?
Offending rule #2: Stay away from adverbs
Don’t mix your prints. Don’t wear black with navy. Don’t wear white after Labor Day. These used to be fashion maxims, taken as self-evident and immutable. Well, they have all fallen by the wayside in recent years. And winter white is considered terribly chic these days.
Not that I think adverbs should ever be in fashion en masse. It doesn’t hurt for writers to go for nouns and verbs, which are stronger, more impactful words. But we should be cognizant that sometimes an adverb can be the most efficient and elegant of way of saying what you want to say.
I need to apologize to the blogger who brought this to my attention: I can’t remember or find out who you are. But the article is from People.com, concerning an on-air faux pas on the part of Kathy Lee Gifford, who didn’t do her homework before she interviewed the actor Martin Short. Mr. Short had lost his beloved wife fairly recently. Ms. Gifford, ignorant of that, pressed him for answers about his relationship.
"How many years are you in love with her now?" inquired Gifford.
Short, already looking stricken, quietly replied, "Thirty-six."
Quietly. That word made the sentence. Sometimes adverbs simply do it better.
Offending Rule #3: Show, don’t tell
Now I am veering into sacred-cow territory. No matter, one person’s sacred cow is another’s future steak. Not that I have anything against showing—most of my time is spent trying to guide readers deeper into the hearts and minds of my characters via showing. But telling has its place in, well, storytelling.
The movie equivalent to telling would be narration, also known as the voice-over, often disparaged as a cheap trick by directors who can’t do what needs to be done visually. But as this Movieline.com article by Nathan Pensky points out,
Even the most anti-narration snob would have to concede that the larger film canon contains some pretty notable exceptions to this rule. The Naked City, A Clockwork Orange, Sunset Boulevard, GoodFellas, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Big Lebowski, The Shawshank Redemption — all use narration, and far from stalling story or characterization, with them it pushes everything forward.
Why do people persist in telling, instead of showing? A lot of times telling is the most efficient way of getting information across, especially at the beginning of a work. The most important job a writer has is to suck in her readers. No reader cares whether you are telling or showing, as long as you are effectively sweeping her along.
I never tire of using the example of Kristan Higgins’s opening—in the prologue, no less—of her book Too Good to be True.
Making up a boyfriend is nothing new for me. I’ll come right out and admit that. Some people go window shopping for things they could never afford. Some look at online photos of resorts they’ll never visit. Some people imagine that they meet a really nice guy when, in fact, they don’t.
If that’s not telling, I don’t know what is. And that is a tremendous beginning. Certainly pulled me right in.
I often open my own books in the third person omniscient point of view, because I want to situate readers in the story as quickly as possible. For my YA fantasy The Burning Sky, after a dozen different beginnings and much hair pulling, I decided I needed to tell, rather than show. And this is what I did:
Just before the start of Summer Half, in April 1883, a very minor event took place at Eton College, that venerable and illustrious English public school for boys. A sixteen-year-old pupil named Archer Fairfax returned from a three-month absence, caused by a fractured femur, to resume his education.
Almost every word in the preceding sentence is false. Archer Fairfax had not suffered a broken limb. He had never before set foot in Eton. His name was not Archer Fairfax. And he was not, in fact, even a he.
This is the story of a girl who fooled a thousand boys, a boy who fooled an entire country, a partnership that would change the fate of realms, and a power to challenge the greatest tyrant the world had ever known.
Telling? No doubt. A better opening than any of the dozen that preceded it? No doubt.
At their core, all the rules I rail against today are well meaning and good to keep in mind. As best-practice guidelines and not absolutes. In writing, as in anything else, different circumstances require different approaches. And it’s generally better to have more tools at our fingertips than fewer. So go into those trenches with a full arsenal, if you can.
(And of course, everything in this article is a suggestion, not a rule.)
Do you have a writing rule you're afraid to break? Or maybe you'd rather share your own successful rule breaking?
USA Today-bestselling author Sherry Thomas loves nothing more than the mix of explosive action and combustible romance. In her career so far, she has written more romance than action, but she is making up for it with a YA fantasy trilogy and a wuxia-inspired duology. Her books regularly receive starred reviews and best-of-the-year honors from trade publications, including such outlets as the New York Times and National Public Radio. She is also a two-time winner of Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA® Award.
And by the way, English is her second language.
You can find out more about Sherry’s books at SherryThomas.com