Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 29, 2014

Break All the Rules

Sherry ThomasSherry Thomas

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.

Expect magic.


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?

the perilous seaUSA 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


28 comments on “Break All the Rules”

  1. Write on, Sherry, been fighting these sacred cows for years and years! I hate being told what to do...and let the story dictate its own mechanics and methods...and use whichever words best advance the *story*. Writers can focus too much on the trees-for-the-forest....

    Thanks for a well-written post! :-]

  2. I think we grasp those rules as life preservers in a huge scary ocean, Sherry. The creative life is boundless, and it can get overwhelming - like looking at the Milky Way, and feeling insignificant.

    But you're right - anything works, if done well.

    Boldly go!

  3. In my last book, published by Harlequin, I added a prologue at the suggestion of my editor. I was flabbergasted when she suggested it. Eyes opened!

    Thanks, Sherry!

  4. My pet peeve isn't really about a broken rule, it's about people who don't know what the "rule" really is. We're told "Don't use passive voice" but the verb "was" does not make something passive voice. Yes, there might be stronger ways to convey something, but "The boy was tossing a red ball from hand to hand" is not passive voice.

  5. I'm with you Sherry! I have prologues in many of my books otherwise the story would start to slowly. Mine are usually out of time sequence - always short - a way of creating tension to draw in my reader. I stopped worrying about them when, like you Deb, an agent suggested I put one in.
    And as for passive voice - don't get me started!

  6. I'm with you on ALL of it...including adverbs and show and tell. I think Laura's point about life preservers is all too true, but I also think lately too many "literary" trends are treated as Biblical-level commandments, when knowing the rules and then depending on common sense and your creative intuition are a better way to go.

    Cheers, Faith

    1. "Biblical-level commandments"--I love it, Faith. I think a lot of editors have lost out-of-the-box creativity by sticking to their "commandments"!

  7. Another 'rule' I often see broken successfully is to never shift your point of view during a scene. I'm reading Longbourn at the moment and Jo Baker does it quite regularly, and to good effect. To quote my favorite Emerson line, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

    1. Nice addition, sheer hubris. Particularly in longer scenes, it's helpful to see two points of view about the action, dilemma, or emotions.

  8. I just started reading chapter one of Nicholas Sparks' The Best of Me and was surprised to discover the first three pages was a prologue of sorts, lots of backstory. As a beginning novelist, I was pleased to know rules can be broken and done well!

  9. This is such a wonderful post! I am a writer and yet I don't care whether the authors' books I read have prologues or adverbs or telling. I just want to, as you say, be "pulled in" to the story. If I am, who cares whether the authors followed "the rules". Nonsense.

  10. I agree with most of what you say, Sherry. I LOVE prologues and have used them many times over the 30 years I've been writing. I used one in a recent LIH I did. I think they work well as something that happened in the past that "sets up" the present story and can provide a lot of motivation for what's happening now. As for showing versus telling, I agree that there is a place for both. I was "taught" that the place for telling was transition, sequel, etc. and it seems to work. BUT, I have read books that are mostly telling, and as you say, if they grab you and take you along for the ride, go for it.

  11. Thank you, Sherry, for the wonderful article. And I agree with you. I try to use strong verbs but somethings just call for an adverb. I had someone tell me I needed to get rid of every single "was". Sorry, sometimes "was" is necessary.

  12. I was discouraged by the rule that mysteries need to have a body drop in the first chapter, preferably on the first page. I tried killing someone off in a prologue, but prologues are forbidden. Perhaps the "rules" should be called hints, little tricks that might help if help is needed.

  13. F**k the rules. I couldn't agree more.

    I've said it before. I have one rule: Write good.

    I once said that on another writing blog (a very didactic, pro-rules blog) and the host replied, "Don't you mean 'Write WELL'?"

    Point missed.

  14. When I decided to write I got all kinds of books that told me HOW to write. Then I went and read some of my favorite and very successful books by prominent authors... they broke some of the rules. I couldn't believe it! They clearly and blatantly ignored some of the rules. I think you need to know the rules before you break them. But a great story, is still a great story. Helpful article. Thank you.

  15. Thanks for reminding us that what works best for the story is the way to write, Sherry. My English teachers went crazy when they found a sentence fragment, but an occasional fragment can be powerful--and succinct.

  16. I only follow two rules when writing: (1) to write the story that's floating around in my head, and (2) to write it to the best of my ability. I'll do whatever I have to to get to the end. I'll tell, I'll show. My characters will whisper, scream, shout, and mutter if need be. I'll use a prologue, epilogue, or start sentences with 'and' if it fits the scene.

    And it works.

  17. As a debut novelist and short story writer, I struggle with the rules, and found your comments very useful. I like your comment Kristy K James about two rule and I would add a third, rules and comments are important but always listen to your own inner writing voice the positive one that knows what is right for your story. We all have one but all too often we allow the 'other' voices to override. I have found myself pondering rules and suggestions to the point of losing the story.

  18. Putting together my ideas ready to start writing 'Blood on the Wall' my fourth Fiona Mason Mystery tomorrow, I was reminded of your post and the so-called Golden Rule I ALWAYS break! Contrary to all the advice, I never plot my novels.
    My one-off psychological suspense novels always begin with a scene and once I've discovered how my character reacts the story begins to develop. By about chapter four, I might have some idea of where I want to end up but making the journey is the fun part. I write to find out. I'd be bored silly if I knew what was coming. With my Mysteries, I do know my main characters and once I've found my setting (Fiona is a tour manager for a coach company so each book takes place in a different country) I need to find a plot idea relevant to the country (ie diamond smuggling in Amsterdam in 'Blood on the Bulb Fields' and shenanigans in the wine industry form the background to 'Blood in the Wine' set in the Rhine Valley) but that's about it.
    Okay, so I do need to do a great deal of rewriting. I know many of the greats - P D James and Jeffrey Deaver whom I admire immensely, to name but two - plot in fantastic detail, but I'm sure there are more of us out there who choose this method than the plotters.

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