by Lori Freeland
Avoid unlikeable main characters. Show don’t tell. Lock your character into character. Tell your story forward. Pass on passive verbs. Say bye-bye to backstory. Nix the omniscient narrator and dodge the dreaded head hop. Always remember adjectives are lazy, exclamation points are evil, and adverbs are from the devil. And for goodness sake, don’t forget to cover the mirror—main characters can’t ever describe themselves.
Those are just a few of the writing rules we’re taught to follow.
Sometimes writing a story feels like stumbling through Dante’s Inferno. A lot of don’ts punctuated with a stern warning that you’ll be tossed into writer’s hell—an editor’s circular file—if you do.
Why the Rules?
People need rules. Otherwise life would be chaos. But like parents, we writers can drift away from the reasons behind the rules and take a because-I-said-so approach. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it feeds the chaos. Other times, it kills your creativity.
Let’s look at the real reason behind the writing rules. The key to hooking a reader’s attention is evoking emotion. In order to evoke emotion, you need a clear picture of what’s going on in the scene.
Clarity Evokes Emotion à Emotion Hooks Readers
Readers need to understand what you’re writing. If they struggle to see the story, your message will get lost in translation. A few of us write for ourselves, but most of us write for other people. As storytellers, we want to create a mood, set a tone, mold a world. Often, we get so caught up in the excitement of sharing the magic unfolding in our heads that we forget a reader can only experience what we write.
Think about that for a minute. Not what we meant to write. Or wanted to write. Or should write. But what we actually write. The literal words we put on the page.
Paint the Outside of Your Scene
Before we dive into emotion, show us the physical, concrete aspects of the story. Think of this in movie terms.
Close your eyes, conjure up that beautiful stage you’ve set . . . and write that down. Make sure you’ve given us a clear enough image that we see what you want us to see. This picture doesn’t have to be so detailed we get buried in the description. Sometimes less is more. If you say, “a crowd of teens at a mall,” we instantly get an illustration of both the place and the people. If you say nothing, we get unoccupied white space.
Paint the Inside of Your Scene
Think in terms beyond what your character wants to why she wants it. What’s her motivation? What’s she thinking? The internal journey of your character is as crucial as the external journey.
If you want us to know she struggles with intimacy because her mom abandoned her, you have to put it on the page. So many of my editing clients explain a character’s motivation to me after I question that character’s actions. Which is great. It then makes perfect sense. But when I ask them to point out where they’ve revealed that to the reader on the page, they can’t. It’s not there.
Writers, believe it or not, we can’t read your minds. Ridiculous, right? I mean, it would be so much easier if we could. But since we don’t live in a dystopian society where mindreading is as common as sleeping, that’s where the rules come in. They serve as a guide for clarity.
So . . . when do you use writing rules and when do you ditch them?
There’s a difference between being mysterious and being vague. I’ve had many writers tell me they don’t want to reveal everything upfront. Well, good. You shouldn’t. The unfolding of a story is part of what keeps your reader turning the pages.
But if John’s standing at the top of the stairs and he’s about to fall and break his legs, we first need to see him standing at the top of the stairs. That’s not a mystery. That’s what’s physically happening in the scene. The mystery could be why he’s there. Or who pushes him. As long as you hint that the why is important to the plot, and that it will eventually be revealed, we don’t need to know upfront.
If you break a rule, make it count. Make sure it works. Make sure you haven’t sacrificed clarity. In other words, do it right. Have a reason. A real reason.
Let’s go back to the rules I listed in the beginning and break them.
Some of our favorite characters do bad things. Think Darth Vader in Star Wars, Voldemort in Harry Potter, Negan in The Walking Dead, and Joffrey in Game of Thrones. They’re evil. But they’re also interesting. And interesting evokes emotion.
Go ahead and write that unlikeable main character. But make us love to hate him. Or, even better, make us want to root for him. Slip in a redeeming quality or moment of weakness. Show a compelling motivation for otherwise reprehensible actions. Let someone we do like care about him.
If you showed everything that happened in your book, you’d end up with 300,000 pages. When you need to keep moving forward, telling is okay. But understand that telling doesn’t usually evoke emotion. If you want something to be important to the reader, it needs to be important to the character and stand out. We want to see it, not hear about it. That’s where showing shines.
I love this quote from Mark Twain. “Don't tell us that the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
Your character can do anything you want—including act out of character—with the right motivation. That’s real life. A moral and upstanding citizen will commit a crime to save his family. A criminal will reform to have a family. Pushing your character out of his comfort zone creates conflict. And . . . you guessed it . . . conflict creates emotion.
Except if that isn’t the kind of story you’re telling. Do you have a dual past/present storyline like The Notebook? Do you open with the end and work back to the beginning like Memento? Do multiple characters each share the story from their point of view like Vantage Point? Use this technique on purpose as a device to frame your story. Don’t skip around just because.
While strong verbs are usually best because they strengthen your writing, sometimes you just need to state something that’s not very important and move on. Other times, you want the action to be passive. Your description of the subtle, soft dripping of a faucet in the background won’t be loaded with power verbs.
We need backstory, just not in huge dumps that interrupt, slow the pacing, and pull us out of the present story. Get creative. Use previous events to draw us deeper into your character’s head. Show how the past impacts her feelings and her future.
Example: Up until today, I hadn’t said much about my sister’s Josh addiction. Not last summer, when she started lying to Dad. Not last fall, when she slid homework into the optional category. Not even last month, when she gave up being cheer captain.
Gone are the times of a narrator looking down on the world and filling the reader in on what everyone was thinking. Readers want to be in the story. And the way they do that is to become your main character and experience his world. Omniscient narrators make that connection almost impossible.
In certain cases, like The Book Thief, it works. But use this technique for a reason. Does it build emotion? Add to the tension? Do we get a glimpse of a serial killer you want to keep in the shadows that has us jumping up to turn on all the lights?
I kind of agree on this one but only because there are so many better ways to paint a word picture that strengthen rather than weaken your story. Adjectives can be helpful if you watch out for overload. Every so often, you might need an exclamation point as a quick way to show someone yelling. But keep in mind that if you emphasize everything, nothing will stand out. And yes, on the rare occasion, an adverb might be called for. Make it a great one.
Main characters can describe themselves if they do it right. We tend to think about ourselves in relation to the world around us. I think about my hair being blonde when it starts to go gray. I think about the clothes I’m wearing when they’re too tight. I think about my makeup when everyone I pass on the street stares. Go ahead. Put your character in front of a mirror. But make it a funhouse mirror that emphasizes her faults and grows them larger than life.
Straying from the rules can take more skill than following them. Don’t accidentally break them, decide to break them. But before you do, think of them in terms of clarity and emotion.
Ask these three questions:
Thoughts on breaking the rules? Great examples? Share them in the comments.
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An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She holds a BA in psychology from the University of Wisconsin and currently lives in the Dallas area. She's presented multiple workshops at writer's conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she's not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head. You can find Where You Belong, as well as her young adult and contemporary romance, at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently up on the Radish app. Download the app for free.
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