Everyone’s heard the saying, “Rules are made to be broken,” yet we all desperately feed on writing tips from numerous blogs. And here I am, a novelist, and I’m writing about writing too.
Well, worry not. I’ll be the first to tell you that you can do whatever you want. I mean, use a period to end your sentences. Grammar exists and it helps others understand what you’re saying. But a lot of writing advice is either a downright lie, a parroting of bad or misunderstood guidelines, or at the very least, a rule that is meant to be broken.
Here are the popular writing myths we’ve all heard:
Don’t Begin A Novel With Dialog
The easiest way to debunk this is to cite the many successful novels that actually do open with dialog, such as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.
“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.”
But let’s move past that.
Every source of this advice says something similar: the reader can’t possibly care about what is being said because they don’t even know who the speaker is. Except this isn’t true. As long as the opening line is interesting, readers will care. Besides, this advice doesn’t only limit dialog. Take Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which is oft cited as having one of the best opening lines in sci-fi ever.
It was a pleasure to burn.
Now, this isn’t dialog per say but it certainly is referring to a person whom we know nothing about yet. Does that fact invalidate the line or make us lose interest? Or does it actually make us want to read more and find out WHO thinks this way and WHY?
Opening lines are meant to set the story’s tone and pique the reader’s interest. If you’re doing that, then don’t fret inane rules.
Use The Active Voice
Don’t say, “I was bitten by the dog.” Say, “the dog bit me.” We’ve all repeatedly been told this, right? Less words + more direct = better.
Well here I am telling you that, while it’s good to understand the difference, you should feel free to use the passive voice wherever you like. For instance, what if, like above, you are narrating something from the point of view of the person being affected by something? You might want to highlight the inaction of the POV by using the passive voice. Also, passive sentences can often be SHORTER than active sentences (say what?) if you choose to omit the actor (e.g, “I was bitten.”). In fact, if you want to focus the reader on the action or the subject instead of the actor, the passive voice can work well for that. And sometimes, on the opposite note, if you want a dramatic “dun dun DUN” moment to call out the actor, it’s a great choice as well. Lastly, it’s your prose, so if you prefer using it, go ahead. That’s what people call style.
Remember, Shakespeare never wrote: “The winter of our discontent is now.”
Only Attribute Dialog with ‘Said’
It is commonly believed that words like ‘said’ and ‘asked’ are invisible. That is, you can use them repeatedly and it will never bother the reader. But, if you were to be so bold as to say something like, “he whispered,” then you are using bad form.
This one is just ridiculous. First of all, people can ‘command’ or ‘admit’ things. And I have been bothered by seeing the word ‘said’ too much. The key is to not overdo anything in writing, one way or the other (unless you are doing it deliberately for emphasis). Now, sometimes authors can get a little too cute with excessive adverbs or misplaced dialog verbs. Just use common sense. The following will always be a bad dialog attribution: ‘”I saw him,” he twerked.’
Small Words Are Better Than Big Ones
I get the point. As an author, you don’t want to be looking up words in thesauruses to impress people. But the idea that you should dumb down your prose to be as simple as possible is a dangerous one. Perhaps it is brought on by the rise of Young Adult and the idea of what ‘millennial culture’ is- but honestly, I find all of those assertions insulting. Writing is about expressing ideas and emotions. Often, longer words are more precise and efficient at doing that than more generic or common alternatives. Don’t pander.
Stay Away From Adjectives And Adverbs
Adjectives describe nouns (red, smooth, expensive). Adverbs describe verbs (slowly, downstairs, later). To simply cut out a segment of the English language on principle is not a good way to write better. The point of looking at adjectives and adverbs is to not abuse them, just as you don’t want to abuse any part of speech. Don’t force things, be natural, and you should be okay.
Show, Don’t Tell
This one I agree with to a point, but it still irks me. The basic principle is sound: why state that a character is angry when you can display it through actions or dialog? Punching a hole in the wall is more visceral than being told that someone is upset.
With a visual medium like movies, showing is important, even necessary. But books, of all mediums, afford a lot of telling. Books are longer, more detailed, more precise, and allow the reader to go at their own pace. If ever there were a great place to tell something, it’s there.
Consider this: how much writing advice is geared towards trimming the fat of a story and only focusing on what is important and interesting? Well, an entire novel of showing can end up being very long. Prudent telling can be a more efficient and speedier read. Doesn’t that blow your mind when everything you’ve ever been told is that telling is boring?
The real goal, like everything, is to find the proper balance. Your pacing and tone rely on it.
So where do these rules come from? Why is everyone and their mother tweeting this advice? (besides the fact that the nuances of syntax are difficult to rebut in under 140 characters).
Yup, I’m talking about the great American author himself. How influential was Hemingway? He was extremely important, practically fathering the 20th century writing style and winning the Nobel Prize for it.
His syntax was simple and respectable- but we don’t all need to copy him. Remember, his understated style was a response to the incredibly dense Victorian prose that came before him. It’s okay to utilize a full vocabulary and words that babies can’t pronounce yet. It’s fine to use compound sentences- that’s why they exist. Allow Hemingway to have done his thing without feeling pressured to jump on the bandwagon. Otherwise, you might start noticing the urge to hunt grizzly bears.
The Elements of Style, 1918
Finally, it can be easy to scapegoat Hemingway, or to appear post-modern or hip or elitist by trying to criticize the man instead of applauding him. But he wasn’t the real problem. He had his style; it served him well. Really, if you think about it, every single piece of bad grammar advice that any of us learned growing up, and in fact that still gets taught, has probably gained wide appeal because of the famous guide, The Elements of Style.
Let me just say that this book is why we can’t have nice things. There is a lovely, scathing article about it here, entitled ’50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,’ but you can be content in knowing that it is responsible for most of the bad advice debunked above. It turns out that the two authors of this instructive style guide were not the expert grammarians that we would expect. The contrary article’s final advice serves well to express what I’ve been trying to say this entire time:
English syntax is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions.
Thank you. If there’s any advice in this post that you listen to, let it be that.
Don’t fall into the trap of following easy-to-remember rules. Know what you want to say. Understand it. Then write it down.
Well said! Your clear explanations bring the ‘rules’ into tight focus. They’re important, but it’s a terrible loss when peripheral vision disappears.
Thanks Sheryl! I agree. As basic guidelines, they are definitely useful. I think too many people want immediate recipes for success and get hung up on “the rules” sometimes.