Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Writers' Rules

At our regular meeting of the Bethlehem Writers Group last night, one of our members quoted some advice she had heard from a well-known agent that one should not have any back story in the first 100 pages of a novel. The pronouncement was greeted with a general moan. 

Writers often hear such arbitrary rules. Good ideas offered one writer are passed on to others until they are nearly etched in stone. Some authors try to follow them all to the point of sacrificing storytelling for the sake of the "rules." 

One of the more mineralized bits of wisdom for fiction writing is "show, don't tell." In fact, we usually hear it quoted by one member or another at each of our meetings. It's sometimes hard to figure out exactly what this means. Looking at an example of the two ways of accomplishing the same thing might help. 

Suppose we have a man and a woman involved in a discussion. In the dialogue, we hear their words, but through the narrative we learn about the feelings behind those words. We can do that through showing (e.g. "She pursed her lips, shook her head, and looked away,") or through telling (e.g. "She did not agree with what he said, but didn't want to say so.")

With with the former, we, as readers, feel more like we're there in the scene, watching it unfold, and interpreting the woman's body language based on our own lives and experience. With telling, we might actually know a little more about what is going on inside the woman's head, but with showing we feel more connected. That connection is what can keep a reader involved and turning pages, which is why "show, don't tell" became a rule.

Still, there are times when telling is the best way to get through a section. If you want the reader to know something, but it's not worth half a page to show them, then telling is the more efficient means. The rule "show, don't tell," isn't unbreakable.

Such cases remind me of the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. In it, the fair maid, Elizabeth, is negotiating with the pirate Barbossa to exchange a piece of pirate gold for the safety of her town. 

Geoffrey Rush and Keira Knightley
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Barbossa: Very well, you hand it over and we'll put your town to our rudder and ne'er return.
Elizabeth: [she hands it over] Our bargain?
[Barbossa walks away from her]
Bo'sun: Still the guns and stow 'em, Signal the men, set the flags and make good to clear port.
Elizabeth: Wait! You have to take me to shore. According to the Code of the Order of the Brethren...
: First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate's code to apply and you're not. And thirdly, the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner. 

For writers, I believe, like Barbossa, there are very few absolutes. (I've read that the one unbreakable rule is that one should never start a story with "And," but I'm sure there are stories that begin that way.) Tenets like "show, don't tell" and "no back story in the first 100 pages" became rules for a reason, but writers would be well advised to consider them "more what you'd call 'guidelines' . . ." They are often the best advice. But they're not right for every situation. Sometimes, breaking the rules helps a writer find a better way to tell the story. 

Some writing coaches agree with me, but advise writers to be sure to know all the rules before attempting to break any of them.

That's probably good advice . . . but it's not a rule.


  1. Great article!

    I, for one, have heard that the only RULE for writing is that you must never EVER start a sentence with...a comma!

  2. Look, that's why there's rules, understand? So that you think before you break 'em.
    -- (Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time)

  3. Great post! I understand now, but can I follow it??