Are there too many rules for writing?


WRITING’S a tough gig.

Sit down.

Build a plot.

Go out and find a few characters.

Write sixty thousand words.

Or maybe it’s a hundred thousand.

Stare at a lot of blank screens.

Fill up a lot of blank pages.

And just when you think you have it all figured out, here come the rules.

Some I know.

Some I don’t.

I hear new ones every day.

And I have one basic question.

Does this art of writing have too many rules?

We discuss them at writer’s conferences.

Each speaker has his or her own set of them.

We discuss rules at critique groups.

Writers all have their own boxed set of the ones they preach as gospel.

You can discard the Ten Commandments.

But, Lord, break one of their rules, and it’s heresy.

You could be burned at the stake.

I sometimes wonder: Why should writing have any rules at all?

I’m not talking about punctuation.

Or grammar.

I’m talking about the way we tell our stories.

And you know the problem with it all?

There are rules.

And there are contradictions.

What’s right?

What’s wrong?

Does anyone know?

Does anyone really care?

We say: “Open the book with a hook. Capture your readers attention with the first sentence or the first paragraph or the first page, or they will throw up their hands in desperation, slam your book shut, and promptly look for another?”

You really believe that?

I’ve read some really good books that don’t have a hook.

They move slowly.

They move eloquently.

I’m not hooked, maybe, but I am mesmerized by great writing. And a lot of times, God forbid, the writer opens with the weather.

Some stand tall for speech tags.

“Where did you find the body?” he asked.

“On the beach,” she said.


“When I looked at my watch, it was midnight.”

“What were you doing on the beach at midnight?” he asked.

Those who like speech tags believe that “he said” and “she said” are invisible to the reader, and I tend to agree with them.

Some are violently opposed to speech tags, and, in a critique group, have a tendency to be violent if you use them.

Instead, they say, give the speaker movement instead of speech tags.

“Where did you find the body?” He shoved his hat on the back of his head.

“On the beach.” The lady turned away and started to cry.

“When?” He shivered slightly in the cold wind blowing across the bay.

She looked at her watch. “Midnight.”

“What were you doing on the beach at midnight?” He wiped the rain off his face.

I don’t have a problem with eliminating speech tags.

It’s like watching television.

I see all of the movements.

But too many of these movements stop the crisp, crackling flow of dialogue cold.

Point of view is always a point of contention.

You can only have one point of view character per scene, the rules say.

You can’t hop from one head to the next, the rules say.

That’s too confusing for the reader, the rules say.

The rules are probably right.

I won’t argue with them.

But I do want to know why so many big-time authors with big-time books head hop their way from front page to last and nobody complains.

James Lee Burke, my favorite writer, does it with regularity.

And he hasn’t confused me with any of the scenes he writes.

Do rules create better writing?

Do rules create tighter writing?

Do rules create stronger writing?


I hope so.

Or do rules simply give speakers something to talk about at writer’s workshops?

Here are my thoughts on rules.

They have been around forever.

They keep changing.

Use them.

Break them.

Make up your own.

Or forget them.

The reader doesn’t give a damn.

Caleb Pirtle III is author of Deadline News.


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