A Quick PSA About “Writing Rules”
Are you freaking out because your story doesn’t exactly fit into a particular story structure? Are you worried because your inciting incident is a little earlier or later than what is usual? Are you stressing out over action beats, adverbs, scene transitions, chapter length, acts or parts–or neither, planning or pantsing, how much world building to do, what your character’s favorite ice cream flavor is, tropes, cliches, said, showing versus telling, and so on…
1) Take a DEEP breath.2) Take a step back.
3) Know this…
“Writing rules” are simply guidelines. They are not absolute. They are not meant to be used as a template for the creation of your story.
Here’s a good way of thinking about it…
If you want to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but you’ve never made one before and have no idea how to do it, you’re going to need to start with some basic instructions. Step One: get two pieces of bread. Step Two: put peanut butter on one slice of bread. Step Three: put jelly on the other slice of bread. Step Four: sandwich them together and eat. In writing, these basic steps would be things like basic story structure, what a protagonist is, what an antagonist is, etc. The basics.
But, then you have this whole other level of peanut butter and jelly sandwich making instructions: what type of bread to use, what texture of peanut butter, what flavor of jelly, the proper ratio of peanut butter to jelly, etc. In writing, these would be things like where the inciting incident should fall, what cliches to avoid, whether or not to divide your story into parts or acts or neither. And the thing is, these instructions are completely negotiable, whether you’re making a PB&J sandwich or writing a story, yet these are also the rules that are often flung at you in no uncertain terms…
Ten Reasons You MUST Avoid Love Triangles!
Why Your Inciting Incident MUST Fall on Page Ten!
Why Your Novel NEEDS a DRAMATIC DEATH RESCUE!
Five Reasons to Include a Major Cliffhanger!
SAID IS DEAD!
ADVERBS ARE ICKY!
PROLOGUES ARE FORBIDDEN!
FLASHBACKS ARE NOPE!
DOWN WITH DREAM SEQUENCES!
NEVER START A CHAPTER WITH DIALOGUE!
But, the thing of it is, you can NEVER SAY NEVER when it comes to writing fiction. Some people hate love triangles, but a lot of people don’t, so if your story demands a love triangle, do it! Is it best to find a way to begin a chapter other than with dialogue? Sure! But does that mean you can absolutely never do it? No way!
If you went into your kitchen right now to make a PB&J, you wouldn’t need any instructions because A) you know the basic steps, B) you understand the “rules” so you know what works and what doesn’t. For example, if you don’t use one part jelly to two parts peanut butter, that’s fine. You might not even want jelly, or you might use honey instead. Fine! Because you understand how to use jelly on a PB&J, you understand how not to use jelly or how to use it differently. You also know that most people wouldn’t like hot sauce on their PB&J, but that doesn’t mean you can’t figure out how to incorporate it and still make an insanely good sandwich.
So, stop stressing about fitting your story into a particular story structure. Stop worrying about filling out character development worksheets for every character. Stop worrying about the fact that your story contains a few cliches or a dream sequence. Know the basics, learn the “rules,” but don’t sweat it if you have to break them. :)
Go, write, have FUN!