Readers, Rebels and the Rules of Writing

(The third installment on gender differences in relating will be posted soon. Here is a post in our ongoing series on what Readers Really Want.)

I have always been a rebel. When I was a kid, telling me that something was against the rules was a sure-fire way to get me to do it. As an adult, I try to resist the temptation to break a rule at least once, just to see what happens.


From a 1915 musical score, public domain in the U.S.

When I retired from being a psychotherapist and turned my writing talents toward fiction, I was so relieved. No more having to follow the ‘introduction, literature review, evidence, conclusions’ format required for professional journal articles. My creativity would finally be free and unfettered.

Imagine my dismay when I discovered that writing fiction had rules! (One of which is to avoid using exclamation points. Teehee!) My editor probably ended up with muscle spasms in her neck from shaking her head so much over my first manuscript.

My editor probably could have used some of this. (Photo by Craiglduncan from Wikimedia Commons)

An internal battle then ensued, between the part of me that wanted to ignore the rules and the part that wanted to get published. The latter won and I beat the rebel into submission. Now, as a somewhat more seasoned novelist, I’ve developed a bit more of a compromise in my view of these rules. But before I get into that, let me present a few things to you, the reader.

Here are three rules that I find somewhat, shall we say, stifling: (1) Use exclamation marks very sparingly (as in, almost never); (2) only use said or asked in dialogue tags; and (3) avoid adverbs like the plague.

So imagine the hero is trying to seduce the heroine. He is nibbling on her earlobe and then starts trailing kisses down the side of her neck. *pauses to fan face, is it getting hot in here?* She is trying to resist but her body has other ideas.

“Please, stop,” she gasped breathlessly.

“Please, stop,” she said, in a breathless voice.

“Please, stop.” Her voice was breathless.

You tell me, which do you like better? Which is more powerful? And which will tend to slow the story down?

Example number 2: The protagonist tells his buddy that his pet gerbil can talk.

“No way,” Jimmy said.

“No way!” Jimmy said.

No way,” Jimmy exclaimed.

“No way.” Jimmy’s voice was incredulous.

I don’t know about you, but the first one sounds to me like Jimmy isn’t all that interested. Either the second or third one works for me, although I like number two best. Technically, according to the rules, the fourth one is correct. But looking at that one, and the third one, through my reader eyes (instead of those of the writer trying to follow the rules), I can’t help wondering why there isn’t an exclamation mark there, if Jimmy is so all fired incredulous.

Now, some editors would respond to this by saying, if you need an exclamation mark or the word exclaimed in order to convey the speaker’s emotions, then you need to rewrite the dialogue to make it stronger, or show (not tell; yet another rule) the emotion through action.

Okay, how about:  Jimmy’s eyes grew wide. “No way.”

Nope, sorry, I’m still feeling like this reaction is too lukewarm without that exclamation mark. For me, first prize would go to:

Jimmy’s eyes grew wide. “No way!”

So here is the middle ground I have found, with three–soon to be four–published novels under my belt. These rules should be guidelines, because they have merit, but they should not be strictly enforced.

Use too many exclamation marks and they lose their punch (not to mention the fact that the speaker starts to sound silly.) Let’s not outlaw them completely, however.

Use said or asked most of the time as dialogue tags, because the reader’s eye glides right over them and they don’t interfere with the flow of the dialogue. But when describing the emotion or tone of voice would interfere with the flow of the dialogue, use a different dialogue tag to convey that emotion.

Likewise with adverbs; use them sparingly, but sometimes they may be the tighter way to convey the mood or tone.

Protagonist and her husband are in the middle of a disagreement that is about to heat up:

“Look, I know I go on and on sometimes, but I feel like you aren’t always listening to me.”

“What, you go on and on? Naw, never!” he teased.

“Like right now. You’re not taking me seriously,” she shot back.

He realized he had gone too far. “I do listen,” he said softly, hoping to appease her.

Oh, yeah, forgot to mention the rule about avoiding italicizing words for emphasis. So here’s the same conversation, following all the rules:

“Look, I know I go on and on sometimes, but I feel like you aren’t always listening to me.”

“What, you go on and on? Naw, never,” he said, a teasing note in his voice.

“Like right now. You’re not taking me seriously.” Her tone was now angry.

He realized he had gone too far. “I do listen,” he said, softening his voice, hoping to appease her.
Now there’s nothing wrong with the second version. But, in my opinion, the emotions aren’t as powerful. And we have ten extra words that slow down the pace of the scene, which makes the interchange sound less heated.

Let me reiterate, however, that I have matured enough through the years to realize that rules usually exist for a reason. These elements should not be used too often. Note the following, which is not far off from several first-page samples I have read on Amazon in recent times:

Jeannette sat down on a bar stool, longingly glancing in Carlos’s direction, then blatantly ignoring him.

Suddenly, she felt hot breath on her neck. Carlos gently picked up her hand and, lovingly and tenderly, kissed the soft palm. “So you can’t resist me, querida!” he breathed lustily into her ear.

Jeannette shivered deliciously but kept her face turned away.

Another man had taken the stool on her other side. “Can… uh, I buy you a drink?” he stammered nervously.

Carlos leaned forward and stared aggressively at the interloper. “She’s taken!” he growled emphatically.

“I am not!” she protested, equally emphatically.

Carlos instantly jumped from his barstool and grabbed her arm firmly. “We’ll see about that!” he growled menacingly as he hauled her off her stool and moved her hurriedly toward the door.
Now this writer has promise (Ha, ha! It’s me, several decades ago), but the mood of the scene is ruined by all the melodramatic adverbs, exclamation marks and overused irregular dialogue tags. It reads more like a farce than a serious scene. My fingers are itching to go back and edit it. (I would keep two of the fourteen adverbs, one of the four exclamation marks, and two out of the five irregular dialogue tags.)

But I won’t bore you further by ridiculously hammering home an already obviously made point about the annoyingly frequent habit of over-using these temptingly easy elements rather than writing truly fabulous and exceedingly tight, emotionally tantalizing dialogue.
Please, wade in, readers! (Yes, I do so love those exclamation marks.) What do you think about these rules? Writers and editors, feel free to join the fray.

(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)
We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

Please follow us by filling in your e-mail address at the top of the column to the right, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun!


You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    October 1, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    I agree that those are the most important rules of good writing, and rules that I don't think should be broken too often. It's important to learn how to convey emotions and experiences without using a lot of words and punctuation. It takes practice, but it's definitely worth it to know these things. Great post!

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    October 1, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    Exactly. Tight, emotion-packed writing is the goal. And it definitely takes a lot of practice. Thanks for stopping by, Alana!

  • Reply
    shannon esposito
    October 1, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    I don't see any harm in using these things (like the exclamation mark) sparingly. I don't really pay attention to things like that if the story is good enough to get me lost in it. In your Jimmy example, I would probably do both: Jimmy slammed his hand down on the table. “No way!”

  • Reply
    October 2, 2012 at 2:15 am

    I've come to the point in my writing that the rules are more like guidelines like Elisabeth Swan says in Pirates of the Caribbean. But like you said, we have to understand why they are there and when to break them. I've picked up published novels that I enjoy and there are tons of rule breaking, but somehow they figured out how to do it. And that is where the art of it all comes in. Where we take the tools we've learned and weave a story from our soul. Also, if I'm clinging so tightly to the rules as a writer, my experience as a reader suffers. And that's the whole point of me writing is because I love to read.

    Thanks for tackling this subject 🙂

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    October 2, 2012 at 3:13 am

    Shannon, love your example. Now I just have to figure out a story that would involve talking gerbils. 😛

    Yes, Jennette, you nailed it. That's where the 'art' comes in. Knowing our craft well enough to know when and how to break the rules to create art.

    Do you find it harder now to just relax and read? I do. I catch myself critiquing the poor author's writing instead of just enjoying their story. lol

  • Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.