Exploring the “Rules” of Writing ~ for Readers and Writers

rules of writing

by Kassandra Lamb ~ Writers find this quote amusing, because it’s sort of true. Ask a bunch of writers what the three most important rules of writing are, and you will get somewhat different answers from all of them.

The one you will probably hear most often is “Show, don’t tell.” This is an excellent rule. But even this one needs to be broken at times.

For example:

On the drive home, Paul pondered his options. He needed to make a decision soon.

This is telling, but it is a common way that a writer might transition to a new scene, by briefly mentioning something the character did, said or thought while they were physically moving to the next setting.

Showing would look like this:

Paul walked out to his car, unlocked it and got in. He turned the key in the ignition and put the engine in gear. As he drove on autopilot, he considered his options. (Writer then lists all the options and their pros and cons, even if the reader already knows about them. Three or more paragraphs later…) Paul shook his head and muttered, “Have to make a decision soon.”

In this case, showing is not the best option because it violates another of the major rules of writing…

Never bore the reader!

This is a rule I can enthusiastically support. If you bore your readers instead of entertaining them, they will close your book and all your lovely words will wilt in the dark.

So sometimes telling is a good thing—such as when the writer is just trying to make a transition or quickly fill the reader in on something that isn’t important enough to merit “showing” it.

But even the “Don’t bore the reader” rule can be problematic. Because both reading and writing are subjective experiences. A wordy description of a setting, for example, may be boring to one reader but delightful prose to another.

Bottom line, almost every writing rule can be broken.

And perhaps should be broken, under certain circumstances. Which is why a lot of us writers like to think of them as “guidelines” rather than “rules.”

The most important thing for novice writers to get about the rules/guidelines is that they need to understand why any given one exists, before they decide to break it.

For example, another frequently touted rule of writing is “don’t head-hop.”

In other words, don’t shift back and forth from one character’s point of view to another’s.

In my first few books, I broke this rule without realizing what I was doing. I called my writing style “multiple POV” (POV=point of view) and justified it by saying that it brought my readers closer to the characters because they knew what all of them were thinking and feeling, not just the main character.

Well, there is such a thing as multiple POV. And that is its greatest advantage, allowing the reader to get to know all the significant characters on a deeper level.

Multiple Motives cover -- rules of writing
My first book was a hot mess originally. I’ve fixed it since then, though.

But that wasn’t what I was doing. I was head-hopping.

Because there are guidelines/rules about how to do multiple POV. (1) You stick to one character’s point of view in any given scene or chapter, (2) you let the reader know when there is a switch by putting in a scene or chapter break, and (3) you immediately ground the reader in the new POV with an inner sensation and/or thought.

I wasn’t doing any of that.

Finally an editor found the right words to get through my thick skull.

She explained that what I was doing, hopping all over the place, was having the opposite effect from what I wanted. She pointed out that head-hopping actually confuses the reader and distances them from the characters, because they’re never quite sure whose head they are in at the moment.

I went back and rewrote those earlier books, choosing one POV character for each scene. Now that I understood the reason behind the rule, I knew better when and how to break it.

Because sometimes I still break it, but with intention—such as in a love scene, where I may switch once or twice between the two lovers’ perspectives.

Readers, have you ever wondered why writers usually do something in a certain way? (They’re probably following some rule.)

Writers, which rules of writing do you feel are most important? And which ones do you break periodically?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida. She also writes romantic suspense under the pen name of Jessica Dale.

Misterio press produces an array of quality crime fiction. We post here twice a month, usually on Tuesdays, to alert you to new releases, to entertain, and to inform.

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  • Reply
    Susie Lindau
    March 11, 2021 at 4:13 pm

    Great tips, Kassandra! I read a book that was on the NYT Bestseller list, and was full of telling and head-hopping! This was a second book by a bestselling author. It must not have bothered some readers.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 11, 2021 at 5:26 pm

      Thanks, Susie! More and more often I’m seeing books by big name authors with all kinds of rule-breaking going on. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing!

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