We tend to adhere to established rules and practices of fiction writing, most of which were formed with good reason. But, rules cover a broad, generalized range. We can easily overlook the more rare exceptions to the rules that could enhance our fiction.
Always Use the Active Voice
We’re often told that using the passive voice makes for weaker, less effective sentences. And, that the better option is to write sentences in the active voice, ones that have the subject perform the action on the object.
Active Voice Example: The chamberlain lectured the servant.
The chamberlain is the subject and the servant is the object. In general, this is the effective voice to use to give the most punch and clarity to your sentences. But, sometimes your writing will be more effective by using the passive voice, such as if you are trying to convey to the reader a sense of submission, weakness, timidness, passiveness (obviously), or vagueness.
Passive Voice Example: The servant was lectured by the chamberlain.
In a passive sentence, the subject isn’t doing anything. The subject is having something done to them. Although it may not create a drastic difference, the passive form of this example reinforces and emphasizes the weaker social status of the servant.
For an in-depth explanation of active versus passive voice, check out Grammar Girl’s article about the subject.
Yes, the oft-overused adverb–those words that often end in -ly and modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs–is a dubious writing tool. The adverb is often cited as explaining or telling the reader that which should be inferred from the larger context of the story, thus making for weaker, less effective writing. It’s also said to be cumbersome and wordy, especially when using it with dialogue:
With the Adverb: The guard said loudly for the gates to be opened.
Without the Adverb: The guard yelled for the gates to be opened, is slightly shorter and uses a more evocative verb.
So, in the example above, it is better to get rid of the adverb. But, there are instances when it is okay, if not preferable, to use adverbs. For instance, there just might not exist the right verb you are looking for to describe a very specific action.
Example The monster laughed perversely at the knights.
If I couldn’t come up with a verb that detailed the precise laughing response I wanted the monster to give to the knights, I could opt to use an adverb. But what about just painting a visual of his grotesque face you may ask? Well, more often than not that would take considerably more words. And, sometimes depending on the flow of the story, you just need to be quick.
I agree, avoid adverbs, but don’t shun them completely. Keep the option available.
Show, Don’t Tell
Oh, how you hear this all the time.
Showing is painting the scene vividly for the reader, instead of just telling them what is happening. It usually makes your writing more effective as it better conveys what you want to get across to the reader.
Example: Instead of “John was mad,” a more effective sentence to convey (show) his anger to the reader is: “John hurled his fist through the wall with a guttural scream.”
It’s a great rule, no doubt about that, but we’re feeling rebellious.
There are situations where you will want to be quickly direct and clear with your reader. For example, epic, long backstory can often become confusing, cluttered, and cumbersome. Parts of it or the entirety of it could benefit greatly from just directly telling the reader in one sentence what you could not clearly convey in ten pages. Showing takes more words and thus is longer by nature. So if you think a situation would benefit more by being clearer or quicker with your reader, then just tell them what’s what.
Example: Using a full paragraph describing a lot of paternal actions to try to naturally convey to the reader that one character is the father of another. What about just saying in one quick sentence: Bob was Ted’s father. Sometimes, you just need to get that across right away, because it’s not what you want to stress writing about anyway (it’s not very important), and you would rather focus on what you have come before or after that information.
Don’t use Flat Characters
You are often told that if you want to write something interesting, don’t use unchanging, stagnant characters. Round, three-dimensional characters are the way to go, ones who change over the course of the story learning something or completing an emotional arc.
I don’t disagree with this general rule of course, but sometimes flat characters are more effective. Take for example Seinfeld. Those characters don’t change over the course of an episode, let alone the course of the series, but the viewer doesn’t complain. Why? Well, in this instance, their unchanging nature makes for a better springboard for the comedy in the show than having characters struggling through an emotional arc would.
Avoid Long Sentences, Paragraphs, & Chapters
Nowadays especially, you are told not to use long sentences, paragraphs, or chapters. Modern readers like complete segments that they can quickly consume and digest in one sitting, especially with the rise of e-books and reading on one’s phone.
But, but, but…!
Maybe you want to convey a more poetic, flowing structure. A longer sentences may work better. Or maybe you want to simulate the rambling thoughts of a disturbed individual. What about using a long sentence in which the character turns many corridors, climbs a series of stairs, passes through many rooms, opens many doors, and finally descends into a basement, so that you stylistically simulate the length of his wandering in the large building.
Yes, They’re Rules for a Reason
Please note, the standards and rules exist for a reason. Mostly because much more experienced and talented writers than we have already put countless writing techniques through the process of trial and error and have concluded with what is most effective and works best.
But there is usually always an exception to a rule. By understanding the exceptions, you will understand the rules all the better. And, you will have a better idea just when those rare times come up in your own writing to break the rules.
Other potential rules to break: Don’t write in the second person, Don’t switch between tenses or viewpoints in a short amount of time, and Avoid exposition.
Remember it’s about effective story-telling, not how well you adhere to rules.
5 Rules to Break (every so often) is written by Michael DeCesaris. Let us know in the comments what rules you recommend breaking.