Don’t let the rules get in the way of a good story

Recently, I read a post by Lee Child (famous thriller writer, creator of Jack Reacher, in case you don’t know) on not following the ‘rules’ of writing.

You can read it here if you want, but basically he was saying that some of the most dearly held writing ‘rules’ are bunk.

You don’t have to agree with what he said, or the way he said it (just read the comment trail for proof) but I think there is a really important message in what he was saying that the more ranty commenters have missed.

It’s this: Story Trumps Tools.  

The ‘rules’, such as they are, are there to help you tell a better story.  They are useful only insofar as they help you do that.  If they do, use ’em.  If they don’t, ignore ’em.

Let’s take ‘show don’t tell’ as an example, since it’s one he mentions and one I have talked about at some length on this blog.

‘Show, don’t tell’ is a tool for making descriptions more vivid for the reader.  That’s all it is.  It’s not a God-given writer edict.  It’s a tool.

The question you ask yourself, as a writer, when you are looking at your scene, is, how can I make this scene, these people, these feelings, come alive in the reader’s mind?  How can I present what is happening here so that they don’t read about the emotions, but experience them?  How can I make them hold their breath in the suspenseful bits, cry in the sad bits and laugh in the funny bits?

If ‘showing’ helps you do that, then show away.  If you’ve already ‘shown’ and you need more oomph, then maybe pull out some other tool from your writerly toolbox and try that.  But if you have ‘told’ and it’s still working, then leave it alone.

Because – bear with me here – there is something that is more important than how you arrange the words on the page.

Now, as a lover of a beautifully-turned phrase and an English graduate, steeped in the classic prose of many generations, this took me a while to get, so if you are hyperventilating now, I understand.  But here’s the scoop:

Story Trumps Everything.

Every word you put on the page, every tool you use, every idea you have; they all exist to serve the story.  If you tell a good story, your reader won’t care if you tell your socks off.  If you make them care about your characters, they won’t give a toss what point of view you use or even, much as I hate to admit it, if you can’t spell.

(Although if your stuff gives an editor a migraine it won’t get to a reader. Use spellcheck.  Proof-read. Please. Don’t bring our profession into disrepute with people who CAN spell.)

So here’s my writerly advice for today.  Trust your story.  Concentrate on that.  Make it a story only you can tell.  There are no new stories, only new storytellers.  Reach deep down into your gut, dive deep into your own knowledge of the world and come back and tell us what you know.  Tell a story that is as unique, as vibrant, as different as you are.  That’s what we want to read.

And if you are having trouble getting that wisdom onto the page, then, by all means, consult the manuals, do the classes and try on the tools that have worked for others.  If they help you to make your story shine, use them and don’t listen to anyone who tells you not to.

But if your story shines without them, don’t listen to anyone who says you HAVE to use any of them.  Your vibrant way of telling may be completely different from someone else’s, but if it works for the readers, that’s what matters.

I would put one caveat on this, and that is that you really do need at least a sound knowledge of the rules of grammar, syntax and yes (in spite of what I said above) spelling.  It’s very hard to communicate anything well without them. If you don’t have those, find a course, or a good professional editor or tutor who can teach you.  Your story deserves it.

But the ‘rules’ that say you can’t have more than one point of view in a scene, or you shouldn’t ‘tell’ or any of the other myriad things that can bog you down and frighten you into writer’s block?  I poke my tongue out at them.  As the wonderful Deb Dixon would say, ‘you can do whatever you want, as long as you do it brilliantly.’

In other words, don’t let the tools get in the way of a good story.

YOUR good story.

Happy writing.


The image above is from the lovely folks at Free Digital

11 thoughts on “Don’t let the rules get in the way of a good story

  1. I completely agree. In fact, I’ve just finished a little rant over a list of “25 ways to ruin your story” that offered all sorts of blanket rules such as “never use passive sentence structure” and so on. Ugh!

    • I think the worst part is when consciousness of the ‘rules’ stops people from writing all together. I have found learning about these tools helpful in improving my writing and in working out why things weren’t working when I knew they weren’t. But that’s how they should be used, I feel – after the story is at least partly shaped and only when it’s broken. If it’s working, don’t mess with it, is my philosophy!

  2. Excellent point and post. Story Trumps everything. Funny how that is so like making of a movie/sitcom/series. Of course those who count are viewers not readers. Imelda, have the best day!

    • You too, lovey! Must be getting up the sharp end of your job by now!

      Yes, story is vitally important on screen. Great actors can help realise the story, just as pretty words and good phrasing can provide enjoyment in novels. But if the story has no substance, there is a limit to what they can do. It’s horrible seeing talented people labouring over an inferior script. And fabulous when a great story meets great actors and together they make it even better. One day, I’d like to have a stab at a movie. But I still have a lot of work to do in novel form first!

      Hope the costumes are coming together!

      • You would make an excellent script writer. From what I’ve read of your writing, the script writing world needs you. Alas, a novel is so dignified, I understand why you would go that way first.

  3. Know the rules first, then break them if necessary to your voice and story. Nothing wrong with partial sentences to convey feeling and atmosphere for example. But get spelling and punctuation right so you don’t pull readers out of the story. I loathe reading stories full of errors because I can’t concentrate on plot or characters if I’m trying to decipher what the heck the writer meant to say.

    • You’re quite right, Sue. My Dad is wont to say that those who live by the word should be perfect in the word. And by that he means, perfect in grammar and syntax and spelling, precisely so that they can communicate clearly and without distraction. Only when you know the basics and have them well practised, can you take flight creatively. At least, for an educated audience, anyway.

      And the same is true to some extent for the other ‘rules’ that I mentioned above. If you understand how they work, you can chose deliberately whether or not to use them and that is a better way to be than ignorant. But if they are going to paralyse you with stress, better I think to forget all about them and get the story down, then worry about whether or not you need to tweak your POV or showing or whatever. Just the other day, I was listening to a fellow writer bemoan the way her head was so weighed down with what she could and couldn’t do that she found it hard to even start writing. That’s a terrible shame!

    • It’s interesting, isn’t it, Kylie? They can definitely be helpful, but slavish adherence to anything surely has to get in the way of being authentic? Take, for example, the choice of ‘person’ to write in. When I chose first person for the story I’m working on now, I took a whole heap of things into account, such as what it would do to suspense and reader foreknowledge and the like – but it never occured to me that some people would think that first person just ‘wasn’t done’. (An opinion I’ve heard since.) I wonder now if it would have affected my choice and how, had I known. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss!

  4. I never go back and edit stories other than for spelling or grammar (sometimes for sentence order though) my philosophy being: if it was what I wanted to say the first time, why change it? This post I definitely agree with.

    • Oh, thou art brave, sixpuns! I’m not sure I’d go quite that far! 😉 I think the need for editing probably depends a bit on how long the story is and how you work. If you’re a get-it-down-first-and-fix-it-later writer, going back is a given. But changing the substance of the story because you’re second-guessing yourself is quite different, I agree. Sometimes stories can be improved with hindsight, but sometimes, what you wrote is what you wanted to say and the story you wanted to tell and you have to have faith in your own story, absolutely!

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