Rules vs. Objectives

Yes, wise Master, er, aren’t you the guy in shipping? 

Soon after I began to write stories I developed a list of writing rules: things I should do with setting, character, problem, plot, & text and things I shouldn’t. Most of these were picked up from other writers, books, and teachers.

For example, I had rules that said I should avoid all expository lumps, only use “she said” and “she asked,” never things like “she muttered.” I was to eschew the passive voice and adverbs. Only use three details at a time. Give my villains hearts and my heroes flaws. My stories were to have 3 acts (even though I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what an act was). The hero had to have an external AND and internal conflict. My character had to change. I was to not focus on plot. Etc.

I was thank-you-master grateful for my rules because I didn’t know what the heck I was doing and they stood about telling me where to start, where to stop, and how to tie my boots.

The problem is that rules are usurpers. They’re clerks with guns.  And they should not guide us. 


Because rules are actually nothing more than techniques. They are means to an end, not the end itself. And so a “rule,” a technique, that’s perfect for one emotional effect or audience can be perfectly wrong for another.

Sticking it to the man?

I heard many times that I needed to learn the rules so I could know when to break them.  Big Name Author breaks all the rules, someone would say. Yes, the answer would come, but that’s Mr. Big Name. He can get away with it. You and I can’t. We’re still under the thumb of the man. And so I looked forward to the day when I’d grow hair on my writer’s chest and defy the laws of the land.

But such a view of rules misses the point. Rules are not things we grow up an defy. How do you defy a technique? All you can do with techniques is apply them successfully or misapply them.  Furthermore, when you focus on the rules you lose sight of the objectives–generating reader emotions–which means you’re more likely to misapply the techniques.

For example, one common rule is that we’re to avoid expository lumps like the plague. But Terry Pratchett uses them all the time and they work. How can that be? It works because Pratchett is using them for humor. He has a different objective and the expository lump is a perfect technique for it. In fact, lumps are used as footnotes to the same effect by Susanna Clarke in her wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and by Jonathan Stroud in his equally delightful Bartimaeus trilogy.

Writing stories that move and entertain readers is not a procedure like baking a cake or assembling a car. It doesn’t employ the same techniques every time because you don’t produce the same story twice. Which means each story needs something a bit different. So rules are not things kept or broken. They are techniques which are applied successfully or misapplied.

When I need a plumber, I’ll call

Here’s what I’ve found is a better way: focus on the reader experience, the feelings we want to generate as we write, the objectives. Search for groups of techniques, patterns, principles, guidelines, processes, etc. that work to achieve those objectives.

Look at your rules, not as leaders, but as workers because you’re the leader. As such, your job is to find out what the rules are good for. You may find some have no skills, i.e. they don’t make any difference to the reader’s experience. Give those a kiss and a pink slip and wave them good-bye. With the rest, tell them to pipe down: you’ll call them to work when you’ve got a job that requires their specific talents.


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