Rules Are Just Tools

Sometimes, the rules are there to protect us. In the case of the law, it’s to protect us from harm. In the case of the writing ‘rules,’ it’s to protect us from terrible books. Some rules, like the use of correct grammar, are helpful throughout your whole life. Others, however, are actively harmful to your ability. Part of being a mature writer is being able to recognise that the rules you’re taught as you’re just beginning to learn aren’t the law. They’re closer to implements in your writer’s toolkit and as you mature, you have to learn to pick the right tool for the task.

The most abused rule I see is when someone suggested thinking of alternative words to said and this was misconstrued as an order to throw ‘said’ out of the dictionary. Novice writers will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the word ‘said.’ All manner of words will be used, such as ‘exclaimed,’ ‘demanded,’ ‘intoned,’ even words which don’t describe a way of speaking at all. Sighing is not the same as talking and neither is shrugging. I’ve even encountered ‘spoke’ used rather than said, which performs the opposite function to what a dialogue tag is. The reader should hardly see the dialogue tag, registering only who the person speaking was and perhaps the action they performed as they said the line, provided it is relevant. We are so used to the word ‘said’ that we barely see it, which is why it’s one of the few dialogue tags you need. Using an unusual word, such as ‘spoke,’ or ‘exclaimed,’ will only draw attention to the individual words and break the immersion of the passage.

Sometimes another tag will be appropriate, such as ‘asked,’ or ‘shouted,’ but it should be obvious when you need these. If you do want to use another tag, first ask yourself why it is necessary. Do you need to tell us the character ‘demanded,’ something, or is it clear from what they say? Do we need to be told specifically a character ‘joked’ as they said something, or can we tell from their companion’s laugh? Dialogue tags can sometimes veer too close to the wrong side or ‘show don’t tell,’ but once you break the rule of ‘said is dead’ you’re already making strides to sounding like a mature writer.

‘Show don’t tell,’ is probably one of the most parroted rules of writing, but it’s actually one of the more complicated things we’re told as beginning writers. I prefer to think of it was ‘show vs tell,’ because it’s not a case of one being superior to the other. Rather, they are both tools in your ever-expanding writer’s toolbox, with an appropriate time for each. We don’t have to be told every detail of the protagonist’s lives and see everything they do throughout the day. We can simply be told some of these things. If it’s basic, boring information then we might not need to know it at all, but if we do, we’re fine with being told. Not all worldbuilding has to be shown when a few lines would suffice.

On the other hand, don’t just tell us the main character is the best at something, let us see them prove it. Don’t tell us something was shocking, shock us. Don’t tell us the protagonist has suddenly changed their mind on something, show us the little moments that contribute to this change of heart. Some things, we’re going to need proof for, and it’s up to you to show us it.

When learning to write, we’re told to describe things. Describe the main character, describe what everything looks like, describe people they meet. This is good, up to an extent. It’s confusing to read a book where nobody has any appearance at all and the entire thing might be happening in a cloud of fog for all the detail given, but things can go too far the other way. Not every character’s eye and hair colour have to be given down to every last variation. We don’t need a rundown of every outfit. If you’re spending more than a paragraph describing the character’s bedroom which we will never see again then please don’t unless it really is vitally important.

Fun though it may be, describing a character’s eye and hair colour tells us very little. In real life, people are not automatically bitchy because they’re blonde or firey because they’re a redhead and their eye colour tells us even less. If a character has dyed hair that might be a relevant detail, but in general stick to things that actually tell us something about them. If an adjective can be changed to any other adjective with no impact on our impression of them, it’s not necessary. For that matter, if there is something incredibly attention catching about the character’s appearance, it had better have a reason or reader’s will be left wondering what all that was about.

Adjectives are another facet of description novice writers struggle with. I’ve been writing for about seven years now, although not seriously the whole time, and I still overuse them. There are better ways to get your point across than shoving a bunch of adjectives in with every noun. Think about making the noun more specific in the same way you’re advised to make the verb more specific to cut out adverbs. If you do use adjectives, make them specific and relevant. If they don’t have a purpose, they’ll seem clunky and bog down your prose. Use both adjectives and adverbs sparingly, but that doesn’t mean they’re forbidden. I don’t subscribe to the ‘cut all adverbs’ school of thought because why would an entire type of word exist if not to be used? Like every tool, there is a time and place for when they are right.

The way we are taught to write is not the way we end up writing. We each discover our own style, favouring certain tools and techniques over others. It’s this endless combination of effects, along with plot, character, genre and every other variable, that helps keep literature alive and thrilling. Keep in mind all you learn, but when the rules conflict with your gut, sometimes you’ve got to write what feels right rather than what you’ve been taught.


2 thoughts on “Rules Are Just Tools

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  1. 100% spot on!! i think we all go through a stage where we get too caught up on rules and our writing suffers, and then a stage where we ignore them all together and our writing suffers just as much. you have to experiment, and find your middle ground. weaponise the rules, don’t let them stifle you but don’t lose all together. i don’t think i could articulate it better than you did though!

    Liked by 1 person

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