The Rules of Fiction Writing

The "Rules" of Fiction Writing

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Actual Rules, Best Practices, & Opinion

In Facebook genre fiction writing groups, people repeat things from other forums or websites, citing “rules” as if quoting from fiction’s holy tome. Unlike academic, legal, and other forms of writing, fiction writing follows no standard style guide, and “rules” often quoted are a mishmash of style guides and generalized industry best practices, filling blogs and social media with misinformation. This issue makes imperative the need to differentiate the authentic rules from misinformation.

The Actual Rules

The fiction’s actual rules take the form of mechanics the same as all forms of writing. Sentences start with capital letters and end with periods. Mechanical rules are not open for debate in common use, and new writers lacking understanding of these rules write with poor punctuation and grammar, but more than just incorrect, they write with lack of clarity. Here is an example from a beta read (changed from original),

Shiva brought her long, oak spear, iron, sword, small, heavy, copper breastplate, and helm.

The more effective sentence punctuation uses semicolons to avoid confusion.

Shiva brought her long, oak spear; iron sword; small, heavy, copper breastplate; and helm.

If this writer understood punctuation rules, she would use semicolons in a list containing commas. While mechanical rules are the same for all writing, fiction writers can break the rules more often than other forms of writing, as seen in the often-used sentence fragment for emphasis.

“You will die a terrible death. Violent, bloody! This end, I foresee.”

Sparingly breaking mechanical rules to achieve an effect may be the only near-absolute rule in fiction writing.

Best Practices

What many writers quote as rules are instead best practices. Best practices developed over time from industry professionals, academics, or companies dealing with fiction. Identifying best practices in fiction writing is extremely important because these practices challenge your ability to self-publish or publish traditionally. Ignoring and following the wrong methods impacts your book’s quality, reducing sellability or increasing the risk of bad reviews.

Identifying industry practices confounds in a grotesque subjectivity combined with erroneous, outdated, and often ridiculous advice posing as rules. Publishers and agents follow many standard practices not limited to book promotions and book printing, but individuals claiming some specific method or rule will gain the eye of publishers or agents, much less approval, is either lying or delusional. There is no consistency in publisher or agent standards, and believing some standard or rule exists forms an easy trap of time and money wasted. Authors waste thousands of dollars on multiple editing services, developmental editors, and book covers, thinking they need these things before submission to agents and publishers. Worse than marketing or formatting myths, many people fall prey to erroneous advice regarding style and writing methods. For a long time, teachers told me passive voice causes publisher rejection. Just start opening books published by the Big Five Publishers, and you will readily find passive voice abounds in modern writing.

Publishers and agents reading manuscripts and judging books is a subjective practice. If someone starts a conversation with, “Publishers are looking for,” you can discount everything after as erroneous. Despite a strong dislike for publishers, in their defense, their subjectivity gives them a competitive advantage. There is no standard for what is publishable because a standard formulizes publication, allowing little room for creativity, and more importantly, uniquely marketable writing elements. With this point about industry best practices in mind, other so-called “rules” should now appear completely moronic.

The internet provides a fertile ground for stupidity to flourish, and the number of times people ask or tell others “how many words should be in a chapter” is incalculable. People quote an array of numbers, and the one most often read is 2000–2500. This advice is beyond dumb. There is no standard for a chapter-length because writing a chapter develops a particular aspect of the story and functions to shift or break the story. This stupidity is born out of averages people applied to writing which are meaningless in most cases. Some knucklehead averaged the number of words in chapters from an unknown number of fiction books to create this number.

500 + 1200 + 3200 + 100 + 920= 5920

The average of this equals 1184; therefore, the average length of a chapter should be 1184. These falsely interpreted averages by armchair statisticians apply significance to an average randomly generated. When authors write chapters, there is no intention to reach a certain number, so the word counts are random. This logic likens to standing on a tiled floor, throwing a hundred pencils in the air and counting and averaging the number of pencils to tiles, claiming, “These tiles hold an average of three pencils.” You will get a different answer every time. Yet, faulty logic does not stop social media and websites from repeating this nonsense as factual.

Outdated information is another issue in fiction writing. Mainly this problem centers on abandoned industry practices. In a Facebook writing group, one of the founders stated, “Chapters should always start on the right page of the book.” This claim held some sense of truth but felt incorrect, and after spending some time going through traditionally published books dating back fifty years, I found no support for this claim. Many practices, such as formatting books, are remnants of the old printing industry. Some practices ended because of eBook technology, which alters formatting by screen size, eliminating most recto and verso standards since the pages shift with the text. Erroneously quoted book lengths also come from the printing industry’s need to create a spine to make the book visible on a shelf. On-demand printing and mass printing did away with many industry practices, not all but many. As an example, books should still open with the story on the right page. Before you start following an industry best practice, you should investigate so you don’t waste time doing things that damage your writing. In one writing group, a young lady had to rewrite many of the chapters in her book after fools kept claiming her chapters were insufficient in length. If you follow word counts, you will likely inflate writing with superfluous language or omit important details and adopt other bad habits.


People quote rules that are not rules at all but instead values or opinions masquerading as rules. The most obvious example of this problem is cursing in writing.

“Cursing in writing sounds terrible.”
“Writing should be clean.”
“Cursing is a lack of imagination.”

These and many other similar statements are not rules but value judgments. When experienced writers suggest toning down cursing, it is for the same reason they suggest using fewer exclamation points so as not to deaden the effect. Many people restate the suggestion of moderation as a rule to reinforce and push morality, taking offense to curse words. The choice to use cursing in writing is an individual choice based on the writer’s need. Realism is achieved by curse words when properly used, and many writers drop the F-bomb often because they describe situations where one might expect cursing. I used it a lot in one of my books because of the blue-collar, masculinity-in-overdrive setting where cursing is abundant. If someone uses cursing in writing, that is their choice and breaks no rule. If you think cursing is wrong for any reason other than arbitrary or improper use — that’s your opinion. You will hear many opinions stated online and in books such as “never start a book with the weather,” or “never end a sentence with a preposition,” and “only use ‘said’ for dialogue tags.” Again, investigate these opinions no matter the source.

The creative nature of fiction writing bars the establishment of firm rules, most noticeable in the mechanical flexibility, providing you understand the mechanics enough to flex them. If you follow “rules” suggested by novice writers without investigation, you will pattern writing without style and adopt bad writing practices sure to harm your writing.


Article Updated: 10/16/2021

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