The Rules of Fiction Writing

The Rules of Fiction Writing Are Bullshit

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Actual Rules, Best Practices, & Opinion

Fiction writing websites and online groups, most notably Facebook, habitually proliferate erroneous information often gleaned from other forums or websites, citing “rules” as if quoting from fiction’s holy tome. Unlike academic, legal, and other writing, fiction follows no set of standards and often-quoted “rules” mishmash style guides, opinion, and generalized industry best practices into advice damaging to your storytelling.

The Actual Rules

Fiction’s actual rules form from mechanics the same as all types of writing. Sentences start with capital letters and end with periods. Mechanical rules are not open for debate in customary use, and new writers lacking punctuation and grammar understanding write poorly and without 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.

If this writer understood punctuation, she would use semicolons in a list containing commas to avoid confusion.

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

While mechanical rules govern all writing, fiction writers can break them more than nonfiction authors, seen in the sentence fragment used for emphasis.

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

Skilled authors break mechanical rules to achieve their writing goals, such as not using apostrophes, which some academics and authors claim useless, adding difficulty to reading, most notably George Bernard Shaw. More often, breaking the rules serves a specific purpose within a piece, like providing fluency, clarity, or effect. Sparingly breaking mechanical rules for the effect might be the only absolute standard in fiction writing.

Best Practices

Writing's best practices developed over time from industry professionals, academics, and publishers. Identifying best practices in fiction writing holds importance since these practices challenge your ability to self-publish or publish traditionally, such as not following Amazon's KDP self-publishing guide or a traditional publisher's submission requirements. Ignoring these methods impacts book quality, reduces sellability, and increases the risk of bad reviews. However, identifying industry practices confounds in a grotesque subjectivity conflated with erroneous, outdated, and often ridiculous advice posing as rules.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 people claiming some specific method or rule gains the publisher or agent's eye, much less approval, either lie or speak delusionally. There is no consistency in publisher or agent standards, and believing otherwise forms a costly, time-intensive marketing trap. Authors waste thousands of dollars on multiple editing services, developmental editors, and book covers, thinking they need these things to submit to agents and publishers. Worse than marketing or formatting myths, many people fall prey to erroneous advice regarding style and writing methods. Schools have for a long time taught passive voice weakens writing and thereby might cause publisher rejection. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just start opening books represented by large publishers, and you readily find passive voice springs from the pages, often sounding just as terrible as academics foretold.

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. Publishers choose books by marketability, author popularity, and other elements often having little to do with quality, but in their defense, subjectivity provides them a competitive advantage. No ironclad standard governs publishing because standards make the business more formulaic than its current practice by stifling creativity and uniquely marketable material. With this industry practice in mind, other so-called “rules” should now appear moronic.

The internet provides fertile ground for stupidity to flourish, and the frequency of people claiming chapters require specific word counts is astounding. They state various ranges with 2000–2500 as one the most commonly cited, and though many claim this true, the advice is beyond dumb. No chapter-length standard exists because writing a chapter develops a particular aspect of the story and functions to shift or break the story without regard for word counts. This stupidity is born out of meaningless averages applied to writing by some knucklehead who counted chapter words 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 randomly generated averages. 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 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, focusing mainly 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, this claim found no support.

The Rules of Fiction Writing Are Bullshit
Many old books like this 1959 printing of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass by Riverside Press start chapters on the right but not all. Later published books like this collection “The Love Poems of John Keates: in Praise of Beauty,” published by St. Martin’s Press in 1990, starts poems left or right, showing the printing industry standards already in flux before Amazon, perhaps more so denoting printing a publisher preference.

John Keates

Many practices, such as book formatting, are remnants of the old printing industry that mass production changed or technology eliminated, like eBook auto-formatting by screen size that ended most recto and verso standards by shifting page length 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 such as books opening with the story on the right page.

Before you follow an industry best practice, you should investigate it to save time and avoid damaging your writing. In one writing group, a new writer had to rewrite many chapters of her book after listening to people claiming them substandard in length. If you blindly follow supposed industry methods, you risk adopting bad habits such as verboseness, detail-loss, or even worse possibilities.

Opinion vs. Rules

People quote rules that are not rules at all but instead values or opinions masquerading as rules. Cursing is the most obvious example of this problem.

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

These and many similar statements are not rules but value judgments. When experienced writers recommend toning down cursing, it is for the same reason they suggest using fewer exclamation points so as not to deaden the effect. Many people offended by swearing restate moderating cursing as a rule to push morality. Cursing is an individual choice based on the writer’s need. Curse words achieve realism when properly used, and writers drop the F-bomb often because they describe situations where one might expect cursing, like a setting in a blue-collar, masculinity-in-overdrive industry where cursing is abundant. There is no rule written anywhere barring an author from cursing, and even when used arbitrarily, cursing is still not "wrong" but rather a poor choice. If you think cursing is wrong for any reason other than arbitrary or incorrect use — that is your opinion.

You will hear many opinions stated online and in books such as “never start a book with the weather,” “never end a sentence with a preposition,” and “only use 'said' for dialogue tags.” Again, investigate these opinions no matter the source. Fiction writing's need for creativity demands flexibility even in mechanics, assuming 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 practices sure to harm your story.


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Article Updated: 03/11/2022