The Rules of Writing … or Not

Nothing polarizes, angers or at least frightens writers quite like the use of the word “rules” when discussing craft.


The word is rhetorical.  Contextual.  Imprecise.  Misunderstood.  At least where writing fiction is concerned.

It is the wrong word to describe the essential criteria for what makes a story work, or causes one story to work better than another.

There are no “rules.”

But there certainly are principles And there certainly are consequences borne of playing loose with them in your fiction.

I believe this to be true.  I know this to be true.  And yet, because I strongly advocate, teach and apply principles to the craft of storytelling – that’s a much better word for it, orders of magnitude more contextually accurate – I’ve been accused of being an mouthpiece for rules.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

If you’ve ever been in a position to teach others, you know that it is both amazing and frustrating how some people have selective hearing (I prefer to think of it as that, versus the  thick-headed inability to comprehend), and how their old tapes kick in at such a high volume that it actually distorts the thing they should be understanding.

For example, in my recent post about 50 Shades of Grey, I heard from one huffy and embarrassingly confused writer who said that I should have never set out to defend that book and film based on (her words here) “it’s structure.”  Read the post again, you’ll see that I never once even mentioned the word “structure,” I was illustrating the use of story physics (which I do mention by name) as an explanation as to why the story has proven so popular.  No matter how you judge the art of it, you cannot misinterpret the commercial success of it.

Story physics, not structure. She reacted to something that wasn’t even on the page… because she obviously doesn’t understand the difference between story physics and story structure, which to the enlightened writer are as different as gasoline and a metal can.

I mention this because this is the same type of uninformed confusion when it comes to the difference between rules and principles.

Do you understand the difference?  You should, because while there aren’t any rules, per se, when it comes to writing fiction… there certainly are principles and consequences involved that will dictate the quality and fate of what you are writing.

Here’s what Robert McKee says on this issue.

This morning I received a marketing email for an upcoming workshop featuring Robert McKee, who is the reigning and unquestioned Grand Wizard High Priest Puba of writing workshops.  He leads his pitch with this:

Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form — then innovate. 

Let’s break that down.  I agree with this in terms of intention, but it’s not totally clear and accurate. It implies there are rules to either follow or break… so it seems that even this guy is confused.

And yet, when you swap out the word “principles” for “rules” in that lead, the meaning totally changes, actually becoming the exact opposite of what is true.

Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules… unless they don’t.  As stated, this is only half the problem out there among newer writers.

Just as often, inexperienced writers aren’t even aware of anything that might be perceived as “rules,” or even principles, for that matter.  They don’t follow or obey anything except their instinct, which – because the complexities of writing effective fiction are vast and challenging – isn’t yet enlightened or developed to the degree required to succeed.

Anxious, inexperienced writers who do honor principles… experience a much shorter and efficient learning curve than those who don’t.

Which is why, when a “first novelist” publishes, you’ll almost always discover a drawer full of unpublished novels over years or decades of work. The road to a “first novel” is paved with the discovery of the principles that make a story effective.

One of the burdens of being inexperienced is that the writer may not even appreciate the purpose and application of what they perceive to be “rules”… or – again – even the promise and benefit of principles, for that matter.

The better insight here is to seek out and understand the truth about the principles of effective storytelling.  They aren’t rules, they are proven guidelines, forces, structures and tools that lead the writer toward a story that will actually work.  They are malleable, multidimensional, presenting infinite creative choices and latitude.

Instinct, when it results in publication, is nothing other than the internalization of these principles.

That’s what I teach, here and elsewhere.  These principles are the basis of my speaking and coaching, as well as my own work as an author.

I have never once, in nearly 1ooo Storyfix posts and five writing books, referred to them – or inferred from them – that the principles are “rules.”

And yet,it’s just as true that ignoring or short-changing them can kill your story.  Which is why the word “rules” is at best rhetorically leaning into the ballpark.  Yet the principles don’t care what you call them… they are as impersonal as gravity, taxes and death.

They are always there.  And there are almost always consequences when you aren’t aware of that fact.

Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules… precisely because they are unschooled.  McKee implies here that there are rules – there must be, if there is something to rebel against – when in fact the more accurate context here is that of principles being ignored, challenged or stretched.  Certainly, newer writers do this out of ignorance, and rebellious writers need to learn for themselves that trying to reinvent the art of fiction is a fool’s folly.

The consequences of that ignorance will eventually cure this problem.  They’ll either change their minds, or quit, or die trying.

Every single novel that works adheres, to some defensible extent, to the principles of what makes a story effective.  Even the radically creative and unusual ones.

What McKee is really saying here is simply that some people don’t get it, or buy into it, or know the difference.  They’re more like literary anarchists, they don’t want to adhere to any principles at all… which is why you’ve never heard of them.  They never get published.

Artists master the form — then innovate.

“Mastering the form” isn’t the rejection of the principles, it is the complete, seamless and enthusiastic adoption of them.

Innovation, in this context, is creativity that is judged as artful.

And he’s right… only about one percent of writers who set out down this path actually get there.

But the good news is this: it is a choice.  You can make it, you can choose it… or you can hope that, in your rebellious ignorance, you stumble upon the power of principle-driven fiction as you trudge along the path, eyes on your feet instead of the horizon.


Story Coaching Discount for March

To fill some open slots in my late March and April schedule, I am discounting my Full Story Plan Analysis by 25% if you enroll by the end of March.  Once enrolled you can take all the time you want to use the Questionnaire to help develop your story plan prior to submission.  This is a great way to save some money by acting now, while greatly empowering your story in the process.

The normal fee for this Questionnaire-driven process is $245.  Opt-in by March 31 and the cost is only $183.75 (first quartile pages remain available at the normal $350 add-on fee).  Use the CONTACT tab to request billing at this discounted rate.

Would you like a list of publishers who are a) paying advances, and b) accepting queries and submissions from unagented authors? 

Click HERE for a great – and FREE – online resource providing this information.  Publishers in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland are listed, in addition to others globally.








Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

3 Responses to The Rules of Writing … or Not

  1. MikeR

    Here’s the key point I would make:

    “You are striving to create a Commercial Product.”

    You want to sell it to someone, who will buy it because they are convinced that they can succeed in making money by selling copies of it to thousands or millions of other people.

    If you’ve spent any amount of time looking at the “self-pub” world, you can plainly see just how easy it is to publish “unedited, unreadable, doggerel.” This experience causes you to rather abruptly realize just how much impact those literary agents, editors, and so-forth actually have … and, have always had … upon the Quality Books that you actually want to have bought and read. (… Instead of the doggerel that you unintentionally did buy. Once.)

    You’re a whole lot more demanding, as a real-world consumer of fiction and non-fiction, than you might realize. You confront this, every time you buy a poorly-written perhaps self-pub book. You don’t think about the expectations that you actually have, until you’ve paid money for something that didn’t meet those expectations.

    Therefore, when you write, make it your business to “learn how.” Because, well, because it is your business. If you dream of selling a million copies, you must first write something that is salable, and then you must convince someone else to $pe¢ulate that you and they are correct.

    Some folks like to use the analogy of a sonnet, or haiku. Two forms of poetry that are both extremely-structured and extremely-small … small enough to serve as an easily-digested example of a key point. The rules of these forms are rigid and clear. (Much more so than those of commercial fiction.) And yet, within those apparently-rigid boundaries, creativity is endless.

  2. Hi Larry,

    Just noticed when I went to share your post that you have no share buttons on your new site. If this is wordpress, me thinks that you have to enable them under Settings / Sharing. 🙂

  3. Just noticed, when you click on the article that they’re there, but lazy people like me rarely go that far. Anyhoo, you can just ignore me if you want.