On Writing Rules & Conventional Wisdom

I repeatedly see people posting “writing tips” or “rules” online about such things as “words that create distance from the reader.” Or “Don’t use prologues and epilogues.” “Avoid Author Tracts,” and of course, the ubiquitous, overused, “Show. Don’t Tell,” and ‘Don’t use adverbs.”

Now, let me say at first that I know that ‘writing rules’ get to be the way they are because they are, more often than not, correct. It often is wrong to use ‘think/realize’ in 3rd person contexts instead of describing the process. And nothing is more painful than reading adverbs in every sentence. And of course, I’ve done my fair share of skipping prologues that don’t seem to add anything to the narrative.

But, for every rule, there are exceptions. Neil Stephenson wouldn’t be nearly as famed as he is without his author tracts. And there is nothing wrong with using an adverb as a contrary manner. For instance, to indicate sarcasm or irony that otherwise would be missed by a reader. And to say “think” creates distance from the reader depends entirely on how it’s used. If we draw the reader into the internal monologue of the character, how is this creating distance?

And then there is this discussion I had with Ilona Andrews, author of The Edge and Kate Daniels series on Twitter yesterday.

And there’s the truth. “Do what works for the story.” Conventional Wisdom is often wrong, and very often unwise as well as wrong. If, when looking at the story, the right answer is to include a prologue, then Do it. Let the chips fall where they may.

Yes, readers will often skip a prologue. But if you write it with all the intensity a proper 1st chapter should have, then that’s their loss. They’ll realize that when they go back and read that crucial, exciting material you included. Or go back and see the hint you left at the beginning. (See the prologue for Larry Correia’s Warbound on how one should be done.)

Now that doesn’t mean always do the opposite. But everything in your story should be calculated to advance the narrative and its conflict. If it isn’t, then scrap it. If it is, then you’re doing right. The story is what matters. Not the style guide or the creative writing class tips.

A writer is an entertainer. So do what’s best to entertain the reader.

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