There’s an assumption among many writers that writing rules and outlines are pinched, mean things that constrain creativity and the flow of literary ideas. Writing blogs advise authors to flout conventional grammar and aim for a free, contemporary style. Authors fling pantsed manuscripts at their editors only to discover there’s a dropped plot line and all the action is stuffed into the second half of Act II—and what is Act II, anyway?
Words and grammar are like traffic signs; they work because we agree what they mean. When you string them together without caring whether they say something different to readers than whatever you meant when you wrote them, you’re setting yourself up for a crash. And if you don’t know what other people accept them to mean in the first place—well, don’t be surprised if readers step off your ride long before it’s reached its destination.
Understand writing rules before you break them
“You need to know the rules because that’s how writing works,” writes Chuck Wendig. “You only break the rules once you know them—breaking the rules willfully is an act of artistic independence.” If you don’t know the rules to begin with, you’re not being artistic; you’re demonstrating your ignorance. Readers are smart. They’ll know the difference.
Sometimes writers send me manuscripts in which all the dialogue uses comma-spliced sentences. In their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King advocate stringing together short sentences with commas to lend a “modern, sophisticated touch to your fiction.” Whether you agree that comma splices lend a “modern, sophisticated touch” is beside the point; if you apply this technique to all of your dialogue, you’ll end up with a book full of one-note, voiceless characters who all sound the same.
Then there are the writers who avoid semi-colons because someone told them semi-colons are too formal for fiction. I agree that semi-colons often feel too formal for dialogue. But punctuation provides a potent way of signaling complex relationships between ideas. If you eliminate certain tools wholesale, you’ll cheat yourself out of tools for creating the rich connections that make good writing worth reading.
Storycrafting that keeps readers turning pages
Whether you carefully outline your plots beforehand or pants your way through and loop back to check that you’ve covered the basics, your writing will only be richer for understanding how stories work. My clients hear again and again how plot isn’t what happens to the characters but why and how. To make sure readers keep turning pages, you need to know a few things about how stories are put together and what keeps them driving forward.
Many authors worry that outlining their writing will somehow strip away the creative element. “Listen, if you ruin your story by outlining it, then your story wasn’t that f***king exciting to begin with—and oh ha ha ha oh sh*t it’s a good thing you never got to the editing phase, because boy howdy, editing feels less like wizardry and more like plumbing,” Wendig writes.
Writing rules, outlining, plot structure—these tools can only enhance your ability to create a compelling book. Never be afraid that studying and honing your craft will somehow hobble your creativity. The more you know about how stories and writing work, the more creatively you will be able to spot opportunities to bend those rules and take your readers off-road to places they’ve never been.
Read more about why authors need to understand their own work:
- 7 Reasons You Need Story Theory “Ultimately, almost all the problems pantsers struggle with come down to a lack of organization and therefore a lack of understanding about the nature of story in general and their own stories in particular,” writes K.M. Weiland.
- There Is No Safe Place “What I’m proposing is nothing short of this: that you change how you approach writing, beginning with what, at this moment, you may think of as your innate ‘writing process,'” writes Lisa Cron. “That’s a bold statement, I know. But given what a story really is, and what the brain is wired to crave, hunt for and respond to in every story we hear, there’s a good chance your writing process is kind of like the devil you know. Familiar, yes, but ultimately unproductive and given to questionable priorities.”
- Looking for writing and storycrafting advice that doesn’t mow you over with rules, rules, and more rules? Try The Magic of Fiction: Crafting Words into Story by Beth Hill.