Little Rules

by limebirdster

Do you ever read something, or hear someone say something, and think, whether it was meant as a piece of advice or not, that it’s something you really should remember?

I hope you do, but if you don’t, don’t worry. I do it all the time, and I’ve been taking notes for you. So this post is a short list of a few things that I’ve been told that I try to remember when I’m writing.

Rule 1 – This sentence has 5 words.

This is a paragraph written by Gary Provost:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals-sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

I don’t think that this paragraph needs any further explanation. Sometimes I read this paragraph and I want to cry because I know that I could never explain its meaning as poetically and succinctly as Provost does.

Sometimes I read it just to listen to it because it’s beautiful.

Rule 2 – Never have more than 3 lines of uninterrupted dialogue.

This isn’t a rule that I follow religiously, or even all of the time. Sometimes I ignore it completely. But when it was said to me it was followed by “You have thoughts more often than that.” And that did make me stop and think, because it’s true. When you talk you’re not only thinking of the words that you’re saying.

Sometimes you’re thinking ahead and trying to come up with the next joke. Sometimes you’re still three sentences behind trying to figure out exactly what someone meant. Sometimes you’re trying not to laugh because you’ve been reminded of a joke that no one else understands. And sometimes you’re just not listening at all. But whatever it is that you’re thinking, you’re characters are thinking as well.

Rule 3 – The first draft of everything is sh*t.

This isn’t really a rule but it’s something to remember on those days when you’re feeling like you’re not getting anywhere. Whatever you’re writing, just write it. Whatever comes out can be fixed later.

Rule 4 – Never use exclamation marks!

This is something that one of my lecturers was pretty obsessive about, I think she did an entire seminar about it.

Now, in comments and emails and generals messages I use exclamation marks a lot. I actually use them way too much. Mainly because I don’t want anything I say to be taken the wrong way, I don’t want sarcasm to be mistaken for sincerity or a joke to be taken as a serious suggestion.

In fiction writing though I don’t use them, because my writing should make the meaning clear enough to not need clarification. If you write a sentence that needs an exclamation mark at the end then chances are you actually need to rewrite the sentence.

So what about you? Do you have any little rules that you try to follow or that you keep in mind when you’re writing?

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33 Responses to “Little Rules”

  1. I love all of these – especially the first one, you’re right it’s lovely. And the dialogue – oy, but the times I’ve waded through line after line quickly having no clue which character is speaking and having to go back to the start to count!

  2. Rule 3 is one I have been repeating to myself several times a day lately.

    • Never forget rule 3! And don’t worry about it either, I’d be more worried if the first draft was perfect!

  3. Oh no, I’m terrible at putting too many exclamation marks… * slinks back into corner *

  4. I may have got told by my agent there were too many exclamation marks in my book and I may have counted and they may have added up to 70 and then I may have deleted them all. But you can’t prove anything (!!!!!!!)

  5. I have one rule — don’t try to sound like I know more than I really do. I am too often pushed by my sense of importance and superiority. This is a characteristic which I must work to avoid, because literacy and education were my only defense against depression for so long.

  6. Why is #3 so easy to forget?

  7. Rule 1. I read over and over again.

  8. After typing my son’s fiction story for class, my exclamation point key is worn out. I’ll have to remind him of rule #4. πŸ™‚

  9. Never explain. Figure out a way for the action, the expressions, even the subtext to get the meaning across.

    • I left out show don’t tell because it’s quite a big rule, but you’re very right, it’s really important!

  10. So sharing. Good reminders on learning rules and breaking them!

  11. I’m happy to say I don’t have any exclamation marks in my WIPs. I’d not heard of the dialogue rule. I probably break that one. πŸ™‚

  12. I am due to self publish my first novel in a couple of weeks so this post for me is really beneficial. I think I am guilty of the exclamation mark thing though.! (ooops)

    • I’m glad that you found it helpful! Exclamation marks can be hard to cut out, but I really do think that it makes your writing better!

  13. Those are 5 great rules. I’ll have to revisit some of my dialogue and see if some is running on too long….

  14. My favorite rule is, “Rules are made to be broken.” πŸ˜‰

    Good list, Ster! I love the sentence length one, and the one about dialogue. They don’t always hold – well, the first holds true much more often than the second – but, they are always good to remember.

    • Very true Mayumi, though as my poetry tutor always said – you have to know the rules to break them!

      • True, that. But, I also like to remember something Sylvia Plath said: The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.

        Rules are important, but rules followed too closely can stifle.

        One of my favorite personal “rules” comes from Special Agent Dale Cooper, who said, “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen.” πŸ™‚

  15. I like all these. #1 is excellent.
    I think #2 is a rough guide, not set in concrete. But yes, characters do lots of thinking and feeling. Internalisation is a good thing.
    #3 applies to more than just my first…
    #4 – Are you listening, P!nk? πŸ˜‰

    Another one of mine is, if I get deja vu reading a word or phrase I know to go back and edit.
    Also, never say never.

  16. Rule 1: I totally agree! I throw in the odd one word sentence now and then and it can really have an impact. Really.

    Rule 2: I could probably agree if it said “never have one person talking for more than three lines uninterrupted”. When there is a conversation it is easy to have dialogue sparking back and forth without ‘he said’ ‘she saids’ just dialogue, and it can flow really quickly. One person talking for line after line? Not so much….

    Rule 3: I agree, but I have also surprised myself sometimes, I go back to a first draft and there is more gold than dross. Yes things may need some revision, but, when the muse really strikes, it can sometimes be magic!

    Rule 4: Again, as in Rule 2, I agree. With one expansion, if the exclamation mark is at the end of a passage of dialogue (or in some instances at the end of a thought by the narrator) it may be appropriate.

    My additional rules would be:

    Rule 5: If you read something out loud and it sounds clunky it needs some serious work.

    Rule 6: If you are having to continually refer to a thesaurus as you write, you are trying too hard.

    Rule 7: Don’t try and fix everything in one pass at revision; pick on one thing ‘characterisation’, ‘colour’ ‘plot’ etc. and focus on that, then give it a rest and go back and repeat for a different area of focus.

    I agree with Mayumi, if it works then break that rule!

    • You make a good point about rule 2 there Dennis, very true!

      I like your rule 6, even if I do keep a thesaurus underneath my desk!

  17. Excellent points, all of them. All of the commented suggestions are great too! Loved the paragraph by Provost. I am guilty of the exclamation mark thing too. Guilty of it on the current WIP as a matter of fact. What about italics? Same thing?

    • Hmm, I think italics can go either way, depends how you’re using them! If it’s for emphasis rather than as a visual tool to seperate something like a flashback then I’d put them in a similar category to exclamation marks, but I don’t think I’d say never. I’d be a hypocrite if I did because I’ve definitely got two italicized words in the short story I’m working on right now!

  18. I think rules can be helpful if you’re stuck with your writing or editing, you can dig out the rule book and go through to find examples of rule-breaking in your work, and fix them, or at least consider fixing them, it may be that whatever you have done works as it is, but it gives you some constructive tasks to do if you’re feeling uninspired.

  19. Great rules, I don’t think I’ve heard the last one before but that is a really good point. In school, my screenwriting professor always called our first script the “sh**y first draft”.

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