You wake up to your alarm clock thinking about stories. You write. Maybe you’ve read On Writing by Stephen King or some other book about writing. Maybe you’ve participated in a workshop. Maybe you’ve taken a writing class. Maybe you’ve even graduated from a creative writing program. And if any of these things are true, you know the following rules:
1) Show, don’t tell.
2) Use the active voice.
3) Adverbs are lazy.
4) Characters should change (sorry, transform).
5) Write what you know.
6) Above all else, keep writing.
After going through the MA Creative Writing program at Sacramento State, I learned all of these things and a million more. Some of us may have learned this in middle or high school. And it becomes so engrained in your head that you hate yourself when you break them. You see “to be” verbs in your writing and you want to slash the page with that red pen. And then you read some of the lit mags out there and realize that everything you learned is wrong.
Well, not everything, but more of a realization that you need to un-learn some of these “rules” to expand your writing because you’ve been writing the same thing over and over again. You need to un-learn to grow into something else. Think about it. If everyone is writing by these very rules, then of course our stories are boring. Read any lit mag or modern novel and you’ll see the best stories break the rules.
So here are some tips to help you un-learn:
1) Show, don’t tell. Ah, Commandment #1. The point of this rule is to help you concentrate on scene instead of thoughts, feelings, and other abstractions. And focusing on this rule works well for scenes. But what about in between scenes? What if you want to write a novel where you actually have to explain backstory, world building, etc.
Storyboard your favorite novel chapter or short story and see what percentage of the story is “telling.” 60%? 70%? 80%? The problem with learning the “show, don’t tell” rule isn’t the rule itself, it’s that you are beat over the head with it. But no one really ever teaches you how to “tell” properly, how to connect scenes. So if you’re interested in doing this, here’s an exercise:
Copy that favorite novel chapter or short story word for word. Focus on the exposition. Study how the author moves between scenes, how the author moves inside and outside of the narrator’s heads. Try this a few times and you’ll start seeing how telling works in the overall structure of stories.
2) Active voice. Can you imagine if every single sentence was written in active voice? Much like the “show, don’t tell” rule, this is one of those golden writing commandments. The point is clarity. You may have also had a professor who told you to “activate” your writing. If you’re like me, you have a penchant for starting sentences with “There were” or “She was” and it makes you want to throw a laptop across the room. There was (heh) actually a time in my life where I tried to write whole stories with no passive voice at all.
I heard in a writing class once that a study determined effective writing – that is, being optimally understood – contains 70% active voice. What does this mean? It means that if you have a paragraph that’s ten sentences long, you can actually have three sentences that are in passive voice! Get out, you say! So how do you unlearn the desire to scratch off every passive sentence with bold, red ink?
It’s called the three second breath. While editing, before automatically slashing out something just because it’s in passive voice, stop and take a three second breath. Then exhale and ask yourself how the passive voice is working. Are you softening tone? Changing a rhythm of a paragraph? If so, then maybe you should leave it. Chances are you’re being too hard on yourself.
3) Adverbs are lazy. When you're a beginning writer, this is an important rule to keep. The beginning writer tends to use adverbs instead of picking the right verbs. Verbs are usually the most important part of a sentence as the indicate action. Adverbs “soften” action. Take for instance the following:
He ran into me heavily.
He slammed into me.
But once you’ve got some experience writing, adverbs can be extremely useful. Just look at any of your favorite modern stories and you’ll see them. Take for instance:
She stomped into the house as though she owned it.
She stomped into the house possessively.
In this case, the adverb makes the sentence more efficient and less cliché. So don’t automatically eliminate all adverbs from writing. Write them all down in your draft. When you edit, circle them all and truly ask yourself if you’re being lazy or trying to make your writing more “pretty.” If so, take them out. But if not, it’s perfectly okay to leave some of them in.
4) Characters should transform by the end of the story. This is a classic creative writing lesson. It likely derives from James Joyce’s epiphanies, where the protagonist would, as a result of the plot, learn something new about themselves or the world and would touch on the story’s theme. You likely learned something similar. Maybe it was a story isn’t a story unless a character transforms. They must change.
But this rule can be very limiting. It often causes a writer to write inorganically, forcing an epiphanic revelation and/or theme that just isn’t there. I personally struggle with this. So instead of coming to a story with a pre-ordained theme, do this. Go to a restaurant or café or somewhere in public and focus on a group of people. Write everything you see, hear, and smell. Write what they say. Do not write any opinions, narrative intrustions, and the like. Just pure “sense.” If you do this for a long enough period of time, you’ll see that you have a story with a beginning, middle and end, and likely there won’t be a “sudden realization” about something that wraps things up so nicely.
5) Write what you know. I’m sure you’ve heard this. For the beginning writer, it makes sense. You’re trying to learn about craft and so it’s easier to focus on craft instead of content.
If you think of the best stories, though, they are stories of discovery, where the ending feels inevitable and yet surprising, almost as though the writer discovered the story as you were reading it. So here’s a tip: don’t outline before you write. Sure, get a general plot down, but once you start outlining things before you even know what your story is about (or what your characters are going to do), you will force your story into what you already know because you’ve already determined it. But stories aren’t paint by numbers. Get some stuff on the paper first, then outline or storyboard. But let your plot develop naturally; let your characters go where they’re gonna go. As an old professor said, don’t be a fascist with your stories. Your characters have their own lives, even if you don't know what they are yet.
6) Whatever you do, keep writing. What do you mean? How can this be bad? It’s not bad, but sometimes we focus so much on writing, even when we’re sitting in front of a blank page for weeks on end doing nothing, when there are other things we could be doing to improve our writing. For example, sometimes it’s better to read. If you’ve written crap every session for a week, take a break and read something. Or go do something you’ve never done. Or talk to a stranger. Or talk to someone who is not a stranger. The point is that writing is just not about writing. It’s about everything. So yes, keep writing, but don’t forget to keep living, too. Living helps writing.
Also don’t forget that something important must always be at stake, that the denouement should always tie every loose end, and that you should never use exclamation points!!!!!!!!
Okay, okay. These rules are important. But remember the most important writing rule: if it works, it works. Also remember that this is "creative writing." Creative. If you're a writer who lives by writing rules, then you need to try different things. Write a different genre. Or a different form. Or in longer or shorter sentences. Or in second person. You get the idea. In order to write something fresh and new, some rules are going to have to be broken, well except that one about opening stories with someone waking up to an alarm clock. Don't do that. Everyone has done that and it doesn't work.
Good day, and happy writing.