Yes, yes…you’re right. There are definitely more than eight rules when it comes to writing fiction; especially in the realm of the fantasy genres (and sub-genres). But I found this article in The New Yorker (from 2013) and it strikes me that the eight rules they picked for their article are eight that I definitely break often…without breaking my stories!
In the wild west of indie publishing it might be tempting for new authors to launch into their projects thinking one of two things:
A. That you have to follow ALL the rules known to fiction authors.
B. That you have to follow NONE of the rules known to fiction authors.
Neither approach has my recommendation. If you follow each and every rule you have ever heard about fiction writing, you are most likely going to end up with a stale piece of prose that will be so rigid and structured (and flat) that nobody will want to read it…unless they are a special kind of individual who likes to torment themselves!
On the other hand, if you follow none of the rules you have ever heard about fiction writing, you are most likely going to end up with a wild, unstructured beast of a story that will fail to provide any useful reference points to your readers. Your fiction will evade all tropes and genre conventions and be of use to nobody. Some rules are good! But I don’t think those are the eight rules hailed by The New Yorker…
Here are my recommendations about the eight rules mentioned in their article…which is published in the humour and cartoons section of their website (although this is not necessarily clear if you come in via google results as it’s categorised as ‘daily shouts’ rather than ‘satire’):
Show, don’t tell.The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013
Yes we heard it many times. Show don’t tell is where it’s at. Don’t write your story like a manual for household appliances (seriously, please don’t do that)! But you can’t show everything without messing up your pacing, narrative voice, style, and general appeal. So here’s my version of this rule for the modern fiction writer of 2021: show when you can and tell when you can’t. Choose wisely.
Create three-dimensional characters.The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013
This one tickled me the most! The article literally advises fiction writers to avoid cliché character descriptions by telling your reader how long, wide, and girthy some hard-charging banker character is…as he drives around in his flashy sports car… oh my! You want to avoid cliché character descriptions? Write down the clichés you know of and then find innovative ways of describing the character traits to move you away from the overused descriptions.
I am not saying YOUR version of the hard-charging banker has to be a slim, unicorn riding, sugarplum fairy with delicate wings…but how about not describing the character as ‘hard-charging’ to start with? And what if your banker character was secretly uncomfortable with driving a sports car but too afraid to show it? Wouldn’t that be a lot more interesting than learning about his measurements in 3 dimensions?
Choose a point of view.The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013
Sounds like good advice – doesn’t it? After all you don’t want to end up head hopping and confusing your readers…? Sure, but there is a problem with this rule which is why I often break it. The point of view from which your story needs to be told is not arbitrary. Depending on what information you need to convey to your readers/ characters to conclude your story, every writer who has ever written themselves into a corner without escape (I have done this many times), will have experienced what happens when you choose the wrong point of view.
First person narrators are a popular choice in YA Fantasy and SciFi fiction but this only really works well if your protagonist has the freedom or opportunity to access every place, character, and knowledge that is essential for moving your plot past all of the crucial landmarks in your story.
Otherwise you might end up having to invent ‘magical’ phenomena, additional characters, work miracles (not very satisfying for your readers), or constantly rework your plot to get out of those pesky corners. You’re not really choosing a point of view…you are matchmaking your point of view with the story you want to tell. Work out what your story needs and learn to use the relevant point of view to your advantage…instead of to your detriment.
Give your characters motivations.The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013
Now this is among the most problematic pieces of advice in the fiction world. You are led to believe that if you can work out what your characters(s) want(s) you can come up with a great, engaging plot for your story that will have the readers turn the pages to the very end. But have you read any of those stories that are primarily driven by characters’ wants? I have! And they bored me to tears.
One wants cupcakes. Another wants to be with somebody else’s spouse. The next wants power. It’s just what they want. But there is no reason why! I firmly believe that it’s not enough for a character to want something. Whatever it is the character strives for, he/ she/ they must need it.
Think about Frodo from Lord of the Rings. Do you think he just wants the ring? Does he just want to own it? Does he just want its power? If you need to remind yourself, go ahead, I think you’ll find that what Frodo feels in relation to the ring runs much deeper than want. Frodo needs it. The ring calls to him. He is drawn in and becomes increasingly obsessed (or possessed – you choose) by it. Giving it up is painful. Unthinkable.
Figure out what your characters need! And don’t forget that your antagonist must need something that conflicts with what your protagonist needs – otherwise they’re on the same side.
Write what you know. The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013
Oh dear. Another overrated piece of fiction writing advice. Please don’t write what you know. It gets boring pretty quickly. I spent years trying to write a novel about what I know and it has resulted in some of the worst stories I have ever written! Everything you know is already so close to you that you will have difficulty writing about it in a fresh and interesting way. Instead, write what you love to read! In my case that’s YA Fantasy (mainly high fantasy).
Find what rocks your socks as a reader…and then write a story within that genre. Write a story you would love to read that is full of the type of characters, plots twists, and conventions that make you love your favourite genre. Chances are it will be well received by readers who like what you like. Be your own ideal reader. It works! Everything else can be researched.
No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader. The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013
Problems getting emotional when you are writing? Me too. Does this mean that our readers can’t be moved by our writing? I hardly think so. Comments on my work suggest otherwise. I think this point was thrown into the original article to allow for some comic relief but I really don’t believe this to be valid at all – humorous intention or not.
No need to go slice onions…just have your writing read back to you to check the reader experience. A lot of the emotional response from readers comes from an element of surprise, coupled with effective foreshadowing. As a writer, make sure your works sounds right and that you have the correct setup for the emotion you wish to incite in your readers. The rest is just gimmicks!
Revize, revize, revize.The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013
I know this might seem like I am being contentious on purpose. But hear me out. Revising your work is a good thing! Every writer’s output needs an edit (or two, or three). What your work definitely doesn’t need, though, is a perfectionist maniac author who is so worked up over the possibility of releasing anything into the world that might feature the tiniest flaw that they never release anything at all.
All stories have flaws. A determined critic can poke holes into just about anything (just look at me picking apart The New Yorker article over here). Here’s the rule you need: write, edit, revise, proofread, then publish. Get your story into the hands of readers (at least beta ones), collect feedback and make your next story better. Write, write, write and ship!
Trust yourself.The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013
Yes and no. If you are writing what you love to read and your story is shaping up to be the kind of book YOU would buy, chances are good that you are on the right track! But please don’t forget that the question is: does this work of fiction read like the books I love to read? Rather than: do I think the story ideas are similar to other books I have read in this genre? Trust yourself as a reader but beware of your writer-self.
You have to be honest with yourself. Is the quality of our writing comparable to the books you love to read? If the answer is no (or if you’re unsure) listen to your beta readers…by which I mean other people who love to read what you love to read. Be unemotional (I know this is hard) but don’t assume people will love your story just because it’s the right type of story. It also has to look, feel, and read like other stories in the genre and that takes a whole lot of skill. Keep learning.
See ya next time 😉
If you have enjoyed this post and are curious what a story that breaks all these fiction writing rules might look like, have a look at my one-shot YA Fantasy story ‘Shadow Play’ (for free). As always, comments, feedback and further thoughts on this post are welcome. Please share in the comments.