Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Are You Guilty of Writing No-Nos?

Writing no-nos. We've all heard them - mostly when we commit a particularly heinous one and a crit partner points it out. There are a lot, but I'm only going to list a few, along with the confession that I've broken every one of them.
  • Don't use a prologue and an epilogue. People don't read those.
  • Don't start out by describing the weather. It's boring and will lose the reader's interest.
  • Don't start the story with the protagonist in her bedroom. That is also boring.
  • Don't include dream sequences. There are better ways to advance the plot.
  • Don't include flashbacks if you can help it. There are better ways to relay information.
First, the prologue and epilogue. Whether you can use it seems to depend on what the current publishing trend is. Some years they'll tell you not to use them, and some years it's okay. How to know? My personal suggestion is to keep them short, or simply turn them into another chapter. People might not like to wade through a long prologue if they feel it really has no bearing on the story itself. So, if you want to keep it in there, make sure it has.

Second, the weather. The weather itself shouldn't be the focus of your attention, unless it plays a very big part in the plot of your story. As for weather being boring, I've seen amazing writers describe it wonderfully and not bore me at all. It helped to set the scene. (Just don't begin your book with "It was a dark and stormy night" unless it's a parody.)

Third, starting the story in a bedroom. I don't see what's wrong with this, personally. I know so many books start in the middle of the action, but I don't care about the action or the protagonist without first being introduced to her - however you manage that. I'm old-fashioned, and I like the plot structure formula.

Fourth, dream sequences. This one is a particular favorite of mine. I broke this one good and hard in my YA Victorian fantasy novel. I'd agree with this no-no, except when it comes to supernatural/paranormal or fantasy writing. Those can pretty much do whatever they want, as long as it works. But it has to work. Readers don't like watching the protagonist dream about doing something, they want her to actually do it! Action speaks louder than words, right? So your words need to relay some pretty exciting action.

And here's where I say fantasy and supernatural are different. In a fantasy novel, a dream can be a real place, and the actions taken there just as real as they would be in the waking world of the protagonist. Mine are. Think of Nightmare on Elm Street. Did the characters die any less just because Freddy killed them in their dreams? Nope.

Last but not least, flashbacks. I only did this once in my book - well, twice if you count the prologue. (See, that's why it's a prologue. It doesn't fit the sequence of the novel, so it stands alone and has to be separated. But it's still needful for the plot of the book.) Flashbacks are tricky things, but they can work in the plot of a novel. For instance, if a character encounters something that triggers the memory of a traumatic event, there would be a flashback. It would make sense, and I'd expect it.

There are exceptions to every rule, and only you can tell when to toss the no-nos out the window and just write. Trust your gut, hone your craft, and if you want to break rules, break them good and hard! (a la Granny Weatherwax) As long as your rule-breaking serves a purpose and improves the story, mind.

Are there any writing no-nos you're guilty of? What do you think of breaking writing rules?


  1. I've decided rules are there to be broken. Sometimes, you've got to do exactly what you're told not to do to make a really good story :D

    Whether or not it'll get picked up is a whole other story, but I shall just have to wait and see!

  2. I totally agree! Let the writing rebellion begin! - and then we can sort out getting repped by an agent later.

  3. This is a great writing tips post. I did use a flashback in my first novel but I kept it brief.

  4. my understanding is it is okay to break the rules as long as you know what they are and are making a deliberate choice.

  5. Rules are good to you know when to break them.

  6. Thanks everyone! I'm glad there are so many rebels like me out there! Haha! *waves her swishy sword*

  7. I'm totally doing a couple of these no-nos but I have really good reasons to do so. Most of these things have never bothered me in books that I've read (prologues, epilogues, flashbacks, etc.) as long as they're done well. I think that's the key. If you do a prologue well, then great! Someone pointed out recently that the very first chapter of the first Harry Potter book is pretty much a prologue, but because it's labelled 'Chapter 1' it's somehow okay. Weird, right? It's like people just get squirrelly at the word 'prologue'. Anyway, I agree with Miss Cole: Rules are there to be long as there's a reason, and as long as it's done well. :-)

  8. As a fantasy reader and writer, I can tell you that prologue and epilogues are important parts of the book. I love them.
    Some authors handle flashbacks in a great way but others to take me out of the story.

  9. Honestly, I think if any of these things are necessary to your plot and are actually the best way to tell the story--and are not boring in the ways they often are--then go for it. Also definitely agree with your point about fantasy being different. :)


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