The two rules of writing

I talk often with other writers.  I enjoy getting to share ideas with students, Wattpad stars, published writers…it’s just nice to spend time conversing with others about the craft that we love so much.

Lately, I’ve been talking with my good friend Emily Godhand.  She’s got an awesome paranormal thriller, Fear of the Dark and we talk writing…a lot.  Recently, she’s been bugging me to share my theory on how the many rules of how to write can be stated more simply.  So, blame her for this long, long post!

As writers we often look for advice from authors that we admire, and luckily there is no shortage of input from many of the greats.  John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Michael Chabon, Elmore Leonard, Kurt Vonegut, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and so many others have given a collection of rules and advice on how to write.

Oftentimes, their advice is not really related to the art of writing.  Of Hugh Howey’s three rules, two of them are about self publishing.  Margaret Atwood wisely advises you to do back exercises.  Hemmingway agrees with Atwood on using pencils, but also says (not surprisingly) to keep things brief.  King says to never write with the television on.

But when they do talk about writing, their advice varies.  Jack Keroac’s list of 30 techniques and beliefs is more like a numbered poem.  Leonard says to never start a book with the weather.  Gaiman says to laugh at your own jokes.  If you put it all together, you’d have a very intimidating list of rules by which to write.  Heck, Stephen King actually has two rules about avoiding adverbs.

But I’m going to tell you a secret.

Here’s the real truth…when it comes down to the actual art and craft of writing, there are only TWO rules.

  1. Be Clear.
  2. Don’t Be Boring.

That’s it folks.  Two rules.

Now, here’s the thing…are there other rules that we need to pay attention to?  Perhaps things like grammar and rules of style?  Yup, there sure are.  But, and this is the key, every one of those other rules is actually a sub-rule under one of the Big Two.

Remember all those pesky rules on commas?  How about the i before e in spelling?  And don’t forget run on sentences and fragments.  All of these rules of grammar are focused on one thing…making sure that your writing is clear, that the reader can actually understand what you mean.

Following rule #1, Be Clear, is the first hurdle you have to overcome as a writer.  You have to remember that all those vital backstory clues actually have to be on the page instead of just in your brain.  If you are writing any kind of action, you have to make sure the reader knows where the characters are and can understand what is happening in the scene.

This is a big part of why we do re-writes, so we can look back and find those spots that aren’t really clear.  And your readers will really thank you for this.  Every error or muddled sentence is a stumbling block that takes your reader out of the story.  Don’t let that happen.  Rewrite and fix things.

But, here’s the bad news.  Rule #1 is the easy one, by far.

The real effort is in #2, Don’t Be Boring.  The problem with this one is that it covers so much ground.  If you thought all those grammar rules were too numerous to count, just think of all the ways writers have come up with to, sadly, be boring.

Think about it…does nothing happen in the book?  Boring.  Do things happen but they are disconnected and don’t add up to anything?  Boring.  Do the characters talk too much?  Do they talk about random subjects just like in a Tarantino movie?  Do they say exactly what they mean every time they speak?  Boring, boring and boring.

That’s just the start of a very long list.

Now, we can’t tackle every one of the ways writers end up boring their readers, but we can hit some of the big ones.  Let’s tackle a few of the ones that get talked about a lot.

The first, and most primal of the Don’t Be Boring sub-rules is to show instead of tell.  This sub-rule is so big it has an army of sub-sub-rules below it.

Here are the basics of showing vs. telling (and let’s get a little meta):

When we write, we are aiming to create an image, a world in the mind of our readers.  We want them to see, hear, smell, feel and taste what is going on.  We want to engage our readers by immersing them in the scene.

Or…let me put that another way…

If a character in my story is eating a piece of cake, I could just tell the reader that the icing falls off the fork, that the crumbs break apart as she chews and that bitter chocolate is blended with sugar to make it taste better.  Or, I could describe how she leans over the small plate.  How the hair on the back of her neck stands up at the screeching noise her fork makes when she scrapes it a little too hard against the crackled white glaze in order to get every last molecule of frosting into the next bite.  And as she closes her lips over the fork, the darkness of the chocolate in the dissolving crumbs almost seems to burn her tongue, only to be soothed by the sweetness of the chocolate.

Okay, enough food examples.  But did you see the difference in those two descriptions?  In the first, I told you what was going on.  In the second, I showed you.  Which was easier to gloss over?  Which put you in the scene with the character and made you hungry for cake?

The thing is, any time we simply state what is going on, we give our readers a chance to tune out.  Whether we are talking about the characters emotions, what they are doing, or the setting, simply telling the reader what happened just doesn’t create anything compelling.

What if I have a character who is tired and wants to sit down to rest?  Do I simply write that he sits in a chair and feels better?  Who would want to read that?

But if I describe what the exhaustion really feels like, how the chair feels, how the muscles unwind one by one, how he drifts off to sleep…these details give the reader something to latch onto.  With descriptions that are vivid and well placed, you can pull your reader further into your story and your characters’ lives.  This is a great way to avoid being boring.

Let’s go into one more example of not being boring by showing instead of telling.  Adverbs.

A number of great writers specifically mention avoiding adverbs in their how to write lists, and with good reason.  Adverbs, while very handy and quick, are the biggest shortcut to telling and being boring…especially when used to describe dialogue.

Think of all the stories you’ve read where the writer says the characters said something loudly, quietly, angrily or any other way that people say things.  You think to yourself that this is a super, quick way to describe how something was happening, but really, every adverb is a missed opportunity to show something important about your characters.

You can say that your character said something sadly, but what are you really giving your readers?  Just one generic, over-used word that doesn’t say anything specific.  Instead, what if you took the opportunity to show your readers what was so sad about the speaker?  What if you said she was was slumped over, with her head in her hands?  With something as simple as that, you’ve gone from a quick, throw-away word to creating an image in your reader’s mind.

That’s how avoiding adverbs can keep you from being boring.

There are tons of other ways to avoid being boring.  You can make sure your plot is connected and makes sense.  You can make sure your protagonist has a recognizable goal.  You can create an antagonist who wants the same thing as the hero and is very hard to beat.  The list can go on and on.  It’s hard work.

But there is good news.  If you work on these two rules a little bit every time you write, your writing will get better.  It will be clearer and more engaging and your readers will become devoted fans.