How-to books on writing fiction are full of maxims: show, don’t tell; avoid clichés; write what you know. But many of our most beloved and renowned writers successfully break these cardinal rules of writing. So, when does conventional wisdom become too conventional? Here are fourteen commonly accepted (and disseminated) “rules” of writing, each accompanied by a famous example that artfully breaks the rule and an exploration of how and why the work succeeds.
1. Don’t start with a character waking from a dream.
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him…In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease.
In this opening from The Road by Cormac McCarthy, the main character wakes and touches his young son in the dark to be sure he is breathing then proceeds to relive his dream for the reader’s benefit. Dream sequences shouldn’t work in fiction, especially as openers, primarily because there’s no inherent tension in a dream. All dreams end the same way: and then I woke up. But, in the case of The Road, the post-apocalyptic world is so nightmarish that it works to open with a recalled dream. It is preparing us for the 287 dream-like pages that follow. It also works because the language used to describe the dream is broad and sweeping. It reads like a fable about the end of time, or the beginning of the earth. It even employs the word fable within the text, and the fantastical images propel us forward, ever onward, down the road.
2. Don’t start a story with dialogue.
“And where’s Mr. Campbell?” Charlie asked.
“Gone to Switzerland. Mr. Campbell is a pretty sick man, Mr. Wales.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. And George Hardt?” Charlie inquired.
“Back in America. Gone to work.”
“And where is the Snow Bird?”
“He was in here last week. Anyway, his friend, Mr. Schaeffer, is in Paris.”
Two familiar names from the long list of a year and a half ago. Charlie scribbled an address in his notebook and tore out the page.
The first line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "Babylon Revisited" not only starts with dialogue, but the first word of the story is and. Talk about your in medias res. We know nothing about Mr. Campbell, and nothing about Charlie, and we attach no specific importance to their names or circumstances. So it shouldn’t work as an opening, except for the fact that the whole story is about people talking and not understanding one another. In that sense, it’s brilliant. The story’s title is the first way in which Fitzgerald gets away with it because it predisposes us to expect a Tower of Babel atmosphere in which everyone is talking but no one is listening. It also works because he keeps it short. Six lines of dialogue and then the author orients his readers. Another excellent short story that begins with dialogue is “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” by Amy Hempel. (“'Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,’ she said. ‘Make it useless stuff or skip it.’”)
3. Don’t kill off your main character.
The Bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end, it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now, Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.
In "Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff, the main character, known to us only as Anders, isn’t a particularly likeable fellow. He’s become smug and judgmental in his career as a literary critic and so divorced from the real world that he doesn’t even feel afraid when he finds himself in a bank being held up by two masked, gun-toting robbers. In fact, he mocks their word usage (dead meat, capeesh) and continues to critically assess their dialogue until one of the robbers threatens him, and then finally shoots him in the head. And although the move is shocking, we don’t feel much of anything for Anders. He brought it on himself, after all. We all saw it coming. But! Once the bullet is traveling through his brain, the long list of things that the narrator tells us Anders doesn’t remember gives us a great deal of insight into his life, and we soften toward him. Then, finally, we get to see what he does remember in his last moments. Anders’s brain finds again the simple and overwhelming love for language that had come upon him as a child and had shaped the rest of his life and even though it occurs at the moment of his death, we are not sad for him because he is happy, once again, out in his field, in awe of words.
4. Give readers a likeable protagonist.
What really attracted me to Valeria was the imitation she gave of a little girl. She gave it not because she had divined something about me; it was just her style—and I fell for it…I, on my part, was as naïve as only a pervert can be. She looked fluffy and frolicsome, dressed à la gamine, showed a generous amount of smooth leg, knew how to stress the white of a bare instep by the black of a velvet slipper, and pouted, and dimpled, and romped, and dirndled, and shook her short curly blond hair in the cutest and tritest fashion imaginable…But reality soon asserted itself. The bleached curl revealed its melanic root; the down turned to prickles on a shaved shin…and presently, instead of a pale little gutter-girl, Humbert Humbert had on his hands a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba.
In Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Humbert Humbert is a despicable man. How could we spend an entire novel in his sway? Well, he is despicable, yes, but he tells us this right away, on page one: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” His full disclosure buys him a little more time with readers, and then he proceeds to work a number of familiar cultural and literary references into his recounting (Annabel Lee, The Old Man and the Sea, Don Quixote, Les Miserables) so that we begin to feel that we inhabit the same world as him, so he couldn’t be all bad, could he? And he throws in erudite phrases from French and Latin that we more-or-less understand, thanks to the context, so we begin to feel smart ourselves. He has made us feel smart (thank you very much, Nabokov) and then, to clinch the deal, he writes beautifully. Even when he is plotting to deflower a young girl, describing his role in a violent murder, or critically calling out the faults of those less refined than himself, the prose sings. In short, Humbert Humbert is mesmerizing on the page. Odious, and slimy, and mesmerizing. So he gets away with it.
5. Write what you know.
To get rid of the quilt was quite easy; he had only to inflate himself a little and it fell off by itself. But the next move was difficult, especially because he was so uncommonly broad. He would have needed arms and hands to hoist himself up; instead he had only the numerous little legs which never stopped waving in all directions and which he could not control in the least.
If Franz Kafka had stuck to writing only what he knew, he could never have written The Metamorphosis, for no one can convince me that Kafka knew what it was like to flatten down inside his carapace and hide under the sofa, to skitter up the walls and hang from the ceiling, to eat with relish a few crumbs of rotten cheese. What he did in 1915—instead of writing realistically about the life he knew—was to take what he understood about loneliness, alienation, and helplessness and give it to another creature, a creature that would surely know about such things. He imagined what it would be like to wake up one morning and find oneself the sudden embodiment of all the painful aspects of living a modern life and he wrote from that place. And the life of a cockroach (or beetle, depending on who you ask) is so foreign and yet so commonplace. He gets away with it precisely because it is so weird and yet at the same time so familiar.
6. Avoid foreign phrases, scientific words, or jargon.
Before I knew it Papi was dressed and Mami was crossing each one of us, solemnly, like we were heading off to war. We said, in turn, Benedición, Mami, and she poked us in our five cardinal spots while saying, Que Dios te bendiga. This was how we began all our trips, the words that followed me every time I left the house…Toma. Mami handed me four mentas. She had thrown a few out her window at the beginning of our trip, an offering to Eshú, the rest were for me. Mami considered these candies a cure-all for any disorder.
In the short story “Fiesta, 1980,” Junot Díaz sprinkles Spanish words and phrases throughout without defining them or offering a glossary. He has said, by way of explanation, that even in our own language we hear only about 80 percent of what is said; the other 20 percent is unintelligible or simply gets lost in the act of conversing. We notice the loss more when reading because the words we are missing are sitting right there on the page, we just don’t understand them. And that reminder, says Díaz, of what we are missing, is not a bad thing. It has value. Art shouldn’t be too easily consumed or it isn’t art. There should always be some portion of mystery, some content beyond what we currently know. This pushes us as art consumers to work harder, to learn more over time that will inform future readings. He also doesn’t believe in italicizing non-English words because it marks them as other when they are perfectly viable words and should be encountered in the text as such. He gets away with it because the words work inside the larger story—its setup, setting, and the immigrant family who inhabit it.
7. Use precise, active verbs.
Monday morning, the boy was walking to school. He was in the company of another boy, the two boys passing a bag of potato chips back and forth between them. The birthday boy was trying to trick the other boy into telling what he was going to give in the way of a present.
At an intersection, without looking, the birthday boy stepped off the curb, and was promptly knocked down by a car. He fell on his side, his head in the gutter, his legs in the road moving as if he were climbing a wall.
“The Bath” by Raymond Carver (from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) is one of Carver’s stripped-down (i.e. Gordon Lish-edited) stories. A longer version (“A Small, Good Thing”) appears in his Cathedral collection. Carver uses the bare minimum of words to get his story across and the verbs he uses are common verbs used in simple ways: was walking, passing, was trying, telling, was going, looking, was knocked, etc. There are no verbal pyrotechnics. He uses simple words to convey a simple story with maximum impact. In fact, what is not said assumes its own negative space within the text, much as a Henry Moore sculpture defines its shape by what is not there as much as by what is. Carver gets away with it in “The Bath” because we fill in the emotions for him, and also because the story is largely about the things we don’t say—things we wish we could express but can’t or don’t.
8. A first-person narrator should be the main character.
If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament”—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in another person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
In The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, we are told the story of the main character—Jay Gatsby—from the point-of-view of Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s next-door neighbor for the summer. From the first page, Fitzgerald sets the stage for us to take Nick’s word as truth. Nick says his father counseled him many years ago not to judge other people, not to be critical of those who may not have had his advantages in life. Then he goes on to tell us he’s always been privy to the secrets of others, and further states that he has never worked to obtain nor even welcomed the intimate revelations that get delivered to him. Because he doesn’t seek out such confidences, we trust him. “Reserving judgments,” Nick says, “is a matter of infinite hope.” How can you not trust a guy like that to give you the real story? Since Gatsby is himself a grand fabrication, he cannot accurately tell his own story. Thereby, Fitzgerald brilliantly gets away with using a secondary character as the first-person narrator for his cautionary tale about excess and the failed American dream.
9. Show, don’t tell.
The population is younger than it is now; than it will ever be again. People past fifty usually don’t come to a raw, new place. There are quite a few people in the cemetery already, but most of them died young, in accidents or childbirth or epidemics. It’s youth that’s in evidence in town. Children—boys—move through the streets in gangs. School is compulsory for only four months a year, and there are lots of occasional jobs that even a child of eight or nine can do—pulling flax, holding horses, delivering groceries, sweeping the boardwalk in front of stores. A good deal of time they spend looking for adventures.
This passage is taken from “Meneseteung” by Alice Munro but one could find examples of telling in any one of her stories. It’s what she does. She’s a storyteller. She does show, too, though, so a better dictum might be (as Grace Paley urged) “show and tell” because we really do need both. You can’t show everything without exhausting your reader. Munro gets away with telling because of the authority of her narrative voice. Authority is a seldom-discussed part of the writing craft, but an essential one. As writers we must create a voice readers will trust, one that they will follow without fear of stumbling or missing out on important details. Munro also gets away with telling because her stories often span many years, sometimes a whole lifetime or even several generations. Just try to show all of that in a short story.
10. Don’t use exclamation points.
Because his surgery is not until tomorrow, the Baby likes the hospital. He likes the long corridors down which he can run. He likes everything on wheels. The flower carts in the lobby! (“Please keep your boy away from the flowers,” says the vender. “We’ll buy the whole display,” snaps the mother, adding, “Actual children in a children’s hospital—unbelievable, isn’t it?”) The Baby likes the other little boys. Places to go! People to see! Rooms to wander into! There is Intensive Care. There is the Trauma Unit. The Baby smiles and waves. What a little Cancer Personality!
In the short story, “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” by Lorrie Moore, a mother finds a blood clot in her baby’s diaper. A terrifying diagnosis and invasive treatments follow in a story that contains almost 90 exclamation points! And more than 150 question marks—crazy, isn’t it? Over-the-top, even. And yet the extreme punctuation and ironic narrative tone combine to perfectly convey the mother’s barely contained hysteria, the overly cheerful greetings of the hospital staff, and her own frustration and continued disbelief as she moves through the hospital system. The repeating question marks highlight the unknowns of the situation, the crazy non-answers and the heart-wrenching dilemmas with no right or wrong solution. What to do? What to think? What to say? Moore gets away with it because her punctuation suits the voice and fits the situation: a creeping anxiety that must be laughed down, shushed down, or satirized down in order to be borne.
11. Avoid melodrama.
How the hell he ended up in this ridiculous melodrama of a life is beyond him. Bent on saving dolphins when he couldn’t even save his own wife. No wonder women saw him as a tragic figure. Hell, it’s exactly what he was. He’d be happy to quit the ADF if he could. But the dolphins were his job—his mission. He was the head and founder of the whole organization. He couldn’t quit his reason for being. He just had to wait it out was all. Wait for life after Chelsea. See what that held.
I’m going to break a craft-essay rule right here, and use my own story as an example because I believe my method of getting away with it may be especially instructive. In “Beyond the Strandline,” the story centers around a man whose wife has been in a persistent vegetative state for fifteen months, the result of a stroke while diving. He is also the founder of a dolphin rescue organization that saves stranded dolphins. As the story opens, he is unable to save a dolphin slowly dying in the shallows while his wife is slowly dying in the hospital after her feeding tube has been removed. In an early draft, an astute reader pointed out that these two situations might be too coincidental and melodramatic for readers to stomach. I agreed, but it was sort of the point of the whole story because crazy coincidences do happen in real life. So to fix it, I gave that knowledge to the character. I let him remark on the coincidence and wonder how he ended up there, showing the readers that even he knew he was smack in the middle of a real-life melodrama. Beating-the-reader-to-the-punch solved the problem.
12. Avoid overlong sentences.
Consequently the town was filled with incompleteness—half-built outhouses and roofless additions, unpainted churches, dance floors with the tin roof only partially raised, plots of ground half cleared and swiftly growing back to jungle again, bicycles half put together, motorcycles lying one-wheeled on their sides behind cabins and shops, diesel generators with gears, bolts, belts, and wiring lying in piles next to the casing, stacks of cinderblocks without mortar or sand, pyramids of sand and a bag or two of mortar with no cinderblocks, a chain saw without a chain, a fence already falling down at one end before the other had been put up.
This one-sentence paragraph, excerpted from The Book of Jamaica by Russell Banks, fills most of a page. But the overlong sentence works perfectly in the context of the world Banks is portraying. It’s the world of the Caribbean, specifically Jamaica, but generally a place where island time structures lives and irie rules the day. The sentence is a rambling accounting of a rambling state of being, a perfectly expressed philosophy detailed in the projects unfinished, the plans made but never fully executed, all presented to us through a long-winded list of physical details. The short story, “Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid, also written about life in the Caribbean (Kincaid is from Antigua), provides another excellent example of breaking the long-sentence rule.
13. Never set your story in a bar.
The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.
In Ernest Hemingway's short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” the characters (tellingly, a man and a girl, never named), have a touchy and difficult subject to discuss. They also have a train coming in forty minutes, which drives up the tension. The characters spend a good portion of the story merely alluding to what amounts to the elephant in the room (or in the hills). He doesn’t want to discuss it, she does. To his relief, she can’t say what’s on her mind, not in this public space, but she can bring it up obliquely, so she does, easing the reader into the subject as carefully as she’s easing the man into it. This talking around a difficult subject, then, becomes the whole point of the story, the said and the unsaid of everyday life.
14. If you see an adverb, kill it.
It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
The use of adverbs in the ending of "The Dead" by James Joyce accomplishes several things. First it slows down the approaching end of the narrative, establishing a pace that mimics the slowly falling snow as it drifts into the reader’s consciousness word by word. Then Joyce’s carefully selected sound-words add to the sense of quietly falling snow because so many of them are soft or sibilant sounds, ess and eff and th. Think about the phrase “his soul swooned slowly…” Say it in your head. His soul swooned slowly. There’s no way to say that (or hear it read by one’s internal reader) quickly. It’s a slow phrase in a slow sentence in a slow paragraph in a slow ending.
Given these successful examples of rule breaking, one might ask, “Why even have rules?” Well, we crave them for one thing, especially when we are just starting to write. Rules give the novice writer some sense of structure, of boundaries, or even simply something to point to and say, “At least I didn’t do that.” As teachers, too, we often feel the need to lay down ground rules for the young apprentice writer, perhaps because the intangibles of great writing can be elusive and difficult to convey, even more so to teach.
The genius behind breaking the rules (in any art form) lies in knowing when to ignore convention, and how to do so artfully. Before Picasso broke the rules of art and created a whole new movement, he drew and painted thousands of realistic studies. Time spent honing one's craft is the best way to earn the right to break the rules, but the simplest answer (and also, ironically, the most complex) to the questions “how” and “when” it is okay to break the rules of writing might be whenever we can get away with it.
Mary Akers is the author of the award-winning short story collection Women up on Blocks. Her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Mississippi Review online, The Fiddlehead, Brevity, and other journals. She received a 2012 Pushcart Special Mention and has been thrice awarded a Bread Loaf work-study scholarship. She is editor-in-chief of the online journal, r.kv.r.y.