4 Rules for Writing Fiction You Can Ignore

You think you know how to write fiction? You probably don’t. Not unless you follow these four cardinal writing rules.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Remember: some highly successful writers break these rules and still write great stuff. But you are not one of them. It is not possible to break these rules and write great stuff unless you are already a successful writer. Got it? Good.

1. Show, don’t tell

You’re telling me a story, right? Wrong. You need to show me the story. You don’t need a pen and paper or a keyboard — you need a stage. Perform for me, monkey.

You could act out the story, mime it, or come up with a contemporary dance routine. Whatever you do, don’t you dare tell me what happens, because that’s bad writing. It’s boring. What readers really want is a series of ideas which they can interpret in a million and one different ways without fully understanding what your story is all about. Do you understand? Of course you don’t. That’s exactly my point.

Now, there is a very subtle difference between showing and telling when writing fiction, and I’m afraid I can’t share with you what that difference is. Why? Because I have no idea myself. Nobody does. All I know is that “show, don’t tell” is the most repeated mantra known to fiction writers the world over, and we must abide.

2. Never carry dialogue with anything other than “said”

You don’t want your writing to become too pretentious, right? In that case, don’t even think about using anything other than “said” when you’re telling — sorry, showing — us how your characters interact.

We couldn’t give a damn if they’re whispering because they don’t want their illicit conversation to be overheard, or if they’re screaming because they’re scared stiff of the knife-wielding demon in the corner, or if they’re groaning because they’re in the throes of passion.

Characters can only ever say things because any clues as to their tone or volume gives us more information about the scene at hand and helps us to more vividly imagine everything that happens. Readers absolutely do not want that. They want to interpret your ideas in a million different ways without fully understanding your story, remember?

Photo by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash

3. Focus on quality rather than quantity

Do you think you could become a better writer by practising as much as possible? You’re fooling yourself.

If you try to write too much, too often, you’ll drag down the quality of your work. There’s no point writing 1000 words every day if they’re all bad words. Instead, focus on writing just one word every day, and make it the best word you’ve ever come up with in your life.

So what if it takes you fifty years to complete a short story? It’ll probably be the most incredible short story the world has ever read. It’ll be of such impeccable quality that once we have read that single story, we won’t ever need to read any other story ever again. Which is perfect, because we’ll all be dead by the time you finish your next one.

4. Kill all your darlings

Do you feel satisfied with something you’ve written? Do you feel like it doesn’t need any more work? That it’s actually, heaven forbid, “good enough” for this world? Wrong. If you like something you’ve written, it must be trash.

Delete every word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, chapter, or novel that you’ve ever liked. They’re your darlings and they must be destroyed. All they do is boost your confidence and make you believe that you might actually be competent. You’re not. Everything you create is garbage and should never be seen by eyes other than your own.

That doesn’t mean to say you need to stop writing. Keep writing, for sure. That’s a bonus tip for you — you have to write to call yourself a writer. The trick is to just delete everything afterwards. Simple, really.