To Follow or Not to Follow the Yellow Brick Road of Writing Rules

by +AneMulligan @AneMulligan

I began my writing journey as a playwright. I learned how to write good dialogue by default. As the creative arts director for my church, I’d write weekly sermon illustration sketches. With the first few scripts I wrote, my actors would change the way they said the lines. When I realized what they did, I listened carefully and learned how to write realistic dialogue.

When I added novels to my writing, I quickly learned I knew nothing else about writing fiction—other than dialogue. I picked up a couple of mentors and bought a few books on the craft. I absorbed and followed those “rules” of good writing until I had a good handle on them.

I remember hearing new writers complaining about published authors breaking the rules, so why couldn’t they? There’s a very good reason: an experienced author has mastered those rules learned how to break them. We can’t stop on the first broken rule and camp there, saying, “If they did it, so can I.” If you keep reading, you will discover most of the time they don’t break them.

That yellow brick road is there for a “readson.” That word—readson—was a Freudian slip. I meant to type “reason.” But I left it because the rules are for the reader’s experience.

If we follow the guidelines of good writing, our readers have a better experience.

For instance: Showing vs. Telling. When we show what’s happening, the reader experiences the action with the character. Can you imagine a Dean Koontz suspense novel that simply told you what happened? Where would the breath-stealing suspense be? While there are places for telling, like in summary, showing the action involves the reader in the story.

Another good “rule” is using strong verbs instead of a lot of adverbs. She walked quietly becomes she tiptoed. Tiptoed provides a visual for the reader, where walked quietly is so broad, it doesn’t draw us into the action.

To any good rule, there are exceptions.

There will come a time when you have those rules mastered. And now you have an ear for what works and what doesn’t. I always say if you’re going to break a rule, do it with panache so the prose sings. You don’t want to break the rules only to leave your reader experiencing flat writing (pun intended).

If you’re new to this writing gig, do yourself a favor. Learn the basics—the rules—so well that your ear is tuned to what really works and what doesn’t.

Then have fun.

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