It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

The Five Rules of Good Writing

14 Comments

So I’ve been working on a new novel, and that got me thinking about the way I approach writing. Which is basically write, edit, write, edit… and so on until I’m happy with it. But there are some rules I try to stick to. And, since everyone likes list, I thought I’d share them.

  1. Make every sentence, and everything in it, unambiguous
  2. Map every ramification of the ideas in the story
  3. Leave no holes in the plot for the story to escape through
  4. Get the details right (and that means research)
  5. The resolution should always be a consequence of the actions of one or more characters

So, there you go. A sure-fire recipe for success at writing. You heard it here first.

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14 thoughts on “The Five Rules of Good Writing

  1. Would point 5 rule out events that push the plot forward that are outside of the control of the characters? In particular random events, like a car escaping because a lorry blocks the road. Or a phone is not answered and the voicemail is ignored.

    🙂

    • Sometimes you can push coincidence and serendipity too far in a story. It’s best if the reader feels the character(s) has some control over the plot – even if it’s only bringing about the resolution, whether good or bad.

  2. Interesting rules, Ian. I also think it’s important for a writer to have a set of guidelines (not rules, necessarily, in my case but more “things to watch out for cos I tend to slip up on them, especially in novels), but I suspect if every writer were to list their top five of these, they’d be different.

    For my money, I agree with two of yours, would heavily caveat two more and heartily disagree with one. But then that just goes to prove that we’re all individuals don’t it?

    • Which one do you disagree with? Rule 1. I can certainly see a justification for breaking, though that’s more a style issue rather than a writing one.

  3. Yep. Rule 1. I think an ambiguous sentence is properly wonderful think. Especially in dialogue.

    2 and 4 I would caveat with “but only so much as the story needs it, otherwise you’ll bog the flow down with clever research and ramifications”.

  4. Nice set of guidelines… and with all guidelines there are exceptions, including:

    1) The story line can hinge on a statement being ambiguous e.g. person 1 thinks it’s one thing, reacts and comes into conflict with person 2 who thinks it the other thing.

    2) Mapping every ramification for a technology idea could take more than a lifetime… look how complicated technology can be. For ideas that have a lot of background you only need to map until you are satisfied that it will not interfere with the piece you are writing.

    3) Some suspense stories like to leave holes at the end to add to the suspense. But it must be controlled to be intriguing rather than dissatisfying.

    4) Not if you deliberately go for a point of view from an unreliable character. So here the story line over-rides the detail.

    5) Resolution can also be as a result of deliberate non-action… the character has to decide not to act and we have to know why.

    O.K. So I’ve given you some of the exceptions to the rules you suggest, but there is the old saying that you got to understand the rules before you break them.

  5. Having typed all that, I’d definitely agree that your 5 (or 4) are at least rules that one should not disregard lightly.

  6. I like this post – but mostly as an example of how different writers have different approaches to their writing.

    I don’t think any of the five rules, as listed, as I understand them here, would work for me. With the exception perhaps of #4 which seems mostly benign. Not to say they’re not good for you, but they’d not be found among my own toolset.

    Rule 1, as others have pointed out, is only useful *if* you want a sentence to be unambiguous. I like and need ambiguity in writing.

    Rule 2 I think only valuable up to a point. Stories like the world, can have a hazy horizon, even a dim middle distance. Some things should stay there and need not be resolved. To over explain, can bring artificial focus. Obviously, you want to think through big changes made to a world, setting, or history in advance – but this for me is a very loose, organic process.

    Rule 3 I’d discard as I’m all for holes – in the right places. I like dark caves where stories can be trapped, lost for a time, or go to die. Plot can be a tyrant and sometimes should be overthrown. Too much of it can make a book feel like just another airport thriller, with characters dragged from one set-piece to another by its shrill demands.

    Rule 4 seems universally sound, as long as it doesn’t take over. Research like plot, can sometimes overwhelm and should be watched closely that it informs the writer, not the reader.

    Rule 5 goes against my preferences for a novel. Consequences follow actions, on a small scale. The universe remains indifferent to the wishes of its actors. Plans go awry, heroes fail, resolutions frequently unfold *despite* the efforts made by the protagonists and in ways they can not predict, let along control. I enjoy foreshadowing the tragic inevitability of fate, just to rub this point in even more.

    But, I do like lists. So there, we don’t disagree completely. Good luck.

  7. Ta all for comments. I will only add:

    1. “The two of them entered the room, and then he closed the door.” <– example of ambiguity. Not to be confused with poetical or elliptical style of writing. Make sure your sentences say what you want them to say.

    2. Mapping the ramifications doesn't necessarily mean including them in the story – but it does mean you won't get caught out.

    3. When you leave gaping plot holes in a story, readers are going to wonder how much care you've put into the story. Cf just about any Hollywood movie.

    4. Getting the details right does not mean putting every piece of research into the story. It does mean that if you make shit up and it's plainly wrong, you'll look very stupid. People can look things up online these days – they're not just going to take your word for something they think looks iffy.

    5. Whether the character's actions are successful or whether they fail spectacularly, both lead to a resolution. It does not have to world-changing, or even universe-changing. But no one likes a story in which the protagonist does nothing but react to events over which they have no control.

    New rule No. 6. All rules exist to be broken. Carefully.

  8. I still wonder about the 5th rule. I can see a whole class of stories that could violate your rule and still work. War intervenes, the sky falls, etc…question is how often you can pull something like that off.

    The 6th rule is the best.

  9. Pingback: June Favourite Posts « A World Of Mots

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