In Fiction, Nothing Is Forbidden, Everything Is Permitted

In other words: “Fuck the rules.”

WHOA, JEEZ, ME. SLOW YOUR ROLL, WENDIG.

Okay, so, at cons and conferences — or via e-mail — someone inevitably mentions in a question something that writer is “not supposed to do.” This person has been reliably and repeatedly informed at some point that This Particular Thing is Fucking Anathema, a Dealbreaker Of Epic Narrative Proportions, and to Do This Shitty Thing is Tantamount To Kicking A Baby Down A Flight Of Steps Into A Pile Of Burning Books. (No, I don’t know why I capitalized a bunch of those words, but it felt good at the time. This is probably appropriate given the post I am about to write.)

This can be anything, really.

Don’t open on weather.

Don’t open with a character looking in a mirror.

Don’t open on a character just waking up.

Never ever use an adverb ever.

(Related: “In Writing, There Are Rules, And Then There Are Rules.”)

And for all that’s fucking holy, writing a prologue is a major biggum no-no, on par with and as pleasant as prolapsing one’s anus. You may in fact be told that a Prologue killed Jesus in the Gospel According To… I don’t remember. Dave, maybe. Dan? Eh.

Point is: Somewhere, you’ll find a list of prohibitions that some writer somewhere decided was an official bad idea. This is maybe a published writer. This is maybe just some yahoo.

But what I want you to realize is this: for every prohibition made, for every supposed forbiddance, you will find a book that defies that supposed dictum. Not just a book — you’ll find a published book. A good book, too. Maybe one that sold a metric keister-load of copies. For every rule, many notable exceptions to that rule.

I mean, okay, I dunno how good it is, but I wrote Blackbirds by breaking a ton of these narrative norms and storytelling mores, these purported prescriptions. I open with a character looking in the mirror. It’s present tense, but third person. It’s a mish-mash of genres: frog-hopping from horror to crime to urban fantasy. I use lots of dream sequences and flashbacks. I wrote a theoretically unlikable character (though I prefer to think of her as quite lovable just the same, but then again, I’m kinda goofy). I actively and openly wanted to defy rules.

Hell, pick up a bunch of genre books and you will find contained with them a — drum roll please — prologue. Despite its reported Jesus-killing powers, the prologue continues to pop up like an errant credit card charge, like a bad smell, like the aforementioned prolapsed anus. Prologues are like a dietary restriction that we say we don’t wanna eat and yet there we are, gobbling the damn things down like we don’t care if we end up with a barely-chewed kielbasa clogging our aorta.

It is with this you need to realize:

This is your story.

It’s your book.

You can do whatever the flippy, floppy fuck you want.

Nothing is forbidden. Everything is permitted.

If you listened to every prohibition out there about writing, you’d be trapped in so tight a box I’m not sure you could even write a story at all. You’d probably just be writing the repair manual for a 1990 Geo Tracker.

With this, I offer two very important caveats:

First, just because everything is permitted doesn’t mean everyone likes those particular things. Some agents and editors — if you are going that route — will immediately throw the Kill Switch upon seeing one of these boogers appear. “She began her story by addressing the reader,” the editor says, then promptly spaces the manuscript through the merciless mouth of her spacecraft’s airlock. (All editors live in spaceships floating above the dystopian island of Manhattan. I originally thought this was to protect them from Amazon in a kind of Reagan-era defense program, but now I think it’s just because: hey, spaceship.)

Second, if you are going to break any of these prohibitions, know that they exist for a reason. Defying them is meaningful — an act of rebellion that says two things: one, “I don’t give a shit about your rules,” and two, “I am good enough to step on them and break their little bones.” Your contravention of expectation — your demand to be an exception — has to be one made of great effort and skill. Most prologues? They’re dogshit. That’s why everyone hates them, because people tack them on not because it’s essential to the tale but because they saw some other asshole do it and they thought, “I dunno, it’s a trope?” Like they’re checking a checkbox. People who overuse adverbs are frequently amateurs. People who start with weather do so not because the weather is essential to convey something about the plot, or the setting, or to lend us mood, but rather because the storyteller doesn’t know what the fuck to talk about. “I dunno — uhhh. The sun… is up? But a storm is… coming? Wait, is there supposed to be something relevant here?”

Do not ignore the prohibitions.

Know them.

And give them the middle finger when and only when you know why you need to go the other way. Nothing is forbidden, but a whole bunch of shit isn’t particularly recommended, and when you decide to walk the challenging path — when you pull a stunt — you better own it, and rock it like only you can. Write with purpose and awareness. It’s your story. So know why you’re making the choices you’re making. That is the way of the wise storyteller.

* * *

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63 comments

  • How about a third person present tense prologue about a 1990 Geo Tracker dreaming about standing in some weather while looking an a mirror, then waking up and slowly, noisily, hungrily, angrily, moistly climbing out of bed?

  • Spot on, as always.

    And I have a sudden urge to write a prologue in present-tense, second person, with someone waking up, looking broodily in a mirror, and then it turns out to all be a dream.

  • May 13, 2014 at 2:15 AM // Reply

    I get the impression that agents really like those rules. When you read their blogs or threads on writing forums, it seems like if you break certain rules they will automatically discount you. But the rules change, so which ones do you follow? I read several articles, some by agents, about how to write successful query letters, that suggested you use a leading question as your hook. Then I read a couple of articles where agents said they hate that and will ignore your query if you use it. I used a leading question on the query for a novel and got a ton of manuscript requests. Sadly I didn’t get an agent, but it was definitely not being thrown out for that “rule.” By and large the agents rejected it because it crossed genres and they want to play it safe with all the economic crap going on. It involves time travel and I had several agents gush over my writing and my premise but they just weren’t representing any time travel at that time. Ugh.

    • May 13, 2014 at 3:38 PM // Reply

      Bummer. I love good time travel and there is never enough of it. Let me know if you ever publish by any method.

  • In screenwriting, it is said the official rules are somewhere in Hollywood, deeply carved in styrofoam!

  • An additional “don’t” I heard recently was “don’t start with a character in a car”. I wonder sometimes if people make these limitations up in order to validate their own fears and hesitations.

  • One thing that’s always bothered me about these “rules” (more specifically the ones that have to do with prose, such as adverbs and the verb “to be”) is how some of the greatest writers in history disregard them. It’s hard to condemn the use of adverbs when greats like George Eliot, Vonnegut, Faulkner, Woolf and countless others use them regularly. It makes me assume that the “no adverbs” rule is a modern one that was never really thought about by past generations of writers.

    I’m not defending the use of adverbs, I do understand that 99% of them are superfluous and should be left out. Just food for thought.

    • It’s an interesting point. I suspect anyone who says adverbs should never be used is going *way* too far. I also suspect the dislike of them is part of the modern shift in writing style that discourages wordiness. I don’t think that’s a bad thing overall, though it shouldn’t be absolute.

      Here is my theory of adverbs, which may or may not be wildly wrong, because I made it up.

      The dislike of adverbs is a punch-per-word issue. The meaning of a sentence, carries a certain amount of punch, which is divided (and therefore diluted) by the number of words in the sentence. You never want a sentence that doesn’t have enough words to convey the meaning, but the fewest words possible for a given meaning carries the most punch per word. (This is obviously not as mathematical as I’m pretending, but I think it approximates the idea.)

      Verbs are the punchiest.
      Nouns are also good.
      Adjectives are are a little less good–they’re great sometimes, but a lot of the time they dilute and the sentence would be better without them.
      Adverbs are like adjectives, but moreso. You don’t want to use one unless it pulls its weight.
      Little words (articles, particles, “is,” etc.) add little punch, though of course you’ll need them (in moderation) in order to make sense.

      Though, as I write this, I think I’m also wrong, since the above ignores the “show, don’t tell” issue. Some of the newfangled adverb dislike may be part of the shift away from omniscience towards individual interpretation, which is also a modern thing. When you say “she said nervously,” it’s (usually) hard for the reader to doubt that she was nervous and that you, the all-knowing author, are capable of informing them of that. When you give a clear picture of her body language (or her mindset in other ways, be that in the way she’s speaking or whatever), you can convey the same information, and other information, less one-dimensionally and less in a way that tells the reader how to think. (Which, in my opinion, is also an awesome trend, but also shouldn’t be absolute.)

      Does that make any sense, and/or does it seem remotely true?

      • I think you’re on target about the weakness of adverbs being more an issue of unnecessary words than the adverb itself. Sometimes I’ll use an adverb and, while editing, will try to rearrange the sentence to get rid of it, only to find out that any alternatives just muddy it up. For example (not great, but just off the top of my head):

        Adverb:
        She cleaned her house regularly.

        No Adverb:
        She cleaned her house with regularity.
        She cleaned her house once or twice a week.
        She was strict about cleaning her house.

        To me, the sentence with the adverb does the job in a simpler way than the others (the 2nd “No Adverb” sentence could be better due to being more specific, matter of opinion). Because of the “no adverb” stigma, however, I would obsess about getting that adverb out of there, even if it meant cutting the sentence altogether.

        Basically what I’m saying, is I am a slave to the “No Adverb” rule, even though there are obviously (adverb!!) situations where they are acceptable. I’ll add that I have no problem at all using them in dialogue, because english speakers love their adverbs.

        • Makes sense!

          Though it also touches on the show-don’t-tell issue of adverbs. Grammatically, the sentence is pretty irreducible, but it’s also one-dimensional: if you gave a specific example of her cleaning regimen (Every weekday from eight-thirty to nine, she polished her 18th century silver spoon collection), we would have more information about her. Of course, there are times when you want that information and times when you don’t. (And of course, that was a toy example, and there are instances of similar sentences that are the right sentence for the story.)

  • Whoa! Great minds or fools, either way we must be on the same wavelength. The only difference, you said it much better than I did. Mine is more… well, watered down and safe in retrospect.
    Those “rules” irk me to ends far exceeding the lack of a prologue in the repair manual for the 1990 Geo Tracker. Which I own, by the way. Kinda dry and the protagonist is definitely lacking in horsepower, but I digress.
    Writing is art and art is an expression of a unique muse. It should never fit neatly into any preconceived category, unless, of course, you want it to. 😉

    • I do not truck with muses, for they are frequently impossible to count on. Writing for me is ultimately a craft (and storytelling the art), and in writing rules matter. In storytelling, as I wrote in that other post, they’re really more like guidelines, and anyone gifted and diligent enough can give great story by breaking those “rules” now and again.

      • I use muse in the general sense. As in muse=mind. And mine is, for the most part, impossible to count on, finickity and irritable. But if it was easy, everyone would do it. What’s that Amazon? Oh, I stand corrected. 😉

  • I appreciate your words, but, while I understand I’m still technically progressing through the book all the same, reading a prologue makes my asshole clinch.

    • I’ve liked prologues when they were good — and, more to the point, necessary. And I’ve hated them when they felt bewildering or tacked on or rote-because-I-dunno-prologue.

      The problem with prologues isn’t that they’re prologues. It’s that they’re frequently just not that good.

      — c.

  • Sigh…If only taking taking risks wasn’t so risky.

    I’d say that’s another very good reason to get an editor, though. Take whatever risks you want in the first draft and have someone (hopefully someone competent) tell you if it works or not. At least if you’re self-publishing.

  • May 13, 2014 at 9:49 AM // Reply

    *panics* Wait, I knew about the mirror one but not the waking up one! I used that at the beginning of a novel. Heh, but I think I owned it and it really works so I’m leaving it. *shrug* Maybe it will get cut in an edit but it works.

    • I hadn’t heard that either and had a moment of panic because my WIP has the character wake up at the beginning. I am hoping the fact that she wakes up because stuff’s on fire makes it sufficiently exciting to get me a pass, though.

      • May 14, 2014 at 9:23 AM // Reply

        LOL I think that’s a pretty darned good reason to start there. In fact, just read a news article about a mom who was grabbing a nap with her 18 month old and woke to smoke, realized the apartment was on fire and the only way they were getting out was for her to jump, holding the baby. Baby is fine but mom may be permanently paralyzed.

  • I blame/credit Stephen King’s _On Writing_ for much of the anti-adverb animus out there. And in the context he presents, he’s right: a lot of the time a single precise verb can do the work of a generic verb with an adverb tacked on, and do it more memorably.

    But not always. English has, for example, a multitude of verbs for foot-powered locomotion, but only a handful for swimming (and some of those are problematic–“She stroked her way to the dock” has unfortunate visuals and “He crawled across the surface of the pool” causes more issues for the reader than it solves, unless you’re talking about Jesus as a baby).

    As far as the do’s and don’ts of queries–queries are never a one-size-fits-all thing. Agents are (by all accounts) human beings, spaceships or no, and as such have personal preferences. If an agent I was looking at were to say “no rhetorical questions in queries” I wouldn’t send them a query with one, no matter how great the question is, or how few adverbs were harmed in its writing.

    P.S.-As another example of preferences–my agent isn’t taking time travel stories at all right now, although I imagine he’d make an exception for H.G. Wells, in which case it would be memoir anyway.

  • Agree wholeheartedly on the prologue stance- must be necessary and tie into the story for a purpose. Some of the best prologues I’ve seen haven’t been in books but at the beginnings of Breaking Bad. People will argue those aren’t prologues but to me they’re the film equivalent- they are hooks for the rest of the story and tie in very nicely. Definitely effective as a storytelling tool.

  • I always like when you write about this kinda stuff. And I pretty much agree.

    My favorite line from your other post: “Learn your craft. Then make it your own.”

    At the same time – once authors are established, to a degree they become part of the system of gatekeepers and definers of “good” (in quotes). They did it, therefore, it is *good*. They say it is good, and they are published, therefore, it is *good*.

    Is it easier for an established author to break the rules? Would the same book/story with an unknown’s name be thrown out or go unread?

    Do newbie authors (such as me) run more risks by breaking the rules, even if we know our craft?

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t write what feels “right” to us and “what works,” because I think we really should. We should write, critique, read, take chances, and embrace our art.

    But I also think we have to be real in our assessment of risk, if that makes sense. (too cynical maybe lol)

    So do you think the risk level is different for a newbie author, as people are more willing to give an established author the benefit of a doubt? Or do you think it is really just a question of quality of craft?

    thanks!

  • Worry not, penmonkeys everywhere, the rules have been written by the masters of the craft.

    In literature it is necessary to avoid:
    1.Non-conformist interpretations of famous personalities. For example, describing Don Juan’s misogyny, etc.
    2.Grossly dissimilar or contradictory twosomes like, for example, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Sherlock Holmes and Watson.
    3.The habit of defining characters by their obsessions; like Dickens does, for example.
    4.In developing the plot, resorting to extravagant games with time and space in the manner of Faulkner, Borges, and Bioy Casares.
    5.In poetry, characters or situations with which the reader can identify.
    6.Characters prone to becoming myths.
    7.Phrases, scenes intentionally linked to a specific time or a specific epoch; in other words, local flavor.
    8.Chaotic enumeration.
    9.Metaphors in general, and visual metaphors in particular. Even more concretely, agricultural, naval or banking metaphors. Absolutely un-advisable example: Proust.
    10.Anthropomorphism
    11.The tailoring of novels with plots that are reminiscent of another book. For example, Ulysses by Joyce and Homer’s Odyssey.
    12.Writing books that resemble menus, albums, itineraries, or concerts.
    13.Anything that can be illustrated. Anything that may suggest the idea that it can be made into a movie.
    14.Critical essays, any historical or biographical reference. Always avoid allusions to authors’ personalities or private lives. Above all, avoid psychoanalysis.
    15.Domestic scenes in police novels; dramatic scenes in philosophical dialogues. And, finally:
    16. Avoid vanity, modesty, pederasty, lack of pederasty, suicide.

  • In a similar vein, carry around a cane. And if someone gives you an unsolicited “never do this” piece of advice, beat them with it. Beat them soundly. Then publish in prison, because, you know, assault is against the law. And if your book does well the victim will probably sue you for the proceeds, because they can do that now…

    … um, well, now that I’ve written it out loud… Do NOT beat them with the cane. However, stare at them intently for a few seconds, and IMAGINE beating them with a cane.

    (Chuck’s post, by the way, does NOT CONSTITUTE UNSOLICITED ADVICE. Those of us who come here and read do so of our own free will.)

  • YES! As a lit agent, I spend a lot of time filling new authors in on the “rules,” because I get tired of seeing the same unpolished writing over and over again. But when the writing is actually there, it doesn’t matter what rules they broke. Chuck sums it up perfectly:

    “Do not ignore the prohibitions.

    Know them.

    And give them the middle finger when and only when you know why you need to go the other way.”

    Great post.

  • May 13, 2014 at 3:34 PM // Reply

    When did prologues become bad? As a reader, I love a good prologue, especially if it is mysterious, set in the past/a different world and/or if the connection to the main story isnt immediately apparent. I also like multi-stranded stories with multiple narrators. No doubt I’ve just confessed to being a philistine, but I was literally called a philistine in a university seminar when I argued that Shakespeare was a better writer than Milton. The professor, TA and star pupil looked on me with condescension and pity for the rest of the semester….as if a retarded child had somehow wandered into their midst. No doubt my love of prologues is in the same vein.

    On the other hand, the star pupil wrote linked poems about Derrida that he shared with the rest of the class at the professor’s urging. I thought this was unbearably pretentious, an opinion Ive kept to myself lo these many years.

    • Honestly, I think the “prologues are bad” thing is just a temporary preference/fad among editors and agents. When agents and editors are taken out of the mix opinion is all over the map, just like pretty much every other writing “thing” out there.

  • May 13, 2014 at 4:09 PM // Reply

    I created two unlikeable characters in one of my stories. Turned into quite the character study when it came to hearing who thought which character was the hero and the villain. I like to think they’re both anti-heroes. I like that fact that I was skilled enough to bounce between two points of view in the first person present and make them seem like two different people as well. I’ve come a long way since I started writing. Now for a little luck…

  • This is reminiscent of all the lectures I heard in music school: you can’t break the rules until you know them. You do not get to be John Cage playing 4’33” as soon as you begin. Ticketholders get really pissed about that sort of thing.

  • I am sure glad you wrote this because I am beginning a new book. I hate all the rules in my head every time I want to write down something. This helps me gain confidence as a new writer. I am sick and tired of the anti this or that. I want to be free when I right. Thank you.

  • My WIP starts with a character waking up. Every now and then I remember the above advice (well, the line Chuck quotes, not his advice not to take it too much to heart) and think I’ve definitely got to change it. Inevitably, I soon decide that starting with the moment the character’s memory was erased makes the most sense as the beginning of the story, and I’ve never figured out a sensible way to have that happen when she’s awake.

    …We’ll see whether this works out for me, I guess.

  • My own stance on rules: You must understand them, know why they are the standard, and grok them right down to your marrow. Then you can bend them or break them with authority and grace. Otherwise you tend to look as though you don’t know what you’re doing. As a freelance editor for indie writers, I can promise you I see way too many writers who break the rules without the skill to do it well.

  • May 14, 2014 at 3:24 PM // Reply

    It’s so funny that you posted this, because just this morning I was trying to outline my new might-be-a-book in my head, and I was like, “you know, I want to write about pirates, but not necessarily old-timey pirates, maybe modern pirates, but modern pirates who ACT like old-timey pirates” – and my inner editor was totally flabbergasted and immediately wanted to jump out a window, but I said, “It’s MY book, damnit, I can have anachronistic pirates running around with dynamite and Kraken rum and iPhones if I bloody well want to.” Besides, I feel like “If You Give a Pirate 3G” is just such an amazing concept.

      • May 17, 2014 at 10:35 PM // Reply

        I have to agree…done well, this sounds fun as hell.

        Im sure you are aware that there are real, modern day pirates off the coast of Africa and in the boundless pacific. Some of these guys are scary, but I learned recently, that in the case of African pirates, some of them are forced to piracy because of first world harvesting of resources and overfishing.

        Reading about some of these guys might offer you a way into the head of one of your characters even if your setting is far in the future or in a galaxy far, far away.

        Encouraging you is all part of my evil plan because I want to read this.

  • All I could hear in my mind while reading this post.
    “WELCOME TO ENGLISH VOODOO.
    EXPECT TO FEEL PLEASURE. KNOWLEDGE IS SEXY.
    EXPECT TO FEEL PAIN. KNOWLEDGE IS TORTURE”

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