The One Rule to Write them all

Let’s assume we know the nuts and bolts. We can spell, we can put our nouns and verbs in the right order, we know our active from our passive. Okay, so maybe we occasionally misplace an apostrophe or a comma, but who doesn’t?

We attempt to write a novel and what happens? Suddenly there’s a whole new set of writing rules. We’re told to avoid the passive voice like the plague, and adverbs like the pox. Not to mention clichés. Never open the novel with the weather and prologues are a definite turn-off. Above all, be sure to show and not tell.

Don’t listen.

Seriously, these are not writing rules. Guidelines, perhaps, but not rules. Some of the best authors break them. You don’t believe me? Okay, here are examples that I came up with in less than an hour’s research (i.e. trawling of my bookshelves):

Too Much Passive Voice:

From the first few pages of the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

“I was removed from my brigade… There I was struck on the shoulder… I was removed… when I was struck down… my life was despaired of… I was despatched…” etc.

Why does it work? Because the reader is interested in what was done to Doctor Watson, not the agent who caused it to be done. The use of the passive serves to emphasise that this is a man who has no power over his life but has had things done to him by some nameless, faceless bureaucracy.

Too Many Adverbs (especially after ‘said’):

From the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J K Rowling:

“…said Aunt Petunia fondly… said Harry coldly…said Harry firmly… he said tonelessly… said Uncle Vernon forcefully… said Dudley breathlessly… quietly… frantically…” etc.

Why does it work? Because the reader does not want to have to follow clues to guess at a character’s emotional state, they are too busy following other clues to unravel the magical plot. The shorthand of using adverbs provides speed and clarity.


Hmm… I couldn’t find many examples of clichés. Perhaps this is the exception which proves the rule (that there are no rules).

Opening with the weather:

The opening sentence of The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson:

“Ash fell from the sky.”

Okay, I’m cheating a little here, but it demonstrates the point. Weather can set the scene, give a hint of the opening mood of the story and sometimes it’s actually interesting. I admit I’m biased on this point, I have little patience for people who think the weather is boring. As I write this I’m feeling tempted to change all my opening sentences to include some weather.

Having a Prologue:

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch:

A 28-page prologue in 9 parts.

Why does it work? It works as all good prologues work – it provides background to former happenings and it tells a riveting story. It’s a story within a story. Maybe the bias against prologues is because they’re easy to do badly, as an info-dump, not what you want at the start of your novel. That doesn’t apply to us, though, because we’re going to do ours right. Right?

Show Don’t Tell:

Chapter 0005 of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline:

Basically a massive, 8-page info-dump.

Why does it work? Because in the preceding four chapters the author has managed to hook the reader so firmly that we are primed, in fact we are dying to know this background information. It is all, of course, absolutely central to the plot, and the reader knows that.

Short Sentences for Action:

I couldn’t resist adding in this one (and hoping no one makes a fuss about copyright). You know they say to use short, declarative sentences to keep up the pace during action scenes? This is from The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall:

“It happens. It happens sometimes: the director in the field sets up a model deployment of his shadow executive and his support group and his contacts and couriers and whatever he needs for a given mission, spinning his small and delicate network of resources and testing it out for strength and making changes where potential danger threatens, sitting back in his inner sanctum plugged into his communications system with its portable scrambler and its bug monitor and taking signals from the shadow out there and relaying them through the mast at Cheltenham to the signals board in Whitehall, the whole thing running like silk through a loom, and then one man and one man alone can suddenly send the web shaking because he’s made a mistake, talked to the wrong people, exposed a password, missed the half-seen face in a doorway or the figure humped at the wheel of a parked car or the broken hair across a drawer in the hotel room, and the network becomes an alarm system and all we can do is shut down signals to prevent interception and get out of the safe house before it’s blown, run for cover, go to ground, hole up somewhere as the smell of the smoke starts drifting through the field where the fuses have blown and someone reaches for the chalk in the signals room in London and writes it up on the board: Mission compromised, clear all channels and stand by. It was happening now.”

If you’re going to break the ‘rules’, you might as well do it with confidence and flair.

The One Rule:

So, do you want to know the magic rule, the One Rule to Write Them All?

Sh… don’t tell everybody… here it is:

Choose which rules to break – this will become your ‘style’ – and know the impact of that choice on the reader.

How exactly do we do this?

Er, no, I have no idea.

2 thoughts on “The One Rule to Write them all”

  1. Very true Kay – knowing which rule to break is the key. Sharing our writing with beta readers helps guide us through the rules we can bend and rules we can’t. With your help you have guided me through a fair few of those rules and I hope I have repaid in kind. But, I have to say, I miss my commas! 🙂


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