Following the Rules: Fiction

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Location: Books & Such Central Valley, California Office

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So far this week we talked about common sense rules for the entire submission process and for connecting with editors and agents. I’m going to take a little detour here. Since I’m talking about oft-repeated rules that may not be as carved in stone as most would have you believe, I want to talk about the rules for fiction.

If you’ve been part of a writing group, whether online or in person, no doubt you’ve heard the bedrock rules. Show, don’t tell. No backstory in the first umpteen pages. No flashbacks in children’s fiction. Stay away from prologues.

As someone who reads an inordinate number of manuscripts each year, I can assure you that these rules are meant as guidelines only. When slavishly followed, they lead to all kinds of problems.

So what’s a writer to do?

The answer is simple: honor the story and don’t be a slave to rules. Each one of those rules is meant to help you write a better story but goose-stepping to a set of rules can suck the very life out of your novel. Let me take just one oft-repeated rule and examine it.

Show, Don’t Tell. You’ve heard this hundreds of times. It’s repeated so often because it’s good advice. . .  but only up to a point. What it means is that instead of telling us the story, the good writer will show it—letting it unfold before our eyes. It’s so much more immediate. Unfortunately, I see too many manuscripts where the adage is taken to the limit. Every minute detail is shown.  Every emotion is carefully etched on every character’s face– in the droop of his shoulders, the shuffle of his feet. Even walk-on characters are named and shown in excruciating detail. There is precious little narrative, just scene after scene.

By the third manuscript page the reader is worn out. The story is overwritten– overwrought. I tend to put this kind of manuscript down by the end of the first page.

A skillful writer knows that you tell the parts you want to speed up. You show the significant parts. The careful balance of the two will move the story along. Showing is the way we focus the reader’s attention. It’s like taking the reader’s face in your hands and aiming it toward the important elements of the story—that’s what showing does. If you take that face and aim it all over the place, your reader will end up with literary whiplash.

The art comes in the perceptive use of both showing and telling. It’s all about pacing and highlighting.

Other times you want to tell? If you want to artistically handle violent scenes, use a judicious telling instead of showing. Your gentle reader will bless you. The same with overtly sexual scenes. If your genre does not call for sexuality, those scenes can be told with taste and artful omission.

The next time you’re critiqued by a neophyte rule-follower who smugly points out every instance of “telling” in your manuscript, I want you to be able to explain why you used telling in some places and showing in others. Okay?

And that’s just one fiction rule we’ve debunked. The more you read fine fiction, the more you will see that every “rule” can be broken with impunity in the hands of a skillful novelist.

Now it’s your turn: Do you agree or disagree? What about prologues? How about point of view? Are their other fiction rules that need to be debunked?

20 Responses

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  1. ginko says:

    These are really great suggestions for a writer.You have given good enough information and tips about it.Thank you.Its very interesting for me to read this post.

  2. Linda Rue says:

    Hi Wendy!
    The novel that I am currently working on begins with a short prologue. I used it to set the tone and to give information that is important in the story right from the start and then again later on. The professional critique that I had done was interesting. At first she said that it was a little too dramatic but, she states, “it seems to sit uneasily in the readers mind which really hooked me into the story. I think this is a great way to open the story and would like to know what brought Shane and Chanelle to this place.”

    Just to be on the safe side, I ignored the prologue and read the first two paragraphs to see if they would stand on their own and hook my reader. They do, but the mystery of how my character Shane could be shocked at seeing his fiance, Chanelle, riding a horse in the fog lacks the punch without the prologue to let my reader know that Chanelle is dead. In telling my reader that the thorns from the red roses on her casket had been meticulously removed so that “no sharp points would mar the polished wood of her final resting place,” I prepare my reader to flash back to that statement as they discover later on that the thornless roses are a clue to the critical nature of Chanelle.

    Just my two cents! Have a great day!

  3. sharla says:

    Absolutely, and that fine balance of knowing when and where to show/tell is golden. That’s why those who master it so well make the big bucks!!

  4. Thanks for the clarification on Show vs Tell. Your advice makes sense.

    I think a prologue is useful when there’s a large break in time between the backstory and the current story. Then it can be helpful to read a summary of what happened rather than receive the information in bits and pieces. Otherwise, I prefer to have the background information sprinkled through the story as it unfolds.

    I’d like your opinion on the “rule” against using adverbs and adjectives. In every critique forum I visit, people seem to hate them. Personally, I think they can be useful if not overdone.

  5. Yes, yes!!
    Tell to speed up. Show to focus on the ‘beats’ of the story.

    So true, every word you wrote, especially how wearing it is when the writer overdoes it with ‘show, don’t tell.’

  6. Kat says:

    I’m a fan of prologues that are done correctly.

    They have to be short, powerful and pointed.

  7. Carla Gade says:

    Whew!! Now I can wipe the sweat beads from my forehead.

    I enjoy good narrative. I find that it doesn’t always speed things up, sometimes it gives the reader rest and a little deeper insight. Sometimes telling actually slows it down. Is narrative always equated with telling? Maybe I’m just confused here.

  8. Clearly these rules exist for a reason–because stories that are only shown rarely engage the reader, because prologues can be an excuse to dump backstory in one big chunk, because changing point of view can give a reader whiplash–but you’re exactly right when you say that following them slavishly leads to all kinds of problems. Maybe we should stop calling them rules and call them guidelines instead?

    I’ve found it helpful to read award-winning books (I write YA, so I look to the Newbery and National Book Award winners) and examine where the author followed these “rules” and where they didn’t.

    Sherman Alexie in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian breaks almost every writing rule there is, and yet the book is engaging from the first line and holds your interest through 30 pages of backstory before getting to the inciting incident. I wonder what would have happened to this manuscript if it had been workshopped by novices?

    So rather than read yet another book on how to write a great novel and then slavishly follow its rules that aren’t really rules, maybe we novelists should spend that time reading great novels and figuring out what works and why. (There’s a blog called Story Sleuths that does just that. They looked at Alexie’s book last month.)

  9. BethDazzled says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Rules are meant to be broken! That’s where all the fun- and genius- lies. I keep telling my crit group this, but they’re sticklers. I’m a believer, so I’ll keep clunking them over the head with it week by week. They’ll come around. 🙂

  10. Wendy Lawton says:


    Hear, hear!


  11. I loved Browne and King but two of the rules I hate to have critique partners take to the Nth degree are cutting out the word “was” and every instance of “ing”.

  12. Lori Benton says:

    “Every minute detail is shown. Every emotion is carefully etched on every character’s face– in the droop of his shoulders, the shuffle of his feet. Even walk-on characters are named and shown in excruciating detail. There is precious little narrative, just scene after scene.”

    I tend toward this myself, so this is very timely advice in helping me pare down the overwritten passages in my WIP. Amazing what a few months focusing on another writing project will reveal, when I go back to edit a completed manuscript. Most of the overwritten spots jumped out at me already, but your advice (and wonderful word picture) about focusing the reader’s face helps immensely. In fact, I woke up at 3:30 this morning thinking about it, and instead of lying there editing only in my head, got up to put in a couple hours of extra work time. For which I suppose I should thank you. 😉

  13. Lyla says:

    Great advice! Especially for those of us getting a little overzealous in fixing a bad case of telling.

    I think prologues are overdone when it comes to fantasy–it seems like they’re used for a sense of mystique and to stick some action in a beginning that didn’t have much. The problem is, it’s two hundred pages before you find out what it has to do with anything. The same thing happens in other fiction, too, I’m sure, but it seems to me like prologues are almost necessary in certain cases–to set up a contrast, perhaps, between then and now. Or maybe that’s just my opinion because that’s how the current draft of my novel reads!

  14. Thanks, Wedny, for the great advice. I, too, believe rules are meant to be guidelines as we write, not necessarily strict laws to be enforced.

    I’m struggling with keeping a prologue right now. Everything in me says to leave it. But I keep reading how some agents/publishers hate prologues. My prologue is just over one page long, is an intense scene involving the main character, happened two years prior to the start of the novel, and is expanded upon slowly throughout the novel. I think the prologue creates suspense from page one, which is exactly what I wanted it to do. I’ll revisit the issue once I’ve finished polishing the manuscript.

  15. Eva Ulian says:

    Although this article was meant for fiction, I’ve applied it to my non-fiction writing too. You’ve probably saved me from making a hash of things on my narrative history of Rajasthan and preventing my future readers from a good dose of literary whiplash.

  16. Alex Keegan says:

    Hi There

    I’ll tell you what is wrong with “Show-not-Tell”

    People (including 95% of teachers) don’t really understand it. The chosen words are simply WRONG.

    It is NOT about showing or telling, but about entertaining. For show think “seduce” and for tell think “instruct”.

    ALL fiction, every second, every word, sentence, paragraph should SEDUCE the reader. The reader should be involved and required to add his/her intelligence to the process to gain the maximum from the text.

    When the reader is INSTRUCTED, when every nuance of thought or action is explained, then the reader is listening to a lecture and becomes bored.

    What some writers or teachers call “tell” is NOT truly tell.

    Example: She had the kind of face and body that would make a Bishop kick in a stained-glass window.

    We are being told something (she is gorgeous and sexy) but it ENTERTAINS and involves the reader and the reader has to process the bishop idea, get the point and WORK OUT she is gorgeous, sexy, so much so that she might tun a man of the cloth.

    I have two articles at The Internet Writers Journal called Seduction Not Instruction (Parts I & II) which deal with this subject in more detail.

    Alex Keegan

    [email protected]

  17. NikoleHahn says:

    Great article! I’ve always wondered about prologues. I chose not to do a prlogue and instead weaving the backstory as the story itself progresses.

  18. Lucy says:

    This is probably one of the most common-sense, liberating articles I’ve ever seen on the subject. I’d already come to a few similar conclusions, but it’s tremendously validating to hear it from someone in your position.

    My prologue and I thank you!

  19. Britt says:

    Thank you for this. I have a prologue. I wrote before I ever did any real research on the cardinal sins of writing. The story in my heart required a prologue and when I see people criticizing them, I feel pretty lousy. But, as the manuscript is, I can’t work the story without and feel that the prologue is a good set up for things to come. This, of course, does not apply in all books. Again, good entry!

  20. What a relief! Although Wendy gave me a polite rejection last year, I love everything she said about not following “the rules.” We need to write from our hearts, and if editors/agents like our ideas and storylines, they will help us develop them. You have given me freedom, Wendy, to write from my heart. Thank you.