Rules of the Writing Game

There are thousands of books on the market telliing us how to write the novel. Balancing those are Somerset Maugham’s oft-quoted adage, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

The truth is, we can change the rules of the game (assuming there are any rules). Why not? After all, it’s our game. We can do anything if we can make it work. But . . . if we want readers, we have to fulfill our side of the contract by fulfilling their expectations. If we write a boring story when we promised a thriller, if we don’t furnish a satisfying ending, if the book is riddled with typos and inconsistencies, then we have not fulfilled reader expectations.

In this anything goes publishing world, readers’ expectations seem at an all time low, otherwise why would they put up with the unedited, poorly constructed books that are downloaded every day by the hundreds of thousands? Still, most of us want more for our books than to be today’s free download fad. We want our books to have a life of their own, a life for which people are willing to pay a fair price. And for that, we need to know how to write, communicate, and tell a story.

Certain aspects of story telling never change — you need a beginning that hooks people, a middle that makes them want to keep reading, and an ending that satisfies. The writing has to be comprehensible. No reader wants to read the same sentence over and over again, trying to make sense of it. They want to find out what happens to the character. Which brings us to an important “must.” You must have a character who wants something desperately enough to drive the action of the story. Even if the character is unwilling to take action at the beginning, somewhere along the line she needs to take things into her own hands. A character who is unwilling to participant in her own story gets boring after awhile, and no matter how things change, that first commandment of writing will always hold true — though shalt not bore thy reader.

So, what are the rules of your game? What traditional rules do you follow? What rules do you make up? If you create your own rules, how do you make your story work?

3 Responses to “Rules of the Writing Game”

  1. knightofswords Says:

    While I have my preferences (hero’s journey, heroine’s journey, contemporary fantasy, magical realism), I usually get a ghost of an idea and just start writing. When I like the short story or novel, then it’s done. (Okay, well maybe the editor will really decide when it’s done.) En route to it being done, I never once think about rules, advice, or over-worked debates such as “showing vs. telling.” Nonetheless, your post covers the basics of what we’re trying to do.


  2. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    You do bring up some good points. I hark back to the idea of hooks at the end of every or most chapters. I also tend to write short chapters. A lot of 19th Century writers did this including Mark Twain. Terry Pratchett, in his discworld series, does it all the time. A hook or clifthanger doesn’t always mean putting the main character in danger though there is nothing wrong in doing that. It can be an important unresolved issue that is sure to cause trouble.

    It can be the misinterpretation of events. A young woman sees the man she loves, for example, put his arms around another woman and gets all tearful about it, not realizing that the other woman is the fellow’s sister. It may be a tragedy in the family and he is merely showing compassion toward his sister. We, the reader, know the truth but the young woman is shocked and hurt because she doesn’t and she is likely to react in a bad way. So what will happen next? Good question.

    In Desk Job, the novel of mine that is in the final editing stages, there are plenty of hooks. Some are subtle and some not very subtle at all. Creating these hooks can be great fun for the writer and enjoyable for the reader.

    I like writers who make you want to get on to the next chapter to find out what happens and, at the end of the book, you are disappointed the book had to end because you were having a great time. But the ending, of course, is all justified with everything resolved. You have been on a journey and can look forward to the next one with this author. My thoughts at any rate when it comes to the novel.

  3. Smoky Zeidel Says:

    Thou shalt not bore, true. But also: Thou shalt not mix past and present tense in the same sentence; thou shalt remember Jim-Bob drives a Chevy and not change it to a Ford halfway through the book; and, Thou shalt not put three exclamation points at the end of every other sentence. And that’s just off the top of my head.

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