Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Rules vs. Tools by Deborah Raney

Deborah Raney
Chances are, if you’ve attended more than a handful of workshops on the craft of writing, you’ve come away with your head spinning with new “rules and regulations” about how to write correctly. Worse, you’ve probably received conflicting advice from instructors you admire and respect equally.

Or perhaps you’re one of those rebels who don’t like rules. Besides, you say, readers don’t care about the so-called rules, or the craft of writing! They just want a rip-roaring good story.

Saying readers don't care about craft is like saying airline passengers don't care about aerodynamics. They do care, they simply trust that the person responsible for their particular flight knows how to harness aerodynamics in a way that allows them to enjoy the ride without giving a thought to aerodynamics.

Robert McKee, author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting says this:
"Story is about principles, not rules. A rule says, 'You must do it this way.' A principle says, 'This works…and has through all remembered time.' The difference is crucial. … Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form."

You’ve probably heard it said that you must know the rules before you can break them. I believe many of the current conventions of writing––no-head-hopping, show-don't-tell, "invisible" attributions, judicious use of adverbs and adjectives, and the myriad other so-called rules of writing––are in fact the principles, of which McKee speaks. They’ve become “rules” because they are a means to the end of writing a story that engages readers and keeps the pages turning.

The no-head-hopping rule keeps the reader from being confused and allows her to go deep in one POV––the one deemed most important by the author––thus developing characterization and reader engagement.

The show-don't-tell rule turns a "story" into a film-like experience, setting the stage and giving the details of a scene in a way that makes the reader feel she is actually involved in the story.

The invisible attributions rule (get rid of attributions where possible; prefer said over retorted, exclaimed, etc.) helps the dialogue read more like a script, again, putting the scene onstage and, more importantly, forcing the author to write dialogue a reader can't help but "hear" with the right inflection. Minimizing attributions also allows for more beats, so the reader can more easily picture the action of the scene.

Judicious use of adverbs and adjectives forces the writer to use more active and specific verbs (which in turn, improves vocabulary and avoids repetition and redundancy.)

The rules of writing could more accurately be called tools of writing. As with any craft, when you are first learning to use the tools, they make the job a thousand times more difficult. But once you’ve mastered the tools, they make your job as a craftsman—and as a writer—infinitely easier. Because every legitimate writing "rule" exists for one reason: to help the writer accomplish what readers DO care about––a compelling story full of characters they care deeply about.

So instead of letting the rules of writing––and the contradicting advice you’re bound to encounter––bog you down, instead view those rules as tools of the craft. Some will serve you well, others you’ll purposefully choose to ignore, and a few you’ll use in creative ways that work perfectly for you. Because that’s what artists do.
About the Author
DEBORAH RANEY's first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title and launched her writing career after twenty happy years as a stay-at-home mom. She is currently writing a new five-book series, the The Chicory Inn Novels. Deb and her husband, Ken Raney, recently traded small-town life in Kansas––the setting of many of Deb's novels––for life in the (relatively) big city of Wichita. They love traveling to visit four children and five grandchildren who all live much too far away. Deb loves to connect with her readers at:


What will happen when novelist Madeleine Houser’s “pen pal” friendship with a lonely
A January Bride by Deborah Raney
widower takes an unexpected turn?

Who can work in a house that's overrun by contractors and carpenters? Not Madeleine Houser, a successful novelist who gladly accepts the help of her octogenarian friend, Ginny, to arrange for a temporary office in the charming bed and breakfast owned by Ginny's friend, Arthur. Maddie’s never met the innkeeper—but a friendship grows between them as Maddie and Arthur leave messages for each other each day. To Maddie’s alternate delight and chagrin, she seems to be falling for the inn’s owner—a man who's likely many years her senior—and who she’s never even met.

Arthur Tyler is a college professor who lost his young wife to cancer. Together they ran the bed and breakfast where Art lives, but without his wife, the house is missing warmth and cheer. He jumps at the chance to have author Madeleine Houser use the space that was once filled with guests. He, too, begins to enjoy the daily exchanges with Maddie, but a series of misunderstandings lead him to believe she’s far from being a prospective date—even if he were ready to date again, which he’s not.

When Maddie and Art finally meet and discover one another’s identity, sparks fly. Even so, they each have obstacles to overcome in order for this winter romance to blossom.


  1. Hi Deborah. I'm not a rebel rulebreaker, but I do tend to bristle over them especially when they seem arbitrary. Thanks for sharing this unique spin on rules vs tools. The cover of A JANUARY BRIDE looks absolutely delicious! And the blurb? Yowza. I'm hooked! :)

  2. Thanks, Dora! And I think it's good that you bristle over seemingly arbitrary rules. The only way we can develop our own personal style is to explore the rules and figure out why they work (or not) and how we can turn those rules into tools that make our writing unique and compelling.

  3. Deborah, loved McKee's quote and all your explanations of the principles. It took me 4 rejected books to learn and how to use these age-old principles. And hopefully my 5th book recently published is a little evidence that they do work. I'm printing this post one off. A January Bride hooked me too!

    1. Sounds like you've become the "true artist" McKee was talking about, Zoe. Congrats on your new book!

  4. Deb, as a wife of a Boeing employee, I loved how you explained the similarity between a passenger on a plane and our readers. Thinking of rules as tools is a helpful way to embrace them. ;-)

    1. Thanks, Dawn. As a resident of the Air Capital of the World, I love finding out you're married to a Boeing employee! :)

  5. Deb, good points--these "rules" are really tools that can turn a good story into a great one (and ignoring them can do the reverse). Sometimes you have to write a sentence in the passive voice--but you do it knowing there's another way to do it. At times an adjective is necessary, but when you use it you're aware that this is an exception to your usual style. And so forth. As always, thanks for sharing.

    1. Exactly, Doc! Sometimes one rule supplants another or a rule simply must be broken for the sake of the reader. Clarity for the reader always comes before blindly following a "rule" for the mere sake of following a rule. Good point!


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