16 rules of fiction

March 10, 2009

I found a list of 16 rules of fiction writing online at the site listed here, and then added my own comments to it for my CW students.  I think it turned out OK…



1.     Show, don’t tell.

Your story should reveal itself through what happens, not what is explained.

2.     Be readable; grasp the reader’s attention.

Don’t use fifty cent words just because you can.  Find something compelling about the story you want to tell and START there.

3.     Don’t explain.

If your reader can’t tell what is happening from what you’ve written, rewrite it.  Don’t tell the reader the man had to duck to enter the low ceilinged room BECAUSE HE WAS TALL.  We already know that from the first part of the sentence.

4.     Know your characters.

What is his favorite food?  What does she wear to bed?  What TV show do they love?  What book do they hate, and WHY?  The better you know your characters, the more real they are to your reader.

5.     Drop the reader right into the middle of the action.

Explaining what happened before the story begins only makes your reader wonder why you didn’t start with the event.  Angela hurried down the wet sidewalk, scuffing her three hundred dollar shoes is more active and engaging than Angela’s three hundred dollars shoes were scuffed from her walk down the wet sidewalk.

6.     You can do anything.

And so can your characters, as long as you set it up so that their actions (and your choices) are believable.  Think Spiderman…a nerdy boy is bitten by a radioactive spider and can suddenly fly through the air, cling to buildings, and get hot girls.  Really?  The supporting details are believable, so we buy it.

7.     Write what you know.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to write about sailing around Antarctica, but you hate the cold and are afraid of water.  This is not a good match for you.  BUT, if you want to write about a character with a fear of water who WISHES s/he could sail around Antarctica, you’ll be more informed about your topic choice.

8.     You can’t talk about fiction.

Don’t tell me what’s going to happen: MAKE IT HAPPEN.

9.     Be true to the characters and let the story flow from them.

Your characters are the ones that should move the story forward, even if you use an omniscient narrator.  The plot moves because things happen in the characters lives.

10.                        A relieved sigh ALWAYS brings trouble.

A character who heaves a sigh of relief needs to have something to be relieved about, which means she needs to have something to have been worried about, which means you need to set up the point of tension, which means she needs to be invested in something, which means………trouble.

11.                        Truth is stranger than fiction, so appeal to the sense of absurd to gain credibility.

Remember the dog story?


12.                        Never, ever, let your readers be confused about the precise geographical locations of your minor characters.

If Helga’s maid, Beatrice, was upstairs washing windows when Helga arrived home from her spa treatment and then, when Helga calls for Beatrice, the maid enters from the door adjacent to the courtyard, readers will question how Beatrice got form the second story to the courtyard instead of focusing on why Helga called for her.  Pay attention to little details, they can make or break you.

13.                        The narrator can’t die.

This may seem like a tragic twist of such amazing proportions that you simply-can’t-help yourself, but WHO IS GOING TO NARRATE THE STORY IF THE NARRATOR DIES?  The only way the narrator can die is if the final line says, “I took a breath and———-.”  The narrator can’t even say he died because he’s dead, so he wouldn’t be there to witness the death.  Of himself.  Enough said.

14.                        Create a believable universe out of nothing.

You have lived on this planet for awhile, and you’re pretty used to the way things happen, but you don’t have to stay on this planet.  You can make up a planet made of tofu where animals ride humans to work and the only form of money that exists is the excrement of the animal race.   But it must be believable.  You need to know and how things have happened, not just THAT they have happened.

15.                        It is not real life, but it must somehow honestly represent something of real life.

In the stories you write, eight year olds shouldn’t have in knowledgeable conversations about Plato and Aristotle any more than eighty-five year olds should be singing “Riding Dirty.”  Those events aren’t representative of real life.  Outlandish and wild things can happen, but only in so much that they represent the way real people function and participate in the world.

16.                        The voice may be yours, but the characters are just characters.

Do not write about your personal life.  Do not write about your personal life. 

Do not write about your personal life. Do not write about your personal life. 

Do not write about your personal life.  Do not write about your personal life. 

Do not write about your personal life.  Do not write about your personal life. 

Do not write about your personal life.  Do not write about your personal life. 

Do not write about your personal life.  Do not write about your personal life. 

You cannot be objective about it, and writing about yourself is non-fiction. 

BE CREATIVE.  Dream up characters, settings, events. 


In Seymour: An Introduction, by J.D. Salinger, the narrator, Buddy, transcribes a letter he received from his elder brother. The letter is something of an advice to writers everywhere — or, as Buddy puts it, “A Nineteen-Year-Old Prescription for Writers and Brothers and Hepatitis Convalescents Who Have Lost Their Way and Can’t Go On” — elicited by one of Buddy’s short stories. Seymour’s advice is simple and impossible all at once:


“If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined. Oh, dare to do it, Buddy ! Trust your heart. You’re a deserving craftsman. It would never betray you….I think I’d give almost anything on earth to see you writing a something, an anything, a story, a poem, a tree, that was really and truly after your own heart.”




2 Responses to “16 rules of fiction”

  1. Jamie said

    This is awesome!
    On a side note, I (do not) love how uncreative some kids can be…sometimes they act like it’s torture when we’re like “make something up! anything at all!” Mind blowing to me.

  2. Arthur said

    I found this list, and I just wanted to point out a counter-example to number 13, the movie American Beauty is narrated by a character who dies during the movie.

    Also, it seems very strange to me that these could be anything close to universal rules when some of the great fiction writers in history (e.g. Dickens) routinely violated at least five of them (1, 2, 3, 5, 16).

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