Stop me if you’ve heard this one – There Are No Rules in Fiction.If you’ve heard this, you are not alone. Unfortunately, that statement should not be taken at face value. There are rules in fiction. A more accurate statement would be – There Are Fewer Rules in Fiction.
Understanding What They’re Talking About When They Say There Are No Rules in Fiction
When someone tells you that there are no rules in fiction, what they mean is that you can use sentence fragments, grammatically incorrect dialogue and punctuation you wouldn’t see in a term paper, thesis or college essay. In other words, you don’t have to write your fiction like you would a school assignment. It doesn’t have to be rigid formal English. Every sentence doesn't need a subject and a verb. In fact, you can have a single word sentence if it makes sense in the context and is understood, but that’s the thing. You’re readers need to be able to understand your fiction, and it needs to be grammatically correct within the context of your book, free of spelling errors and punctuated correctly or reasonably so.
In AVIA II, I have a section that reads. She looked in her bag. Spoon. Syringe. Tourniquet. Lighter. Heroin. It was all there.
That is incorrect for formal English. If that were a formal English sentence in a formal essay, I’d have to write – She looked in her bag and saw her spoon, syringe, tourniquet, lighter and medicine vial filled with heroin. It was all there.
In fiction writing, both of these examples are correct, but the second version is slow to read. In order to make a section more snappy and urgent, you eliminate all the connecting words and make each word its own sentence. In the above example, the character, Avia, is taking inventory of what’s in her bag. Does she have everything she needs to get high? After taking a mental inventory, she does, and that’s what those single word sentences are – a mental inventory.
Dialogue Doesn't Have to Be Grammatically Correct
In fiction writing, dialogue should indicate how a character speaks. Most people do not speak in complete sentences. Therefore, most of your dialogue probably shouldn’t be in complete sentences. Most people aren’t always grammatically correct when they speak. This is because we often start a sentence, change it in our minds and finish the sentence. This can lead to a grammatically incorrect sentence, but it’s not incorrect in your fiction.
It’s perfectly fine for your character to say “I ain’t got no money.” A character that says this could be poorly educated, a little slow or have other reasons for talking in this manner. As long as this language is correct for the character throughout your book, it’s correct. It’s only wrong when he starts talking like this: “I don’t have any money today.” The grammatically correct formal way of speaking wouldn’t be correct for a character that’s spent the entire book talking like a country bumpkin. (Unless he’s been faking it, and you better have some foreshadowing to prove it.)
You Have to Pick a Language Style
When I say language style, I mean perspective and verb tense. Most books are still written in third-person, past tense. However, other versions, like first-person, past tense and first-person, present-tense are growing. In a standard fiction book, you must pick one. This means that if you start your book in third-person, past-tense, you can’t suddenly switch to third-person present tense or first-person past-tense. You must keep your perspective and verb tenses consistent. To do otherwise is off-putting and confusing to readers.
Of course, with fiction, there are always exceptions. If you are writing an experimental book, you can mix these. However, you better mix them logically. If one character is always first-person, past-tense, he or she better stay that way. If you’re alternating perspective and tenses per chapter, you need to strive for consistency within the chapters and chapter order so that your readers can adjust and learn what to expect.
If you’re switching from first to third-person per chapter, you might want one chapter to be third-person and the next to be first-person, and you would continue to alternate your chapters in that manner. This ensures consistency across the book, and once your readers understand your pattern, they will learn to accept and anticipate the flow.
Don’t Use ‘There Are No Rules in Fiction’ to Write a Crappy Book
Do not use the clichéd phrase of ‘there are no rules in fiction’ to write a shit book. It has to make sense. There has to be character development and/or a plot. The book must be consistently written from beginning to end. The content must be engaging and/or interesting to readers in order to suck them in and keep them flipping the pages, and you certainly shouldn’t use it to skip large swaths of content, including necessary chapters and scenes.
I was reading a book recently and a character died. It wasn’t a major character, but there was no battle, fight or other circumstance which necessitated this character’s death. Instead, this character death was located in the dialogue, similar to:
“Hey, where’s Bob?” Joe asked.
“Oh, Bob died,” Sam said.
“Damn. That’s too bad,” Joe said.
Yep, Bob died suddenly, and the readers never saw it. The section was not a plot point. There was no action, and there was no reason given for the character’s death. If this is the case, either this section needed to be deleted, or a section in the earlier pages needed to be rewritten in order to explain this character’s death and make it relevant to the story.
It reminds me of an editing book I read a few years ago. It might have been The First Five Pages, but the gist of the advice was – Don’t throw alligators through the transom. In other words, don’t put shit in for the sake of shock value. If a scene is boring, figure out why. Don’t suddenly add something for the sake of adding it. It must make sense within the context and setting of the story that is taking place.
Of course, there are always exceptions, and they typically come in the context of foreshadowing. You can get away with a lot of shit in fiction with proper foreshadowing.
You’re writing a historic western book, and you want dragons. The first thing you should realize is that westerns don’t typically have dragons. A dragon is a fantasy character. However, if you foreshadow it correctly, you can certainly put a dragon in a western book. Some things to add at the front of the book to get readers ready for the dragon might be a forbidden cave, lots of unexplained deaths and strange sounds at night. Then, when your characters finally encounter the dragon, everyone is ready to see the monster that’s been harassing the town. If you do it correctly, your readers will go – WHOA! A dragon!? Wow, that’s weird, but it makes sense within the context of the book.
When it comes to writing fiction, there are fewer rules, and authors are given a lot of leniency in order to tell their tales the way they need to be told, but the book still needs to make sense within the context of the book, its theme and even its character and plot development.