Monday, April 29, 2013

"The Rules" - Understand Them Before You Break Them - EM Castellan

Hello everyone, and my thanks to Aimee for having me on her blog! Today we’re talking a little bit about the rules for writing, about why they exist and what we, writers, should do with them.

Rule # 1: Don’t start your novel with a prologue

Why the rule exists: Usually, prologues delay the start of the story by giving background information, introducing characters or points of view that will play little part in the novel itself or mentioning facts that could be mentioned later.

When should you ignore it? If you can promise your prologue is not info-dumping, backstory or you showing off your writing skills, you can keep it. If not, go with the rule and delete it. Once you’ve sold as many books as GRR Martin, you will be able to get away with a prologue too.

Rule #2: Never start your story with your character waking up and going about his business as usual.

Why the rule exists: Because it’s boring. You need to hook your reader from the first few pages (actually, from the first page). Delaying the inciting incident by describing mundane acts will put the reader off.

When should you ignore it? If it’s the day everything changes for the character. 'The Hunger Games' begins with Katniss waking up on the day of the Reaping. And we’re hooked from Line 2.

Rule # 3: Never start your novel with a dream sequence, or a fight scene, or a dialogue, or in the middle if the action.

Why the rule exists: The reader needs to care about the characters before seeing them thrown into the action. All of the above won’t allow for that: the reader has no idea what’s going on, therefore he can’t identify with the characters.

When should you ignore it? When the action or the dream gives an insight into the character’s personality. The movie 'Gladiator' is a good example of this: it starts with a battle, but is used to introduce the main character.

Rule #4: Never start your story with a character looking in the mirror.

Why the rule exists: Because it’s lazy. Writers use this as a device to describe their character, when really there’s no need for a full, detailed physical description. You should weave these details into the story, not bang the reader on the head with them.

When should you ignore it? If the character’s appearance has suddenly changed and you need to describe it before carrying on with the story. For example, in 'The Vampire Lestat', the main character looks at himself in a mirror after being turned into a vampire.

Rule #5: Don't Use Adjectives and/or Adverbs

Why the rule exists: Because adverbs and adjectives are signs you are TELLING instead of SHOWING. Don’t tell your reader your character is angry. Show the action that reveals this emotion.

When should you ignore it? When the adjective or adverb is NOT used to tell the reader something.

So now that you know the rules, and why they’re here, you can play with them. Don’t ignore them altogether, but treat them as they are: guidelines for fledgling writers. The more experienced you are, the easier it will be to avoid the aforementioned pitfalls and to find
your voice, and forget about the rules.

Happy writing!
Your Turn: What rules do you loathe? And which do you abide by?
EM Castellan is a writer of YA Fantasy novels. She lives in an English castle, travels extensively, reads voraciously, listens to music bands few people have heard of and watches too many movies to count. In case you are wondering, she also has a full-time job, so she mostly writes at odd hours and drinks a lot of tea. She is a member of the British Fantasy Society as well as SCBWI British Isles. She also writes at There And Draft Again – A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers.

You can find Eve at:,,, or tweet her @EMCastellan


  1. I agree with three and four for sure and somewhat five, the rest are iffy to me.

  2. Funny, we all have different experiences. Learn different things. Ive heard all of these before. But this industry is so subjective!

    I hate the rule against info-dumps. I totally agree that it's boring for the reader. But sometimes it's just easier, dang it.

  3. I hate rules! Defy them break them or follow them but not for their own sake. Write from the heart and you can never be wrong!

  4. Great points--rules exist for a reason but don't always apply. I might even take these a little farther and say it's not enough to have a good reason to break some of these rules though--you have to NOT be able to tell your story properly without breaking that rule. I also consider my story's motif when deliberating on breaking a rule. For example, my fantasy manuscript opens with a fight scene--but violence is something my hero agonizes over and struggles with throughout the book, so it introduces a key theme.

  5. Great thoughts on those pesky writing rules. Like your examples I've seen plenty of times writers have broken those rules and yet the book has been great, but the inverse also applies. Like you Aimee, being able to info dump - or for the matter, just tell instead of describing is easier, it rarely reads well.

    Certainly while I'm learning the craft, I figure I should at least be aware of the rules (reading the agent blogs it seems like a good idea) before I break them!

    Great post EM. It always helps to know the reasons behind the rule!

  6. The rules can be useful for avoiding cliches, cop outs, and things that annoy the reader. Probably that third one is the most important.

    For example, I HATE dream sequences. I never find them realistic. If I were trying to choose between the boy next door and the wild guy, I wouldn't dream of floating in a canoe down a river with one of them on each bank. I'd dream of a pig knocking on my door and handing me a bowl of goldfish, then turning around and sitting down in my high school Latin class with Morgan Freeman at the chalkboard. Dreams in books are just too convenient, an easy way to get across an idea.

    That being said, some (few) authors have written beautiful dream sequences. If you're a talented author, you can turn something simple or over done into something fresh and wonderful.