We Now Commence The Reading Of The Rules!

In response to my post on how to break the rules of writing, a reader asked for my top ten rules of writing. Those are difficult to quantify, and I puzzled over how to do it, but I came to two conclusions: firstly, that anyone who needs these rules really needs them, and they need them to be basic, and secondly, that no one including me should take them too seriously, so here, in no particular order are the Basic Rules Of Science-fiction and Fantasy Writing.


No, sorry, that’s just in honor of Monty Python Status Day. In all seriousness, write any sort of characters you want, within the bounds of reason. My primary rule is that my heroes have to be the kinds  of people I like. Otherwise, I can’t stand to be around them long enough to tell their story. The only caution is that if it gets really odd, people are going to ask questions. So if you really want, say, all your characters to be Japanese and your story is set in Oliver Cromwell’s England, you do need some reason for that.

Rule 2: No Accidental Time Traveling

It should go without saying that time-traveling is just fine, but for the gods’ sake pay attention to it, and don’t let it happen without a time machine or time spell. Stories told in past tense need to stay in past tense unless you have a well-thought out scheme for transitioning them, as I described in the above-linked post. And if your story flashbacks or flashforwards, you need to make sure that the sequence of events makes sense, and you don’t have a character traveling from Boston to SF by jumbo jet in two hours.

Rule 3: No Poofters Head-hopping

I hesitate to add this, because it’s more a recent convention than a rule. James Clavell wrote excellent if long novels in true 3rd-person omniscient POV, and head-hopped like no tomorrow. But if you want to sell fiction these days, you can’t do it. And if you come up with an explicit scheme to do it anyway, it needs to be balanced. Each POV character should get roughly equal time.

Rule 4: No One Is To Misuse The Jargon In Any Way At All… Because EVERYONE Is Watching

Nothing makes me want to throw a book against the wall faster than someone who obviously doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Please understand your skiffy terms and what most people mean by them. And yet, one rather well-known writer who shall remain nameless managed to create a whole series in which he apparently thought that Fusion Drive meant Faster-Than-Light travel. Don’t do this.

Rule 5: No Poofters Idiots

The reader has to be able to sympathize with your protagonist to some degree, even if you’re writing an anti-hero. We can sympathize with Macbeth, for gods’ sakes. We can sympathize with Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And that means that you can’t make him or her an idiot. Yes, we all do dumb things, nor should your character be immune to that tendency. You can even have your characters get themselves into a major conflict by being an idiot, see Bujold’s A Civil Campaign again for Miles doing exactly this, to hilarious effect. But then they have to be competent at getting themselves out. They can’t be impeded by “major challenges” that a non-idiot could solve in five minutes by simply calling someone up and asking a question.

Rule 6: There is NO…!

Rule 6.

Rule 7: No Poofters Pocket Anti-Tank Guns

You cannot introduce a major or plot-altering power, for either hero or villain, late in the story. The reader feels cheated if you do. You have to explicitly and early allow your reader to know that this power exists. J.K. Rowling was masterful at this. For example, Professor McGonagall teaches Harry and friends about the Animagus Transfiguration in their 3rd year, long before any of them would be able to attempt such a thing. Why? Because it establishes then what the rules are for it. They’re highly restrictive. So when it turns out that Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew are secret Animagi, we as the readers neither find it incredibly coincidental that they happen to have that power, nor that they are not suspected of it until now.

Rule 8: I Don’t Want To Catch Anyone Living On A Planet Of Idiots:

Aaaaand this was something J.K. Rowling was incredibly bad at. Just to take one observation not completely at random, Hagrid declaims early on that every evil wizard was in Slytherin house. And this appears to be pretty nearly true (although at that time, he should have remembered that Sirius Black the Gryffindor was an exception).
So why is there still a Slytherin House? They could pretty much solve the problem by disbanding the house, unless there is some, never-really explained mystical reason they can’t, and in lieu of that, watching the hell out of it. Or, you know the fact that Time-Turners would be invaluable for a lot of things besides doing double-lectures. Such as, you know, going back to see who was opening the Chamber Of Secrets or something.
And that’s the thing. Even in magic, you can’t just establish that you can do something by magic and then pretend you can’t.

Rule 9: No Poofters Coincidences.

Like the Pocket Anti-tank Guns, the problem with coincidence is that it feels incredibly contrived. Bizarre coincidence (like a comet hitting the Earth) can START a conflict, because it’s a given. But it would be extremely unworkable to SOLVE, say, an alien invasion by having a random meteor wipe out the invader’s beachhead.

Rule 10: No Distractions

And I’ve just spent all the time I can on this list. I have books to write. So do you. Go write them.



9 thoughts on “We Now Commence The Reading Of The Rules!

  1. Well, bother. The first draft of a fantasy novel I’ve been slowly putting together (about a chapter a week), has multiple points of view, largely because a significant portion of the story happens in their individual dreams. Not sure how else I’d be able to tell the story.

  2. Novels don’t matter as much. As long as you stick to the points of view and rotate them regularly, you’re fine. See the linked post for ways to do this even in short stories. You just don’t want to head-hop at random.

    • Well, that’s a relief. I’m still slogging through the first draft, so I’m not making a lot of detailed decisions about how much “screen time” each character gets until I get everything done from start to finish. That’ll start being addressed during the first edit (Oy).

  3. And if you come up with an explicit scheme to do it anyway, it needs to be balanced. Each POV character should get roughly equal time.

    Depends on how you handle it. You should have a consistent pattern, though.

  4. “Rule 2: No Accidental Time Traveling”
    Thought for a moment that you had it out for Martin Padway. (I’m not half as fond of him as I once was either – didn’t even need S.M. Stirling to take the bloom off the rose – but Lest Darkness Fall is definitely on par with Asimov’s best. So. Glad it wasn’t that.)

    “going back to see who was opening the Chamber Of Secrets”
    Finally, a Time-Turner complaint by someone who actually understands how Time-Turners work. Bravo.

      • “Why didn’t they go back and stop Voldemort from performing the ritual” is the usual one. Basically, they’re under the impression that the Time-Turner can alter what’s already happened, rather than that the Time-Turner’s influence is already factored into the original course of events.

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