Rules for Writing Fiction by Pat Bertram

Elmore Leonard used ten rules to help him remain invisible while writing fiction.

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

His most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

Kurt Vonnegut had eight rules for writing fiction:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Somerset Maugham said “there are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

I have but a single rule: Everything in service to the story. If something doesn’t advance the story, develop the characters, give information necessary to understand the stakes of the story, then it doesn’t belong. This rule is especially important in this anything-goes publishing world, where people dash off novels in weeks to sell on Amazon. Atrocious writing, an intrusive number of typos, or a decided lack of story telling skills are not in service to the story, and need to be remedied.

Whether we adhere to rules or not, certain aspects of writing fiction are important. You need a beginning that hooks people, a middle that makes them want to keep reading, and an ending that satisfies. The writing has to be comprehensible. No reader wants to read the same sentence over and over again, trying to make sense of it. They want to find out what happens to the character. Most of all, you must have a character who wants something desperately enough to drive the action of the story. Even if the character is unwilling to take action at the beginning, somewhere along the line she needs to take things into her own hands. A character who is unwilling to participant in her own story gets boring after awhile, and no matter how things change, that first commandment of writing will always hold true — though shalt not bore thy reader.

So, what are the rules of your game? What traditional rules do you follow? What rules do you make up? If you create your own rules, how do you make your story work?


Pat Bertram is the author of Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. All Bertram’s books are available both in print and in ebook format. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords. At Smashwords, the books are available in all ebook formats including palm reading devices, and you can download the first 20-30% free!


Filed under Pat Bertram, writing

10 responses to “Rules for Writing Fiction by Pat Bertram

  1. I’ve pretty much broken ALL of Elmore Leonard’s rules. But I do agree with your rule that if something is going to be in a story it should advance the plot, otherwise it’s filler. But I also believe that in order to make your book stand out from everyone else sometimes you have to bend the rules of traditional convention and even make up your own.

    • A.J. — the way I see it, you can do whatever you want if it serves the story.

      As for Leonard’s rules — I begin the prologue of one book with the weather, but since the character is battling the weather, I had no other choice. And “suddenly” appears too frequently in my books. But I followed the rest of his rules long before I knew they were his rules — I hate long descriptions and dialogue written in patois, and since I always skip such things when reading, I never put them in my novels.

      • I agree on the dialogue front and definitely in the description aspect too, I think the idea is to find a happy medium with regards to your description of settings and characters. Too little and your readers may not get the full picture, but too much they’ll just get bored.

    • You are definitely right about the importance of setting a scene. Without any or with too little description of place, the characters seem as if they are hanging in mid air.

      I’ve learned to cultivate the significant detail. One such detail can give a reader a feel for a place without a lot of description, such as an airconditioner in a motel room dripping rusty water on a shag carpet.

  2. From Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing fiction:
    2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

    Like so many others this week, I watched “The Hatfields and McCoys” series on cable. It was an interesting historical tale and I assume fairly accurate, but one thing I really noticed was that I could not find a single character I could identify with. The ones who were not mean and nasty tended to be weak and, frankly, stupid. Maybe that was because this was based on real people from another time, rather than fictional characters.

    • I didn’t watch “The Hatfields and McCoys,” but mean characters who do what they want and take what they want seem to be prevalent in fiction now. Could be why I don’t enjoy reading much any more.

  3. Kurt’s number two is sadly lacking in many books I’ve read lately. I think the tendency for writers to endow a character with personal problems is being way overdone. Too many MCs seem to have substance abuse issues and half of them have bad divorces in progress or are already divorced and have trouble with child custody. I’m not interested in reading about that stuff. There are other ways to get the reader involved with characters and they don’t have to be negative. It doesn’t take long to think of people you know who have interesting little habits and they need not be bad ones. The “flawed” character bit is really getting to me. Many “noir” books and films leave me with a sour stomach for those reasons and the fact that they all all so “flawed” I don’t care if they live or die.

    • I’m sick of flawed characters, too, and refuse to read any more books with a purposely flawed character. If characters are real, they are flawed by definition. Authors don’t have to create flaws. They just need to create characters, but apparently, creating flaws is easier.

  4. I like 10: If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. Am now rewriting a chapter. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s