The One Rule of Fiction Writing
a writing rule for authors who don't want to follow rules
As the title of this newsletter implies, I’m not a fan of writing rules. Every claim someone makes about how fiction works can be rebutted with counterexamples. Character is fundamental. . . except when stories are characterless. Plot is essential. . . except when it’s irrelevant. Worldbuilding must be rigorous. . . except when it doesn’t need to be.
This is what is both thrilling and terrifying about writing fiction: anything is possible. There are no rules, roadmaps, or guardrails except for the ones you impose on yourself. Still, the other day I tweeted my one writing rule:
While I was obviously being tongue-in-cheek, I do actually believe this and, well, I need some more material for this newsletter. So let me try to elaborate on this “rule” and what principles can be drawn from it.
You Can Do Anything
Despite all the claims about fiction that are out there, you really can do whatever you want. There are stories that are entirely in dialogue with no narration. There are works that have no dialogue at all. There are stories rich in setting and stories that never mention setting. Even things that seem fundamental like plot and character can be ignored if you desire.
In my seminar this semester, we just read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which is a novel that consists almost entirely of flash fiction descriptions of imagined cities without any overarching plot or characters. Another book along these lines is Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice, a novel written in the format of the Chilean SAT. For plotless books, the examples are numerous. Rachel Cusk’s Outline is a favorite I read last year. Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine takes place almost entirely in the imagination of a character riding an escalator. Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas has no overarching plot and is composed of descriptions of different fictional far-right writers.
Now, any discussion like this invites pedantic rebuttals. “Even a guy going up an escalator is technically a plot!” “Doesn’t Invisible Cities have characters since it is framed around Marco Polo and Kublai Khan chatting?” Etc. This seems a bit silly to me since “a guy rides an escalator” and “two voices muse philosophically without any real characterization” is hardly what people mean when they say books need plot arcs and character arcs. The passages of plotless books can mostly be rearranged without losing any of the work’s power, which is not true of, say, a traditional murder mystery. In the case of Invisible Cities, the work is often excerpted as just the city descriptions and so many readers never encounter the interstitial “characters” at all.
If you want to say that any narrative implies at least one character (the narrator) and any events at all can be called a plot, that’s fine. The point is that the traditional idea of character and plot (and their attendant arcs) are not essential. And the same is true of any other element of fiction.
But You Can’t Do Everything
There are two principles here. The first is that a story can only do so much at once. We might say we want deep characters, complex worldbuilding, innovative structure, clockwork plotting, consistent atmosphere, resonant themes, detailed setting (and so on and so forth) but while all of these things are good individually they really can’t be done simultaneously.
The amount you can do is dependent on several things, not least of which is the literal space a story takes up. A 1,000 word flash fiction piece might have to pick one thing to focus on. A long novel can do much more, but even in a novel these narrative elements start to conflict with each other on the page. There’s just only so much a reader can hold in their heads at a time, and only so much the words on the page can do in a given passage. So when writing, you have to choose what elements matter the most to the story you’re trying to tell.
That’s the first principle.
The second principle is about experimentation and deviation from the standard modes of storytelling. While you can deviate far from the standard narrative mode in any direction you want—e.g. the plotless and characterless examples above—you probably can’t deviate in every way. At least if you want to have any readers.
One way I’ve heard this idea articulated is in a blog post by Cat Valente where she talks about needing to have an element playing for “team mundane”:
So my rule of thumb is that given Plot, Structure, and Style, one of them has to tap out and play for Team Mundane. The reader needs something to hold on to while the author experiments with something that excites them: a linear, straightforward structure, unvarnished, solid prose, a plot that lines up with their cultural expectations of narrative. Most really good books pick one of those things to go wild with. Books that pick two are called avant-garde, and those that don't call any quarter for readers without obscure degrees are more often than not called remaindered. Look at House of Leaves, which has a structure like good grief, Charlie Pomo, but the sentence-level prose style is pretty workaday in 2/3 of the book, with only the occasional Truant/grad school thesis sections and the poetry, which is not part of the main body of narrative, going off the farm. The plot is a pretty standard haunted house story, with a literary fetch quest stapled onto it. And even those numbers are too much for a lot of readers to dance with.
I love this “team mundane” concept and use it, with credit to Valente, in my classes. I think you can extrapolate it beyond plot/structure/style (although those are useful broad categories) and just say that you need to have something for the reader to hold onto. Some guardrails or road signs or whatever metaphor you want.
So to sum these up: you can’t invest in every element of fiction simultaneously and—if you want readers—you can’t experiment in all directions simultaneously.
And You Have to Do Something
There are two principles here too, one for the macro level and one for the micro level. First, on the macro level a story has to have something central it’s doing if you want it to be interesting. You can jettison or downplay character, plot, setting, voice, whatever, but most good books deeply invest in at least one of those elements. A lot of “literary fiction” (yes always a problematic term) doubles down on voice. I could read Garielle Lutz or Barry Hannah write about anything, even paint peeling, because I know the voice and language alone will be enough. Many fantasy writers focus on creating complex and fascinating worlds that grip you even if the prose is pedestrian. A lot of science fiction writers are more fascinating for their ideas than their characters. Etc.
Again you don’t have to focus on any individual element of fiction, but you probably do need to focus on at least one of them.
That’s the macro level principle. The micro level principle for me is this: line by line, paragraph by paragraph, you need to be doing something interesting to pull the reader along. It might be a clever turn of phrase. It might be an shocking plot beat. It might be worldbuilding, characterization, setting, or funny dialogue. But there needs to be something to pull the reader along.
This is obvious—“Oh I have to be ‘interesting’? Gee, thanks for that insight!”—but also what’s missing from most bad writing, at least in my opinion. Most bad works of fiction are good on some levels. Maybe they have a decent plot idea or the characters have clever thoughts. Where the works fail is that they’re filled with dull and pointless sentences or paragraphs. Scenes are stuffed with the most rote action beats and the most unoriginal dialogue or the blandest setting details. Often it feels like a writer is on autopilot in these moments and just waiting to get to what really interests them. If it’s the case that you just don’t care about dialogue or setting or what not, then I’d circle back to the other parts of the sentence: you can do anything but you can’t do everything. If you don’t care about your dialogue, cut it! If you aren’t invested in character backstory, skip it! Leaning into your strengths and interests is almost always the right move.
Anyway, there you go. You can do anything but you can’t do everything and you have to do something.
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