The Three Rules for Writing a Novel

My Rule: Don’t trust a brilliant idea unless it survives the hangover. – Jimmy Breslin
All due respect to Somerset Maugham, there are three rules for writing a novel and I know what they are.
Now, it is quite common to hear, at conferences and in classrooms across our favored land, in tones pugnacious and pejorative, that when it comes to the art of the novel, quite simply and unequivocally, There are no rules!
I would like to test that enthusiastic effusion and establish the contrary position.
To begin the argument we must, as with all fruitful discussions, establish our assumptions. I am going to assume that I am addressing writers who actually want to SELL, be that to a traditional publisher or directly to readers via self-publishing.
I am also going to assume that a novel has a certain form. That form is a story. While we may differ on what constitutes a story per se, can we at least agree that what Jack Nicholson wrote in The Shining (1000 pages of All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy) is certainly not a novel? (If you wish to call such a thing an “experimental novel,” I will have to take issue. That would be like calling Kim Kardashian an “experimental actress.” It just doesn’t make sense in any rational world.)
With all this in mind, here we go:
Can anyone disagree with that?  Doesn’t it make sense that this should be emblazoned across the writer’s creative consciousness as the most foundational of all rules?
If you bore the reader, you don’t sell the book. Or, at least, if the reader does manage to make it to the end, you don’t sell your next book.
It’s a rule. In fact, it’s a law, just like gravity.
Which leads to:
Novels that sell are about people in some kind of trouble. Conflict is the engine of story. You can create “interesting” or “quirky” characters all day long, but unless they are tested by trial they wear out quickly (here I will issue a confession: I’ve never been able to get past the first 50 or 60 pages of A Confederacy of Dunces, and I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried).
Now, trouble can be generated in many ways. The narrator of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is simply trying to get from the lobby of his office building to the next level via an escalator. That’s the whole story, and the trouble is inside his head.
At the other end of the spectrum are the commandos in The Guns of Navarone.
The point is, every novel must have some fire, not just a layout of kindling and logs. That’s a rule.
I admit this rule is somewhat difficult to define. It’s a bit like what a Supreme Court justice once said about obscenity: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”
The novels that not only sell, but endure, have something of the author’s beating heart in them. We could run off a list of such novels, from To Kill A Mockingbirdby Harper Lee to the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly.
In my seminars, when we work on voice and style, I mention two novels that were publishing in 1957. They were as different from each other as Arbuckle and Keaton, and challenges for the publishers. Yet they both became bestsellers and, more to the point, continue to sell thousands and thousands of copies today.
They are Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and On the Roadby Jack Kerouac. No matter how you ultimately come out on the merits of either book, what can’t be denied is that every page pulsates with the author’s voice and vision.
So put your heart in every scene of your novel. It’s a good rule.
Now, when a writer says, “There are no rules,” I suspect what he’s really saying is there is no one way to do the things we’ve been talking about here. And that is mostly correct. 
I say mostly because, over time, it has been demonstrated that there are fiction techniques that generally work better than others. A good teacher (or editor) is able to help students learn the things that tend to work and avoid the things that tend not to.
And then it’s up to the writer to make choices. If a writer decides not to follow a tried and true method, at least she should know why.
For example, we talk a lot about starting a novel off with a hook (or, as I like to put it, a “disturbance.”) But what if you want to start your historical with ten pages of setting and description? Well, you’re certainly allowed to. And maybe you’ll manage to make those ten pages so interesting that readers will wish they’d go on and on.
But the odds are you’ll bore them, as they keep on asking Who is this story supposed to be about? Why should I care about any of this?
You might then decide it’s better to use the technique of starting with a disturbance and dropping in details within the action. A technique you can learn and practice.
But there may be another, more insidious meaning to the “no rules” proclamation. The espouser may really be saying There is nothing to learn! Anytime you teach technique you’re limiting the writer, hemming him in, stifling all that is good and original!
To which I kindly yet firmly say, Bunk. Can you imagine George Gershwin believing that? Do you think we’d have Rhapsody in Blue if he hadn’t learned the scales as boy, then the classics under the tutelage of his mentor, Charles Hambitzer? Technique didn’t stifle Gershwin, it freed him.  
Quod erat demonstrandum.
These, then, are the three rules for writing a novel.  You can break them if you like, but do so and they will break your chances of success.

21 thoughts on “The Three Rules for Writing a Novel

  1. The fact that the words pugnacious, perjorative, unequivocally and effusion were all used within the first lines of this tome informed me that there was to be gained an incomparable plethora of … of…smart stuff in this article.

    dang…my fancy-word-make-up-inator crapped out mid paragraph

    So in summary:

    1. Don’t bore the reader, bore into them
    2. Hurt the folks in your story bad enough to kill them, but don’t let some of them die…make them suffer through and come out on top…or mostly on top
    3. Write like you mean it, make yourself laugh, make yourself cry, make yourself tense and ready to pounce


    … that was simply a random big smart sounding word…kind of rolls off the lips don’t it?

  2. Firstly, thank you James for a really helpful article and Basil for a very useful summary (I especially liked number 3 “Write like you mean it!” I’ll have to remember that.)

    Secondly, I have a question. There is a lot of good advice around about how to tell if you are starting your story too early (avoiding huge block of backstory, starting with the first piece of action in your story, beginning with chapter two etc.) But any tips on how to you tell if you are starting your story too late?

    For example, say you have as an opening your Lead meeting someone when they are attacked by a gunman and the person the Lead was meeting is killed. Does the reader need to know who they are and why they are meeting first? Do they need to form a bond with your Lead before putting them in mortal danger? Or do you start with the hail of bullets and then sprinkle the other details as you go.

    Any advice or tips would be great. Thanks.

    All the Best,


  3. For example, say you have as an opening your Lead meeting someone when they are attacked by a gunman and the person the Lead was meeting is killed. Does the reader need to know who they are and why they are meeting first? Do they need to form a bond with your Lead before putting them in mortal danger? Or do you start with the hail of bullets and then sprinkle the other details as you go.

    A great question, and maybe one or two of my blogmates will jump in on this.

    First, as a general principle, readers want to know who they’re supposed to care about as soon as possible. If something “bad” happens to a character before we know anything about him, the “bang” of the moment is dissipated somewhat.

    In the hypothetical you posed, if we were inside the Lead’s head as the meeting is about to take place, we can begin to form a bond. Within this action, we can get some of the Lead’s thoughts about the meeting perhaps. What’s at stake.

    IBut it’s all in the, you’ll pardon the expression, execution. If the first paragraph is a “hail of bullets,” you can get into the character’s head immediately after and let us know what’s going on.

    Dean Koontz started Dragon Tears with one line explaining that the Lead had to “shoot someone at lunch.” Then he “dropped back” and filled us in. It was a “teaser” type of opening.

    So there is “no on way” to handle this. But I will say in a WIP I sent out to beta readers recently, I’d started with a violent action in the first line. The majority told me it was too jarring. They wanted more bonding with the character first. I’ve adjusted it accordingly.

  4. Some authors think the rules fence in their talents, when the opposite is true. My example is with music. Frank Zappa defied the rules and I found his music tolerable only when I found myself on LSD. Also Yoko Ono’s music broke the rules and deserves to be another example.

    Just my thoughts.

    Great post Jimbo.

  5. Brother Bell,

    As you know, I am an enthusiastic beater of the no-rules drum. That said, I agree wholeheartedly with your post. But I put your three rules more into the category of principles, in the same vein, for example, as to say that a rule of a profitable business is to be profitable.

    I’m not a student of Gershwin, but I certainly recognize a Gershwin piece when I hear it. I recognize a Bernstein piece when I hear it. They are classical musicians of a certain classical school, the “rules” for which they bent to the point of breaking to create something new. Mozart, on the other hand, was born with musical theory hard-wired into his DNA.

    Scales and chord structure are tools, in my book, not rules. Ditto the fundamentals of subject-verb agreement and the proper spelling of words.

    When I say that there are no rules to writing, I guess what I really mean is that there are no rules to storytelling. Yes, the smart storyteller never bores the reader, creates interesting characters with interesting problems and never squanders drama. Again, principles in my book, not rules.

    Matthew’s question (7:15 a.m.) illustrates my concern with writers who seek rules. The very structure of his question, “Does the reader need to know . . .” telegraphs a search for the kind of rules that I believe do not exist. It’s okay for any writer to do whatever works well for that writer’s story and that writer’s voice. Matthew must find that answer for himself. Coaching could help and work-shopping could help, but there definitive answer that would apply to everyone. And if a principle does not apply to everyone, then I don’t think it can be called a rule.

    John Gilstrap

  6. I’m an engineer and, in school, we’d laugh at the architects and their sketch pads the same way they’d laugh at our calculators.

    Yet, we both were right.

    In architecture, there are few rules, you are bound by your imagination. Engineering, on the flip side is nothing but rules, and there is one law – the law of gravity.

    Success is where those two concepts of style and structure came together.

    A good book is exactly the same. There are no rules to the ideas, characters, etc., but if it is so grotesque and flimsy that it crashes to the ground under its own weight, then it is a failure, no matter the intent.

    Funny, I’ve never been “jarred” by a violent or action-laden opening sequence. Nor am I automatically “bored” by a mundane opener such as waking up or reading the paper. It all depends on how it is presented and where it takes me.


  7. Great advice, as always.

    Even more gratifying is seeing someone else agree that A Confederacy of Dunces was a bore. I read the entire thing (that’s not bragging) and never so much as broke a smile.

  8. Love Basil’s response and everyone’s thoughts. As a social worker for many years I’ve tried to help others in therapy sessions. After about the first ten years of trying out all the rules set by other therapists and reading therapy books and going to conferences I finally learned to do whatever works. Of course I knew enough to do no harm, but everyone responds differently in various situations.

    So now after 23 years of writing I’ve learned the same thing, know what you’re doing, know the rules, don’t wreck your story by doing something dumb but be willing to take risks to intrigue your readers. Loved the seminar last weekend, Jim. Thanks!

    Oh I forgot to tell you that my hubby played Minnesota Fats in Charleston, W.Va. Hubby was twenty years old. He lost. :)I think you were talking about Minnesota Fats in relation to the Paul Newman movie, The Hustler.

  9. Thanks for the responses. As Old Rebel said, great advice as always.

    James, glad you liked the question and thanks for the suggestions. Getting into the Lead’s head before they’re fighting for their life makes a lot of sense, as then the reader knows what is at stake. I guess it’s finding the balance between meeting the characters and hooking the reader that’s the key to a good beginning.

    John Gilstrap, you bring up a couple of very good points. I have to agree that there are no unbreakable rules in fiction and also that each writer has to find their own way of doing things (I’m certainly having fun finding mine.) But I also feel it never hurts to ask for a bit of advice if you’re stuck, even if you end up completely ignoring it. Just asking the question can sometimes be enough to help you work out the answer yourself.

    (As it happens, just while reading everyone’s responses here I’ve had a couple of new ideas on how to deal with that opening, which I can try alongside James’s suggestions and my original idea to find out what works best for me.)

    Terri, there’s actually a Structural Engineer in my family, so I’ve picked up a few things about the engineer/architect working relationship. (Which can be very entertaining or frustrating when the architect wants to do one thing and the engineer has to figure out HOW?)

    Also I think you are spot one that you have to bring together style and structure to make a good building (or story.) To take the building metaphor one step further, things like James’s rules (or tools or principles, whatever you want to call them) help to give a writer a good solid foundation, but only the writer them self can decide what to build on it.

    You’ve all given me some good ideas to think about. Thanks. If anyone else has anything to add, I look forward to reading it.

    All the Best,


  10. Wise words, Jim! And I love your voice!

    As a freelance editor, when I receive fiction manuscripts to edit, the clients who’ve never read a craft book or attended writers’ workshops need a lot more work and guidance than those who have, so I’m able to take the knowledgeable ones so much further. They “get” my suggestions and realize the value of my advice, so we can work together so much more efficiently to take their writing to the next level and produce a compelling novel that will entertain and sell.

    Savvy writers who have educated themselves on effective techniques for writing a page-turner are way ahead of the game and can question or bend any “rules” with confidence and knowledge.

    And by the way, your Revision & Self-Editing is at the top of the list of resource books I recommend to my clients! And Conflict & Suspense is way up there, too!

  11. Writing a novel or a short story is like building a table. The table needs a top and at least three legs, four is better. Within that structure, build whatever you want. If you don’t have a top and legs it ain’t a table.

    Same with writing. Your three rules are exactly right, but there are other “guidelines” that are also helpful, like increasing tension on every page.

    I was thrilled to see someone who has succeeded believe my own first rule. I do have a fourth rule: The Readers are smarter than we are, don’t try to put anything over on them. As an example, you can’t have a character drive a 1983 Corvette. Why? There wasn’t one.

  12. Jillian, that’s great that your hubby actually played Rudolf Wanderone, who was called “New York Fats” before the movie came out, then quickly changed it to “Minnesota Fats” to cash in. He claimed the author of the book, Walter Tevis, based the character on him. Tevis denied this to his dying day.

    But Wanderone was a true hustler, and made a lot of money AFTER the movie.

  13. Thanks for the good word, Jodie. I especially wrote Revision & Self-Editing to give writers actual TOOLS to know how to fix things.

    It’s one thing to have someone tell you, “This just didn’t work for me.” It’s quite another to have that person be able to point out where a writer is going wrong, and how to make it better.

  14. Nice post JSB.
    Hreat to have JG and JM in play. Always straight ahead honest and frequently funny.
    I like the golf analogy you used a ways back. Some athletes are naturals and/or develop unique but effective swings. In general exposure to tried and true tips/guidelines/principles doesn’t hurt and can be catalytic. They are not dogma – anything approach that results in compelling story is de facto effective.

  15. Jim, great post and I like your theory that if a writer writes by “no rules” then he is not opening himself up to improving his craft – which should be an ongoing process. We owe it to ourselves, our craft and our readers.

    Yes, perhaps “no rules” but these 3 are the basics and 3 to post at your desk as you write, if nothing else.

    This topic reminds me of Pantsers who say they dont plot or outline – but they really do have some basic rules they are following. Perhaps these free-spirits with no rules or plotting just like to think that way about their process so they dont actually think they are writing by a formula. But there are formula’s for a reason. Why? because they are proven to work!

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