Rules? Who Needs Rules?

Rules? Who Needs Rules?
Terry Odell

Rules in WritingAs writers, we don’t read the same way “normal” people do. We have internal editors who insist on reading along with us and shouting their opinions.

  • She’s used that word five times on this page.
  • Look at all the filler words.
  • That sentence would flow better if the clauses were reversed.
  • What a fantastic metaphor. Why don’t you use it in your next book?
  • A narrator would hate that alliteration, but it works for the written word.

And so on, and so on.

I’ve belonged to several book clubs. I find it enlightening to see what resonates with the members, as well as what turns them off. Every once in a while, we even agree. I’m usually the odd woman out, since I don’t read much “literary” fiction. Or, a sub-genre I was unaware of, “book club fiction.”

I recall pointing out that an author was pulling me out of the story because they had more than one character acting in a paragraph, so it was hard to tell who was speaking. The rule I learned was that the speaker owns the paragraph. One of the club members looked at me, eyes widened in surprise.

“I never knew that,” she said. She wasn’t the only one. The knowledge, or more accurately, lack thereof, doesn’t keep them from enjoying the story.

Recently, I downloaded a book. It was a freebie, so I didn’t look at a sample first. The author, for whatever reason, had opted to do away with quotation marks. Instead, dialogue began with a dash and ended with a paragraph return. No beats or tags to accompany the dialogue.

Now, maybe language is changing, and maybe the ‘rules’ we are taught are changing as well, but one “rule” I try to follow is:

Don’t Do Anything To Pull The Reader Out Of The Story.

And for me, seeing dashes, figuring out they represented dialogue, and trying to figure out who was talking yanked me out like the guy with the hook in a melodrama.

Why did the author choose to make their own rules? I don’t know. Liked gimmicks? Wanted to be clever? To rebel against convention?

Or is this a case of Learn the rules, then break them?

Short of finding the author’s contact information and asking, I have no idea.

What are your thoughts, TKZers? Are you a “rules were made to be broken” sort of writer, or do you prefer to stick with convention? Would you have trouble reading a book that threw basics like the rules of punctuating dialogue off the cliff? Have you read anything where a blatant deviation of “normal” pulled you out of the story? Enticed you to read more? Made you consider trying it?

And now, a total digression, but I’m curious.
Wordle? Yes or No?
Reacher on Prime? Yes or No?
Olympics? Yes or No?

On a personal note, I will be heading off on a bucket list trip next week and cyberspace access will be extremely limited in Antarctica. I have guests filling in for my posting days, but if I’m not participating in discussions for several weeks, that’s why.

In the Crosshairs by Terry OdellAvailable Now. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

Changing Your Life Won’t Make Things Easier
There’s more to ranch life than minding cattle. After his stint as an army Ranger, Frank Wembly loves the peaceful life as a cowboy.

Financial advisor Kiera O’Leary sets off to pursue her dream of being a photographer until a car-meets-cow incident forces a shift in plans. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

61 thoughts on “Rules? Who Needs Rules?

  1. Even though I majored in English, I never noticed head hopping in fiction until I began writing it. Now I always notice it and it pulls me out of the story.

    About dashes used in place of quotation mark: apparently many writers do this. I don’t know why. The Irish writer, Roddy Doyle uses dashes. Maybe he got the idea from James Joyce, who hated quotation marks. Anyway, it bothered me at first, but Doyle is such a fine writer, I got used to it.

    • Thanks — maybe if this story had drawn me in a little further, I’d have ‘forgiven’ the dashes, but I doubt I’d get used to it. I use them a lot in my own writing but for their traditional purpose, so that could be a part of it.

      • Actually, the writers who use dashes are not inventing their own rules. They are using the rules of Spanish, French, Romanian languages. I think Russian and Greek also have dashes. We use “these” only when we show a title or a shop name, or quoting someone else’s words. I will try to exemplify:
        – Have you seen Anne today?
        – Yes, she had lunch at the “Golden Lion”. She said: “If you see Tom, don’t tell him you met me!” Do you think they quarelled yesterday?

  2. I’ve just encountered the dash-in-place-of-quotation-marks affectation in Amor Towles THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY, and though half-way through still find it a bit distracting. He didn’t use it in his previous work, A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW, so I wonder what changed. The current book also “head-hops” between chapters, which, fortunately, are titled by the character’s names, and is something I’ve done as well, though here he mixes third person for most characters and first person for another (whom one would think was not the protagonist – thought he may turn out to be)… It’s well written otherwise, now that I’ve “gotten used to it” – and would finish it anyway since it’s gift that was given with excitement and moved to the top of the TBR pile as soon as I could get to it…

    So obviously I’m “stickler” (or should that be — stickler ?).

    As to your three questions:
    Wordle? Nah – not a big puzzler…
    Reacher on Prime? – Yeah – thought he’s a bit musclebound and I can’t help but think about what I’ve learned here about getting shot or pummeled and recovering almost instantaneously with only minor stitches or an arm sling… They did a good job of making Canada look like Georgia, and got most of the city adjacent city names right – though like most things movie, their southern accents were horrendous…
    Olympics? Nah… and not just this year, but pretty much in general…

    Have an awesome, safe, and enjoyable trip – at least it’ll be summer down there… ?

    • Thanks, George. You brought up another peeve of mine–using a chapter header to identify the POV character and then moving directly into ‘he/she/I’ and never reminding the reader whose chapter it is. I forget as soon as I turn the page, on on my e-reader, those headers are too small for my eyes if they’re there at all. Not as troublesome in 3rd person, but multiple 1st person characters can confuse the heck out of me.
      And thanks for answering my questions. Hubster and I enjoyed the humor in Reacher.

    • I too found at first the style off-putting but once into the story I was mostly trapped. Not as I was the Gentleman in Moscow, however. But the characters in Lincoln were so clearly drawn I had little trouble following them once I “got” their voices. And the ending was excellent.
      I also read Rules of Civility…mixed feelings.
      Moscow’s my fave so far, but anything he publishes I’ll read!

  3. If the story is crafted well enough to pull me in and then hold me at depth, the writer has done his/her job and I don’t notice anything else.

    I finished Stephen King’s 2018 novel The Outsider yesterday (a two-day read) and was so engaged in the story I didn’t notice until about page 400 that he doesn’t use apostrophes to truncate words in dialogue (ex. “He’s doin his chores” vs. “He’s doin’ his chores.”).

    I was surprised, but it’s King, so I accepted it and plunged back into the story, because Story is what matters. Starting today I’ll revisit a few passages that really blew me and try to figure out how he did that. I’ve also identified three short chapters I want to type-in to get the rhythm and feel of them.

    As for the truncations sans apostrophes, it feels cleaner somehow. I might start using the technique in my own work.

  4. Safe journeys, Terry!

    Re: the dashes vs. quotation marks…Cormac McCarthy does that. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it works for him. I agree with your overall premise, however. If it distracts from the story/narrative it should be eliminated. As Truman Capote said in a different context, it’s not writing, it’s typing.

    To answer your questions:

    1) Wordle: No. However, I just looked at it and it’s intriguing.
    2) Reacher: That’s a big 10-4. In addition to being very well done, it puts me in the mind of Banshee and Strike Back, two of my all-time favorite series.
    3) Olympics: No. Never a fan.

    • Thanks, Joe. I tried Wordle once to see what the deal was (although yes, I’m mildly annoyed how it’s filling my Facebook Feed the few times I actually go scrolling). Its perk for me is it a one-a-day thing, so unless you dig out variations, it’s not a time-sucking rabbit hole.

  5. I am not the one who does wordle in this house…We don’t have Prime…and finally I watch some of the events in the Olympics…not crazy about curling…

    • Thanks for commenting, Gram.
      We got Prime when Bosch came out and have found a few shows that make it worthwhile. There’s the free shipping, too.

      We were at a bar in Vancouver some years back, and the entire patronage was glued to the television set. A curling championship of some sort.

  6. That’s a first for me, Terry, seeing dashes used in place of quotations. I’m a big believer in “Know the rules before you break them” and “Whatever works to keep the reader in the story” but I can’t see trying the dash-over-quotations thing.
    Wordle – What?
    Reacher – Who?
    Olympics – Why?
    -Enjoy your day, Kill Zoners-

  7. I usually get pulled out of the story by self-absorbed protagonists more than punctuation. But, I’m currently rereading Harry Potter after many years of learning craft… and whoa does she use a lot of adverbs. I don’t know how many on one page I read “Hermione said anxiously.” She-who-must-not-be-named also uses so many ellipses and dashes, I feel like I’m missing a whole lot of information. Nearly every sentence ends with an ellipses (just realized I’m not spelling that right, but I don’t know how). Used to be impressed that she could create 50 word sentences. Not impressed anymore. They’re run-ons.

    • Are they really run-ons or are they just really long sentences? A run-on is two or more independent clauses joined without a coordinating conjunction or a semi-colon. (I avoid Grammarly because, in a commercial, they defined a “run-on” as a really long sentence. A company with a name like that should know better.)

  8. Have a fabulous trip, Terry! A new setting for a new series?

    As an editor, I’m a stickler for punctuation–blame (or thank) the ghost of Mrs. Shore, my eighth grade English teacher.

    Punctuation is the equivalent of traffic signs and signals. Stop. Yield. Slow down. Warning. Steep grade. They guide the reader through the story and keep them from veering off course.

    Punctuation can change the meaning of the sentence:

    Let’s eat, Mother.
    Let’s eat Mother.

    That said, Terry, I think you’re correct that most readers don’t notice and don’t care.

    But I’m old school and getting older every day.

    • Thanks Debbie. We’re counting down to takeoff, and dealing with assembling the right gear, and hoping the myriad Covid testing requirements fall into place. I hope to have some halfway decent pictures.
      But I’m not sure I want to set a story there. I’ve already done one on a cruise ship, and the one I’m working on now set in Croatia is another that is centered around a tour of the Adriatic. I’m not the master of the “locked room” mystery, and I tried for a straight romance after my British Isles trip, and I couldn’t do it. There had to be a mystery.

  9. Rules of punctuation are put in place through years of usage to make it easier to communicate ideas through writing. I find any change to what I was taught was “correct” is annoying. Even the British single quote for dialog annoys me. But not nearly as much as those dashes did. I’ve seen it before, and if the plot and writing are good, I’ll continue reading, but I’ll always notice the dashes and feel outside the story. I also recognize that as language changes over time, so does the way we write it. So I don’t lose sleep over it. If I find something truly annoying, I stop reading it.

    Olympics – no
    Reacher – possibly but haven’t started it yet
    Wordle – not just no, but hell no. I find it (like the game Master Mind) to be rage inducing. I don’t need that kind of pressure in my life. I did try it for about a week then deleted it.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Joe. I’m still drawn out of the prose by “alright” so those dashes become a major roadblock.
      You’ll have to let us know what you think of Reacher.

  10. Despite years of writing and reading, I’m still mastering punctuation, especially comma usage. I take heart in the fact that Word’s grammar checker is not always right about comma usage 🙂 When it comes to unorthodox punctuation, it really depends on the story. In science fiction or fantasy, its used when it comes to telepathy–say em dashes or ellipses, though when I had mind-to-mind communication in my own fiction I simply went with italics, making it clear who was “speaking.”

    To answer your question:
    Wordle: No, I’m with the control group* 🙂
    Reacher: Not yet–I’ve been watching cozier shows. I have a fairly broad definition of cozy here–not just Father Brown but Monk, Columbo, even classic Perry Mason, as well as the sometimes dark Only Murder in the Building. But, two friends have been raving about Reacher so I probably will at some point.
    Olympics. No.

    *Quoting a character who was asked the same thing in the XKCD web comic.

    Thanks for another great post. Have a wonderful Wednesday!

    • Thanks, Dale. You have a great day, too.
      Our television watching is almost totally recorded, and when there’s nothing we both want to watch on our DVR, we’ve been hitting the original Mission Impossible. I fear we will run out of them before long, but it’s been a hoot seeing all the “That’s HIM” and That’s HER” characters. And the clothes! And hair!

    • Oh, and have a fantastic trip! Antarctica should be awesome. I’d do it for the amazing southern hemispheric night skies alone, and then there’s the incredible landscape. And penguins 🙂

      Looking forward to a possible future blog post about your experiences.

  11. I took four years of Spanish when I was in high school, and I remember that the Spanish language novels we read all had the dash-as-quotation mark conceit. I would find it very distracting in English–not to mention a bit pretentious.

    As for rules, I have my own that I follow religiously, but they may or may not agree with those of others. As for the rest:

    Wordle: Never heard of it
    Reacher: Not yet, but it’s on the TBW list
    Olympics: No

    • Thanks, John. I scroll through my Facebook feed once or twice a day to see what my kids are up to, and that’s where you can’t avoid hearing about Wordle. It’s a nice diversion and doesn’t take long.
      I more or less gave up on the Olympics when the competitions took a backseat to the lengthy digressions to the back story of the athletes and the commercials.

  12. Great post, Terry.

    I agree with your “Don’t Do Anything To Pull The Reader Out Of The Story” rule. I’m not opposed to “innovations,” but they have to make things “better.” If they pull you out of the story, if they make it more confusing, if they don’t do something to improve things, they should be considered an experiment that didn’t work.

    As for Wordle: Too busy. Never heard of it.
    Reacher: I would, but I don’t have Prime.
    Olympics: Not this one.

    – have a great time in Antarctica – take a lotta good pictures – and rest assured – those of us who are fillin in for ya will be tryin a bunch a speriments with the rules – hope we don’t blow up the lab – i think yur slot will glad when youre back and ‘they’ can get rid of us —

    Have a safe trip!

    • We got Prime when Bosch first came out. At that time, it also meant buying a Roku box for our old TV, so it wasn’t a cheap television series. At least it lived up to expectations.

  13. Yes, the way I read has changed since I started writing. I notice head-hopping, adverbs, over-used words, etc. But those things don’t bother me as long as the story is good.

    I’ve never seen the dash used to indicate dialogue. How does the author show attribution in that case? That would bump me out of the story, for sure.

    Antarctica? What a thrill. Given all your travel experience, Terry, maybe you should write an “Around the World” mystery.

    In answer to your questions: No. No. No.

    • Thanks, Kay. I’m planning (as much as any writer can), to sit back and enjoy this trip. I doubt there will be much progress on the current WIP. But yes to pictures–my son’s been coaching me on how to deal with them after I take them.

    • As someone else had said before I commented, dash dialogue is the normal way in all Latin-based languages, including my mother tongue, Romanian. I say also in Russian and Greek. Only English and German use “these” for dialogue. The attribution is normal:
      -Have you seen my glasses? the nanny asked the children.
      – No, I haven’t, replied Mia.
      – I guess they might be on the table, suggested Tom. May I check?

  14. The story’s the thing. If it works all else is vain. Readers will overlook nearly anything for a tale that grabs them by the scruff of the neck to go off on a wild ride across the Mojave desert.

    On the other hand good construction, grammar and punctuation polish a story and lubricate the flow of it like a good grade of engine oil. May we all lubricate our stories with Aeroshell 50.

    Punctuation and frequent mistakes in already published work were my tools for detecting plagiarists in fifteen years of teaching for three online colleges until one, that has been acquired by a Big Name University, dumped me for washing out too many fee paying plagiarists.

    Bear in mind I’m an over the hill rookie scribbler and I’ve got a long way to go in learning the craft so if I seem precocious I apologize.
    Wordle? Nahhhh. I suck at puzzles.

    Jack Reacher? The name reminds me of something offputting one of my colleagues on the flight line at Douglas said one time and the image is indelible. So no can do. I am one of three people in Iowa who does not have netflix.

    Olympics? No, with one exception and that is skeleton where these guys and girls go down the bobsled run on glorified lunch trays from the cafeteria. That takes some real huevos.

    Safe trip, eh?

    • Thanks, Robert. (Reacher is on Prime.) The issue for me is how much I’m willing to be ‘distracted’ and still find the story underneath. I agree about the event whose name escapes me, although I’m still not watching.

    • “Glorified lunch trays from the cafeteria” is the best thing I’ve read all month…

  15. Wordle: Hate timed games, so no.
    Reacher: We watched some, and noticed the stories got better and better.
    Olympics: Nope.

    I’m helping to edit a fiction WIP for an author friend who is a newbie like me, and ran across something I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t become an author.

    One paragraph contained 5-6 semi-colons, in one sentence. And it was about the 2nd paragraph into the first chapter, so I emailed her right away and told her probably not-might want to re-work this sentence.

    And I do notice things now when I’m reading for pleasure. I agree, if the story is superb, I ignore. I don’t think I could get used to the dashes-instead-of-quotation marks though. 🙂

  16. I was trained as a literary analyst with 2.5 degrees, I am a retired writing teacher, and I am a writer. Anyone who wants me to read something they wrote and give a critique should probably run screaming in the opposite direction instead unless I’m feeling kind. Over the years, I’ve learned how to keep my critic/analyst in the background taking notes, but the writing has to be world-class for my critic to shut down in awe.

    Writing with no rules like dialogue is called stunt writing, and it’s considered awesome in some literary circles. I despise it because it’s all about the writer, not the story. That’s one reason I write popular genre when my background says I should write literary fiction.

  17. My sister and BIL are watching REACHER. Thumbs up from my BIL, but the violence and the sounds of the violence gave my sister an excuse to find a good book, instead. I don’t have streaming so I can’t even try it, but the actor was on TITANS, and he is a tank so very Reacher.

    I try to watch the horse events on the summer Olympics, not that they are shown when they are promised, but, otherwise, I’m not interested. Just not a sports watcher unless horses are involved. My best friend likes to find out who won events, then she’ll plug in the name on YouTube and watch that performance. It saves a lot of time and boredom.

    I’m a computer solitaire player, but not a fan of word games, etc. Penn Holderness has a fun song about Wordle– “A Whole New Wordle.” Yes, it from a Disney song.

    • Thanks, Marilynn. Good hint about finding the events you’re interested in. And thanks for the link.

  18. I first ran into the dashed dialogue (or dashëd dialog) when reading “All the Pretty Horses.” It was the whole disaster: no attribution, either, and no English translation. I found it intensely annoying. The writing was excellent, in spots, but I hadn’t read any more McCarthy until someone gave me a copy of “No Country for Old Men.” It was worth every penny. Not visiting that country again.

    Even so, in my Zaragozan picaresque novel, I’ve added inverted question marks up front, in the Spanish manner. (“¿You no like?” Diego asked.) It warns the reader that a question is coming. And it’s a bit atmospheric, a reminder that the characters aren’t speaking Ingles. ¿What you think?

    ❖ I love Wordle. But I have to set some limits, so I’ve only done two, one in 5 lines, the second in 3.
    ❖ Not following Reacher.
    ❖ Not watching the 0lympics.

  19. I wouldn’t read past the first page if an author used dashes instead of quotation marks. I read to escape, and I’d get so blasted mad about being pulled out of the story, I’d probably toss the book.

    Enjoy your trip–it sounds fantastic.

    As for the three questions:
    Wordle–have no idea what it is
    Reacher–I’d rather read a good book than watch TV
    Olympics– I’ve watched some of the figure skating and snowboarding, but otherwise, once my friend leaves for the evening, the TV goes off and I go back to work.

    • Thanks, Patricia.
      I’m with you on reading to escape.
      Hubster and I watch about an hour of TV together every night, and it’s almost always recorded or streaming. We did watch the Super Bowl, though. My dad had season tickets to the Rams games, and although he used them mostly for business, I did get to a few in my youth.

  20. Hi Terry…
    * Recently read a novel where the in-front attribution tags used colons instead of commas (Tom said: “Not here, please.”) I got used to it real quick; no problem.
    * Head-hopping really bothers me, which is one reason I didn’t care much for American Dirt. Although her putting sophisticated adult thoughts into an 8-year-old’s head threw me totally out of the story.
    * Wordle? Waiting to try; I’m more of a Spelling Bee guy (and NYT just bought Wordle).
    * Reacher? It was OK, but casting was not. You don’t have drifter/hobo with a pumped-up bodybuilder physique that requires four hours daily in the gym.
    * Olympics? I catch bits of it on the news highlights. I like the summer ones more.

    Have a great trip!

    • Thanks, Harald. At least that book had tags. The one I was reading ignored using anything to identify the speaker. I’m a Mini Cross person, but I take the extra few minutes to play Wordle.

  21. Sorry I’m late, Terry! I hope you have a wonderful time on your trip. Sounds amazing.

    No to Wordle
    Yes to Reacher
    No to Olympics

    Reading a book that blatantly broke the rules like punctuation would drive me crazy. The author would end up on my Do Not Read list.

  22. I got a nice email from a man today whose manuscript I had critiqued at the SleuthFest conference. This had to have been 10 years ago. Bennie reminded me that I told him the book had some major structure issues. He told me then that his son had started the book and then died. This compelled Bennie to want to finish the book. Well, he did. His “gotta wanna” was to honor his son’s memory, of course, but in the process, Bennie found he loved to write. So happy for him.

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