David Letterman’s famous Top Ten lists are a staple of his Late Night Show. I came across a great Top Ten list in a Twitter feed from Writer’s Digest magazine. Brian Garfield wrote the list, Ten Rules for Suspense Fiction, in a 1973 Writer’s Digest article. The list reportedly paved the way for John Grisham to write his breakout novel, The Firm.
Here are Garfield’s top ten rules for suspense fiction:
- Start with action; explain it later.
- Make it tough for your protagonist.
- Plant it early; pay it off later.
- Give the protagonist the initiative.
- Give the protagonist a personal stake.
- Give the protagonist a tight time limit, then shorten it.
- Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his.
- Know your destination before you start out.
- Don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.
- Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read.
Though Garfield geared his list toward suspense fiction, these rules apply well to any type of genre fiction. A common thread in these rules is for the writer to create challenges for the protagonist. This will move the story forward and keep the reader’s interest, whether the genre is romance or mystery.
Another great list is Elmore Leonard’s oft-quoted ten rules of writing:
- Never open a book with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
While more oriented toward craft of writing than plot, a writer cannot go wrong following Leonard’s advice.
For more on Leonard’s ten rules, you can buy his book
I thought I’d take crack at coming up with ten rules. These are some of my bedrock beliefs about fiction writing. Here goes:
- All stories start with characters. Take the time to develop memorable characters.
- At the core, all stories are about relationships. Look for “relationship potential” when building your characters. It doesn’t have to be a relationship with karma and great vibes. Bad relationships make for good fiction.
- Build conflict into the story from the beginning. Conflict leads to tension, which is the fuel that moves the story along.
- Start with action, but make sure the action sets the stage for significant later events.
- Plot is over-rated. Think “story.” The plot consists of a series of major events in the story. Make sure these events flow organically from the consequences of what occurred before.
- Strive for clarity over florid prose. Nobody will be impressed with your vast vocabulary. The shortest word is often the best word.
- Know the essence of your story. Hone in on the essence and expand upon and polish it.
- Avoid author contrivances. Fantastic coincidences might be convenient for the author, but they are a big turnoff for the reader.
- Make your ending pay off. As more than one writing guru has said, your ending should be both unexpected and inevitable.
- In crafting scenes, strike the right balance between action, narrative, and dialogue.
What are the rules of writing for you?