Writing Rules

Rachel HauckGuest blogger: Rachel Hauck

I’m just going to say it: Writers do need rules. Rules apply to structure – how a story is crafted and told. Voice and style are flexible. But story structure definitely has rules, and they give the author freedom to create.

A friend of mine was studying architecture. She loved drafting and creating beautiful buildings. She hated the rules and the math. Her professors would look at her designs and say, “Ruth, it’s gorgeous, but it’s going to fall down. You have to learn the math.”

She caved. “Once I learned the math and the rules, I had more options and more freedom to create what I wanted!”

The same applies to writing. A good story typically has certain elements:

Motivation, conflict and tension
Inciting incident
A story question and epiphany
A climax or black moment
A satisfying ending

I work with beginning writers who ignore rules and their stories are weak. Once I get them to understand and write to the rules—then throw in some bling such as pitting the protagonist’s greatest fear against their secret desire—the story comes alive.

You can’t build a house without a plan. Neither can you write a story without a plan. I know few authors who “just write” without an eye for any rule or structure. They’re great story tellers. They have a unique voice. But they also struggle with the writing process.

It’s a dark, harrowing day when you’re two months from deadline, three-quarters of the way through the book and you decide the motivation for the heroine is all wrong. Planning your story’s building blocks ahead of time actually makes it easier to be creative with depth. In my own writing journey I had to learn more about crafting stories than crafting sentences. I had to buckle down and write to a structure.

Voice, dynamic characters, engaging story are all developed through good old fashioned work. There is just no way around it. The more character and plotting work I do up front, putting my building blocks into place, the better the story!

I know how frustrating it is to break into publishing. There’s so much to keep in mind with the craft, never mind trends and market shifts. But learn the rules of story crafting. It is the foundation to the freedom of telling your story, your way.

So, how do you feel about the “writing rules”?

***Dining with Joy Rachel Hauck

Rachel Hauck has written over fifteen novels, won a few awards, and hangs out with the gang over at My Book Therapy.

Her latest novels are Dining with Joy, and Softly and Tenderly co-written with country artist Sara Evans. She’s represented by Chip MacGregor at MacGregor Literary.

Visit Southern Belle View or Rachel Hauck’s website.





Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Glasgow commercial cleaning company on February 27, 2012 at 9:08 PM

    Tryst cleaners offers domestic and commercial cleaning services in Glasgow, paisley, and surrounding areas.We are experts in our field for providing detailed solutions for cleaning offices & houses using highly trained members of staff, who employ eco friendly cleaning methods.

  2. black friday ereader on October 27, 2011 at 10:41 AM

    Hi, I enjoy your blog. Is there something I can do to receive updates like a subscription or some thing? I’m sorry I’m not familiar with RSS?

  3. Elaine Cougler on July 21, 2011 at 4:27 PM

    Loved your straightforward writing style as well as the substance of your article.

  4. Rex Rouis on July 8, 2011 at 7:52 PM

    Ludwig Hilberseimer (architect and city planner, and member of Bauhaus w/ Mies van der Rohe) used to say, “You have your greatest freedom in your tightest discipline.” Rules are there for a purpose. Constraints are not random.

    Sometimes, the genius of good design, and maybe good writing, is in the breaking of the rules at just the right moment and in just the right way. However, you must thoroughly understand the rules to be able to break them intelligently.

  5. Stephen Monteith on July 6, 2011 at 3:03 AM

    I only have one rule: let the characters tell the story. I’m not concerned about changing my heroine’s motivation, because she’ll take care of that for me; all I need to do is pay attention so I’ll know what it is.

    Stories do need structure, and they do need a logical progression (even if they’re told in a non-logical manner). I appreciate the simplicity and economy of your rules, but they’re more requisites than rules. If you create believable, interesting, and even vaguely sympathetic characters, then you can simply give them all the things listed in your “rules” and watch as they unfold the story themselves.

    A writer is not so much the crafter of a story as he is the teller of it; literally, a story-teller. I’ve found that, as long as I understand my characters, I can put them in pretty much any situation and they’ll create a great story on their own. The only rule a writer must follow, I feel, is get to know your own characters well enough that you can be an accurate chronicler of their adventures, in life, love, loss, or … can’t think of a fourth one that starts with “l”.

  6. Nikole Hahn on July 4, 2011 at 6:49 PM

    It’s weird how I plan my novels. I begin by doing a character sketch, then I write an outline, but then, like now I’ve deviated so far from my outline, added new plot elements and characters, and all from reading craft books. I think I’m getting into a groove on how to consistently outline. I’ve got a binder that has my current research and notes and a binder that is for developing stories and characters. Does that mean I’m improving in technique?

  7. John Waverly on July 4, 2011 at 11:19 AM

    Great post. Well written and not over-the-top.

    I started writing a detailed comment. It got too lengthy and turned into a blog post of my own. http://bit.ly/jjRVLb

  8. Jenny Hansen on July 4, 2011 at 2:53 AM


    I’ll confess that I write most of my big scenes first to get them out of my head and to get a feel for who these people are.

    Then I lay out a three-act structure and take a good look at whether all the scenes stay and where there needs to be beefing up of certain scenes.

    I stitch a story together like a quilt with a definite pattern but I usually have to create the fabric first.

  9. Rachel Hauck on July 3, 2011 at 8:31 PM

    Thanks everyone for the comments. I read them all. So glad to have encouraged and helped. Keep writing!


  10. Sana Quijada on July 3, 2011 at 4:29 PM

    Thx for this clarity. What r your rules for non-fiction?

  11. Ane Mulligan on July 3, 2011 at 1:13 PM

    Rachel, you and I feel the same. I’ve always said you have to learn them to know when and how to break them. And … if you’re going to break them, do it with panache! Make it sing!!

  12. Peter DeHaan on July 3, 2011 at 9:15 AM

    This is a great post and sage advice. Not to diminish it in any way, I’m reminded of the saying, “Rules are made to be broken.”

    I think that the “rules” are essential for beginners and mid-level authors, but that the seasoned veteran has earned the right to break some rules if the result is a creative breakthrough or a fresh approach.

    (In architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright broke many of the traditional rules and forever changed building design.)

  13. Giora on July 3, 2011 at 8:22 AM

    Thanks Rachel for this post. As a first time author, I finished my commercial women’s fiction without knowing the Rules. I now find that I covered thre rules of inciting accident, climax and satisfying ending.
    In my fiction the Heroine is moving along through a story of romance and adventure. She doesn’t have a major theme of motivation, she is just living her life like many of us do.
    I wonder if the lack of motivation is a major flaw.
    I also wonder what is “the voice”. I read on a few blogs of literary agents that they are looking for a unique and wonderful voice. I will appreciate if you can elaborate what is excatly this “voice”. Maybe Rachelle can write a blog about the “voice”. Thanks and best wishes from Canada.

    • Rachelle Gardner on July 3, 2011 at 10:09 AM

      Giora, at the top of my blog you will see a tab that says “Find Post by Subect.” Click on in, then scroll down and click on “Voice” and you find several posts.

      • Giora on July 3, 2011 at 1:10 PM

        Thanks Rachelle. I will read the 4 posts about the “voice” with the many comments to master this concept. I’m please to find many other posts under “Find Post Under Subject”, in particular the ones about “words count”. I sent queries too early when my novel was only at 51K words (not knowing the Rule about Words Count). Now it is at 71K words, putting it at the very low end of the range, but at least complying with the Rule. Thanks again for your blog, being very informative and useful.

  14. Claude Nougat on July 3, 2011 at 4:14 AM

    I completely agree – excellent post! You can’t break the rules and write a strong story…But the rules themselves are of course subject to “bending” and that’s where innovation in writing can come in…

    This said, I’m wondering whether that famous Amazon spammer – a marketing expert by the name of Parker who has developed an algorithm and already produced between 100,000 and 200,000 titles of “how to” manuals he’s placed on Amazon Kindle at 99 cents and is said to be about to do the same with romance novels – I’m wondering whether he’s using those writing rules in his algorithm.

    Does he grab love scenes with his algorithm out of the ether, left and right, from this and that romance novel? Lasso them, mix them up, and pace them according to a rising curve up to the climax, then a steep drop – tragedy – then a rise again for the final happy scene of the ultimate kiss!


  15. Louise Curtis on July 2, 2011 at 8:19 PM

    Beginning writers think, “I will be original and break the rules!” but they simply don’t know better – and their stories are rubbish.

    You can’t break the rules WELL until you have the skills to follow them. It’s the difference between a moron and a genius.

    Louise Curtis (who sticks to the rules, thanks)

  16. Jeanne on July 2, 2011 at 8:16 PM

    Rachel, what a great post! As an inexperienced writer, the rules give me the frame work to build my story. I’m still figuring out how to apply some of them, but I can only imagine how the story would falter without rules. I, too, feel like crafting sentences (small picture) is much easier than crafting the story (big picture). Working on becoming a better “big picture writer.”

  17. Rachelle Gardner on July 2, 2011 at 6:47 PM

    For lots of great books on the craft of writing, see my Facebook page where today I asked the question, “What’s your favorite book on writing fiction?” (www.facebook.com/agent.rachelle )

    I also asked the question on Twitter so you can find a lot of good books by searching Twitter for @RachelleGardner.

  18. Peggy Eddleman on July 2, 2011 at 5:11 PM

    I’m a rule-follower by nature. And I totally agree that when you learn and then follow the rules, THEN add the bling (great example of bling, btw!), you have a much stronger book.

  19. Gwen Stewart on July 2, 2011 at 2:09 PM

    This is a fabulous post, Rachel.

    Our brains seek a blend of repetition and novelty in all areas of life, I think. Figuring out when, where, and how to use repetition or structure is the “science” of novel writing, in my lowly opinion. Letting the novelty loose is the art of it. And good novels need both “science” and art, I think.

    I’m glad you stated that characters just need to talk in the first draft. That’s where I am right now, and I was feeling guilty that I’m writing pages I know will need to go later. My gut tells me that I need them now, though, so I can get to know the characters better. We’ll see how it all turns out–I hope I’m on the right track!

    God bless. 🙂 Thanks again for a great post.

  20. Joyce Magnin on July 2, 2011 at 2:08 PM

    Rachel, thank you, one of the best posts on the rules I’ve read. I appreciate the architecture analogy.

  21. Carrie L. Lewis on July 2, 2011 at 2:05 PM

    I’m a big believer in rules. Living within rules (in all areas of life) provides a freedom and flexibility that living with no boundaries is unable to approach.

    Living within the rules also saves a ton of time wandering aimlessly.

    I’ve written by the seat of my pants and I’ve designed stories. It seems to take forever to design a story, but if I know where the story is headed before I start, the writing is a lot more directed and productive.

    So do I spend years rewriting a full manuscript a dozen or more times and taking a decade to do so, or do I spend months laying a solid foundation so that the first draft is better?

  22. Ruth Madison on July 2, 2011 at 1:44 PM

    I have found this to be true: “Once I learned…the rules, I had more options and more freedom to create what I wanted!”

    It’s surprising and counter-intuitive, but following some guidelines really does open up creativity, perhaps because it forces you to come up with a more creative solution than the simple, obvious one.

  23. Krista Phillips on July 2, 2011 at 1:32 PM

    Great post!!! I think what writers need to distinguish between are “rules” and “guidelines.” The ones you mentioned… total rules!

    There are others, like the use of -ly words or the word was, are more guidelines to prevent OVERuse. I’ve seen some pretty funky sentences when a writer was obviously trying to avoid a good, needed “was.”

    Reminds me of when I was younger and my sisters gave me the “rules” of dating a guys… because of course they were older and new EVERYTHING! Guy must be taller… older… and not have red hair. *ahem* At the time I thought their advice was firm and EVERYONE knew that (and kinda wondered how all those red-headed guys got married!) Now, I think they threw in the last one just to be cruel and throw me off track. Gotta love older sisters!

    Anyway… I married a guy 4 years older than me, has brown head… who is my exact same height. I followed 2 of the 3 at least!

  24. Jessica Nelson on July 2, 2011 at 12:44 PM

    Great post! When I think of writing rules, I don’t think of the necessary structure to create a story. That doesn’t seem like a rule to me, but rather something absolutely necessary. To me, the writing rules have always been more about povs, adjectives, etc. The “rules” were more of a subjective thing. What you’re talking about here though are absolutely necessary things to create a story, imo. Thanks for giving me a different perspective on “rules”! 🙂

  25. Loree Huebner on July 2, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    Thanks for this post.

    When I started writing nearly ten years back, I didn’t know there were rules. I just wrote. I wrote 3 novels that way. I didn’t do too bad of a job, but there are weak spots in each book which can crumble the entire foundation if not fixed. I’m almost finished “remodeling” one of those first novels now. When rules are applied (it took a lot of years to learn the rules)the book becomes stronger and can stand the rain and wind, so-to-speak. I can really see the difference.

    Congratulations on your success. Great post.

  26. Deanna on July 2, 2011 at 10:58 AM

    I’ve always thought I’d write non-fiction, but I’m finding that I really enjoy the process of discovery in fiction.

    Do you have any book recommendations for the art of story crafting?

    • Rachelle Gardner on July 2, 2011 at 11:19 AM

      Deanna, keep an eye on my Facebook page today and you’ll get lots of answers!

      • Deanna on July 4, 2011 at 12:41 AM

        Yay. I’m excited. Looks like I just filled up all the free time I had for the next year. Ha!

  27. Rachel Hauck on July 2, 2011 at 10:45 AM

    Thanks everyone for the comments! I read them all. And thanks to my friend Rachelle for the beautiful site and letting me spend a few minutes with y’all here!


  28. Sue Harrison on July 2, 2011 at 9:31 AM

    Rules are the launchsite! I can’t tell you how many of my creative writing students wanted to be James Joyce before they could write one cohesive and grammatically correct sentence. I agree with you, Rachel. They’re the foundation for freedom. Thanks for the great post!

  29. Christine Rains on July 2, 2011 at 9:11 AM

    Rules are vital to holding a story together. When I was beginning to write, I would just wing it. Now I make sure to follow the rules and my stories are more solid because of it.

  30. Michelle Dennis Evans on July 2, 2011 at 7:03 AM

    You make it sound easy – but I guess it is once you get the hang of it.

    • Rachelle on July 2, 2011 at 9:20 AM

      Actually, no, I don’t think it ever gets “easy.” With experience, I think it becomes more “doable” and sometimes it flows better than other times. And occasionally there are days when everything feels easy. But overall most writers don’t seem to feel that crafting a strong story is easy.

    • Rachel Hauck on July 3, 2011 at 8:28 PM

      Michelle, it often gets grader because you learn more “dukes” or guidelines. Your get pickier about your prose and story telling. Sometimes it feels lime everything you write sounds the same or that you’ve used “that” scenario before. Sometimes i get tired of reading “me.”

      But, those are minor moments. Overall, your confidence grows but it always has hard moments.

  31. Jill on July 2, 2011 at 4:43 AM

    I love rules so long as they make sense. But I got caught up w/ this phrase: “then throw in some bling such as pitting the protagonist’s greatest fear against their secret desire—the story comes alive.” I love this. I wouldn’t call it bling, though. It’s the heart and soul of the story!

  32. Murugi Angela Njehia on July 2, 2011 at 4:03 AM

    I have been writing a book for the past one month but have not gotten far! I have my story, i have characters and i even know how it will end!But the body…oh my! I must say the blog is very educative. Thank.:)

    • Rachel Hauck on July 2, 2011 at 10:44 AM

      Keep writing Murugi, you’ll get there. Don’t stop to edit, just keep writing forward even though you know the book needs work. Books are not written they are rewritten!

      You can do it!


  33. Lisa Marie on July 2, 2011 at 3:14 AM

    I absolutely believe in rules. It’s the same way in classical music—sonatas, ballads, scherzos, etc., follow a very distinct form that the human ear finds intriguing, with key changes and/or perceived dissonance at very specific measures followed by a resolution. Repeated motives tie everything together. It’s not too different with a good book. ☺

    I plot and outline like I’m planning a top secret military coup. I develop a theme and find my motives. I can see how this would make a lot of writers feel stifled, but there’s actually more joy in laying a foundation first—then the writer can build on it with all of those wonderful bits of description and dialogue.

  34. Aimee L. Salter on July 2, 2011 at 2:05 AM

    Structure is critical for me. Without it, I get lost and my story stagnates.

    So I say: What you said.

    • Rachel Hauck on July 2, 2011 at 10:43 AM

      Great minds, Aimee…. 🙂

  35. Cynthia Herron on July 2, 2011 at 1:09 AM

    Rachel, “pitting the protagonist’s greatest fear against their secret desire”–I really liked this. It’s so true! It really takes the story to a higher level when, as authors, we’re able to do this effectively.

    • Rachel Hauck on July 2, 2011 at 10:43 AM

      Hey Cynthia, pitting the greatest fear against the secret desires saves every one of my books!

      It really does work. Then you start with the Why question and the story structure and a lot comes to life.

      Rachel 🙂

  36. Olivia Newport on July 2, 2011 at 1:00 AM

    What Rachel outlines here are pretty basic rules. Readers who don’t quickly find a reason to care won’t finish the story. As writers, we have to constantly be asking ourselves Why questions. Why would a character do that? Why does it matter? Why would a reader care? If we can’t give ourselves satisfactory answers, we won’t satisfy the reader either.

    • Rachel Hauck on July 2, 2011 at 10:42 AM

      Olivia, you’re right, what I laid out was pretty basic. Because writing “rules” ARE basic. It’s the guidelines that get specific and daunting.

      This post was inspired by an email dialog with other writers. One felt so frustrated by the rules but she was really frustrated by the guidelines. Those little rules or “should do” that other writers come up with and somehow imply we should all write that way.

      Like No Speaker Tags.
      Never use the word Suddenly
      No italics.

      It gets intimidating.

      I wanted to show rules are a bit broader and fewer. 🙂

      And, you are 100%, the WHY? question is critical. I use that all the time.


  37. Charlie on July 2, 2011 at 12:46 AM

    My best writing is when I am nowhere near my computer. I start with corny sentence, summary sentence, three main points/scenes I want to make/develop, summary sentence, and corny sentence.

    That is also true when I write fiction. When I start writing, I do not know my characters, but as I write, they start coming into focus.

    I also write like a jigsaw puzzle. If I have the image of point/scene three of my three main points/ scenes in focus, I write that. Sometimes I end up rewriting it as points one and two come into focus and they differ from point/ scene three.

    I also treat each scene the same way I treat the story as a whole. More than once, I found my first main point/scene filled up 80,000 words. Scenes two and three had to be ditched.

    Also, as I write, when I look to fill in the scenes, I ask what my characters are doing. As I get to know them by what they are doing, I learn their motivation.

    The three main points, scenes give me the main incident, the climax and the exciting ending. The epiphany or general plot is my summary statement that I constantly refer to in my writing.

    • Rachel Hauck on July 2, 2011 at 10:51 AM

      Charlie, I don’t think we really know our characters until we start to write. Maybe not until the first draft is done.

      But we can know as much as possible by doing some character work, asking the questions about their back ground and history.

      Figuring “what they want for the story” and then as we write we have that in mind.

      But you have to “talk to people” to know them.

      Good thoughts on your post!


  38. Crafty Mama on July 2, 2011 at 12:25 AM

    Writing rules give me a focus. If I just pick up a pen (or keyboard 😉 ) and start writing, my characters have no focus. They just do whatever they want until something interesting comes along. ;D

    I did enjoy Dining With Joy! It definitely had a solid structure to it. I hate when the plot of a book seems to mindlessly wander and doesn’t seem to find direction until the end.

    • Rachel Hauck on July 2, 2011 at 10:47 AM

      Thanks Crafty Mama! Dining with Joy was an interesting book to write. I couldn’t have done it without the rules. And a few guidelines. 🙂


  39. Beth K. Vogt on July 2, 2011 at 12:12 AM

    When Rachel Hauck talks (or blogs) I listen. When I came to the Dark Side, i.e. crossed over from writing non-fiction to writing fiction, I had a lot of rules to learn. And I learned most of them by hanging with the gang at My Book Therapy too, including Rachel and Susie May Warren. As a journalist,I was used to writing tight. I had to learn to relax and to let go of my “Just the facts, ma’am” mindset.

    • Rachel Hauck on July 2, 2011 at 10:46 AM

      You are a great writer, Beth, and a good friend.


    • Amy K. Sorrells on July 3, 2011 at 10:34 AM

      I love me some Rachel Hauck and Beth Vogt wisdom! I, too, am crossing over to the dark side and have a stack of 10+ books on writing fiction on my desk. I subscribe to a plethora of blogs on fiction writing. And I listen when fabulous fiction writers talk! Hopefully I’ll have something beautiful to show for it, in the end. So yes, for me, writing rules RULE!

      • Danyelle Ferguson on July 6, 2011 at 11:25 AM

        LOL! I didn’t know non-fiction was considered the Dark Side. But if it is, I guess I’m making the cross too! =)

        I absolutely love writing fiction and am definitely a fan of The Rules. You can’t get the complete fabulousness in a story if the author has not included all the necessary elements.

        BTW – This is my first visit to your blog. Author John Waverly wrote about your post with a link over here. So glad he did! Thanks!