On Writing Rules We’d Rather Forget

Can it really be the first Wednesday of the month already? With each passing year, the time seems to fly by more swiftly. That may be good news, considering what the next four years may hold.

In any case, it’s IWSG time again! The Insecure Writers’ Support Group is a place where writers encourage each other, express their doubts, and offer help. According to their website, it’s “a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds.” They also offer oodles of resources for writers. Visit them here:


January 2017 Question: What writing rule do you wish you’d never heard?

I’m bolder than I was when younger, but I’m still quite conflict-averse. This is not a good trait in a writer. When creating a story, I resent the pressure to inject every scene with conflict. But all the craft books, all the writing teachers, all my critique partners remind me that I must. We’ve all heard the adage: “Put your protagonist up a tree, then throw rocks at her, then get her back down.”

Whether on the page or on the screen, a narrative with too much constant conflict tires me out. All that strife can feel phony, contrived. Must I really throw that many rocks? And then drop my protag over a cliff and leave her clutching at slippery tree roots by her fingernails?

Why can’t I intersperse high-conflict scenes with cozy, funny scenes in which nothing goes wrong for my poor protag? I know I’ve enjoyed books in which there were plenty of low-conflict scenes. Alas, I wasn’t yet writing “for reals” and didn’t take notes on those writers’ technique and structure.

OK, here’s one: J.A. Jance is one of my favorite mystery writers. Her stories include many low-key scenes in which the protag interacts with friends and family. These scenes provide backstory, comic relief, or just a breather. Of course, Jance’s stories never lack for adequate conflict—we’re trying to solve a murder, for goodness’ sake.

I get it—my job as a writer I to show a big change in my character. But I enjoy just spending with my protag, getting to know the colorful characters she meets. I’ve created a fictional town for her which incorporates aspects of my favorite places. Most of us don’t live in coastal artists’ colonies like my protag does—most of us live in overcrowded cities or boring suburbs or out in the country where nothing much happens. Do I really have to chase poor Lola down the streets of this lovely town, threatening her with the loss of all she holds dear?

I know, for a story to sell, the stakes must be high. But I wish that weren’t so; I wish readers, editors, publishers had a little more patience, were more inclined to stop and smell the coastal breeze as it wafts over my protag and her wise, funny friends.

12 thoughts on “On Writing Rules We’d Rather Forget

  1. patgarcia

    Happy New Year!

    I love your article. I like hanging out with my protagonists also but I put in life struggles that they have to overcome. Maybe putting in a struggle of overcoming something like a coastal storm would increase the tension.
    All the for best for 2017.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat Garcia

  2. chemistken

    You do need to have more relaxed parts of the books, even in thrillers. Not only is it good for your protagonist, but for your readers as well. They need a break every now and then.

  3. Olga Godim

    I feel the same way, exactly the same. I know conflict is necessary, but constant struggle is not necessarily good for a book either. The characters need a breather now and again. They need quiet times against tumultuous times. That’s how I build my stories anyway. And as a reader, that’s how I like the stories too. I don’t like a book if it is nothing but conflict in every scene. I don’t read those.
    Great post!

  4. Cynthia

    I agree that fictional characters deserve a break every now and then. Sometimes scenes entailing a main character having a break can still do its part to set up future conflicts in the story. Maybe the main character is enjoying a pedicure at the spa and then overhears a conversation in the next room about plans to commit a crime…Sometimes conflicts don’t have to be physical conflicts but they can be internal ones- maybe the main character can simply struggle with a moral issue or a tough choice.

  5. mirymom

    When I first joined my critique group, that’s the very first thing they told me about my writing: “you’re too nice to your characters.” I guess I’ve gotten over that now . . .sometimes I feel downright sadistic with what I inflict on my imaginary friends. @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

  6. Stephanie Faris

    I’m with you on the next four years passing quickly. VERY quickly!!! I definitely think too much conflict is overwhelming. I don’t like to read books where it’s all bad things happening to the main characters. It just feels like torture!


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