A Broken Reflection

There are several “rules” for writing that seem to come out of the woodwork when you’re a novice novelist. Mistakes that we’ve all made time and again, only to realize later that we were totally living a cliche.

Some of these rules are obvious—For the love of God, never start a novel with your main character waking up!—others, not so much.

And how they come to be learned by said writer varies greatly as well. They might come to light in an MFA class, a Q&A with a writer you love, or even in a series of tweets or blog post from a literary agent or editor.

In any case, no matter how it’s learned, there’s one rule that is right up there with the “waking up” start in the no-no department: the protagonist chancing across a mirror and describing his or her own reflection.

It’s tempting. Oh, so tempting, to describe a lead character this way. Especially in a first-person novel.

And it’s been done in printed work—sure it has—or, like the wake-up call intro, it wouldn’t be so tired. So cliche.

But, at some point, we all learn never to do this. Ever.

What’s the biggest literary “rule” you’ve broken—and how did you fix it (if at all)?

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10 thoughts on “A Broken Reflection”

  1. Flashbacks. I love writing them–they tend to unlock a different kind of “flow” than happens elsewhere. I know they stop the forward action in a mystery, though.

    It’s interesting that, in print, that’s a rule. Because so many television mysteries use flashback as a matter of course. And HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER is pretty much all flashback so far. Just sayin’.

    Great post, Sarah! What’s yours?

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  2. I’m not sure I can target one rule – I think I’ve broken them all at some point! Good critique partners help weed them out, but I always seem to replace the “rule” in question with something else.

    Cynthia, I don’t think flashbacks are taboo – sometimes you need it. The trick to me is to make the flashback as compelling and tense as the real-time action.

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  3. Sarah, Great post. I broke the waking up rule because my character got a middle-of-the-night phone call that blasted him from a dead sleep and propelled him into a crisis. Is that OK or am I doomed to be an amateur all my life? 🙂

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  4. Sarah, I love it! Some rules make sense. Some rules only seem to apply if the writer doesn’t quite have the skill to pull something off! Many of my favorite writers breaks lots of rules, but they do it so well, it doesn’t matter. I think the majority of writing rules apply best to new/inexperienced writers. Which, if I think about it, is true of most things–skiing, driving, cooking, etc. Theresa, I think you might be okay! 😉 Me, I’m still in the “following the rules” stage…for now.

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  5. Wow, tough question! For every “rule” you can find examples of how they’re broken, and done well by much more experienced writers.

    Personally, I love setting descriptions, even though we’re not supposed to overdo them. I try to get around this by walking my characters through a setting, making sure that it’s the character who observes things that matter to her.

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  6. Sue, it’s funny you mention that. In a recent ms, I went light on the setting descriptions, for that very reason. The editor, who is very experienced and has worked with some big names, told me, “Not enough setting description. I need to see it. More details!” So who knows, right?

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  7. I’d say if there’s a rule I break it’s that I sometimes can tiptoe the line of an “info dump” in some scenes. Though I’ve never officially been called out on it by my agent or an editor, it’s something I have to watch. Old news writing habits (where an infodump is a good thing!) are hard to break!

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  8. Great post, Sarah. The one rule that I most often break is “write what you know.” That’s a journal.Write what you want to explore is more to the point for me. Your caveat about not having your character describe his or her own reflection reminded me of the start of the Patty Duke show and the doorway double image that was in the opening theme.

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  9. Oh dear. Samantha has a look-in-the-mirror-rude-awakening moment in SOME LIKE IT HAUTE. But then she chops off her hair! And really, wouldn’t you be looking in a mirror in that window of time between getting out of the shower and chopping off your own hair? I stand by my decision 🙂

    Rules…yeah. There’s the no backstory before page 50 rule. That one gives me trouble. And the Intro One Character Per Chapter rule. And the No Flashback rule. I’m finally embracing the Dead Body In First Three Chapters rule…

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  10. Hahaha, Diane, that doesn’t count! That’s different than starting a book with a double cliche: the character waking up and THEN looking in the mirror/describing his/her features.

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