Down With Rules!

Who needs them anyway? Not Jamie Denton, Holly Jacobs, or Susan Gable who gave the Toronto Romance Writers (TRW) the most hilarious workshop I’ve ever attended.

To begin the session, the membership was polled for rules they’d heard from various sources; mostly contest feedback, but a few from agents and editors as well.

These rules as well as more provided by Jamie, Holly, and Susan could be lumped into several broad categories. I’ve taken a shot at myth-busting by adding my own commentary to that of the Rule Divas.

Career Choice

No artists, musicians, writers, sports figures, or Hollywood types.

This rule could be based in how difficult it is to portray these ‘glamorous’ professions realistically. It takes months, not weeks, for a book to go from completed manuscript to published work. Creating a work of art is a lot more than throwing paint at a canvas. Authenticity is the key to breaking this rule. Do your research. Interview an artist or sports figure about the hard work of her life. Show your readers the truth behind the glitz and glamour.


No World War II stories

Reading any book is a personal, private experience. Romance books are aimed directly at the reader’s emotions, some of which can be very raw even after decades have passed.

My mother-in-law was a displaced person during World War II. My father-in-law was forced into labour in a concentration camp. Neither of them were soldiers. How many other instances can you think of among your own family, friends, and acquaintances? The agony of a world in pain may be too close for too many people. If you use this time period, treat the pain with respect and sympathy, and your story will be easier to bear for some folk. Others simply won’t see past that time of horror. However, don’t let the long list of rejections you’ll likely get stop you from pursuing your story. If it’s good, it will sell.

No Canadian settings, eh?

Visit the Set in Canada page of to bust this myth wide open.

When you go Canadian, have ready another pitch to sell your setting to counter any scepticism. Did you know that the motto for Toronto, the cosmopolitan city of neighbourhoods on the north shore of beautiful Lake Ontario is ‘You belong right here with me’? Can any other city claim a motto made for romance?

No exotic locales

One writer’s exotic location is another writer’s hometown. Connect with a writer from your exotic location, read travel guides, browse the Internet, or visit the location if you can. Get your details right – no Eiffel Tower in Trafalgar Square. Add just enough detail to place the reader in your chosen location without turning your story into a travelogue.


No prologues, epilogues, or flashbacks

Prologues, epilogues, and flashbacks all have specific purposes. If they’re used as intended this rule has no merit. For example, if a defining event in a character’s past has significant impact on your story, then a prologue is correctly used. If the past was three days ago, then your story should open in Chapter One.

Epilogues happen months, or even years, after the close of the final chapter giving a peek into the future of the hero and heroine. A sequel featuring a secondary character in the starring role introduced in an epilogue is a great way to sell your next book.

Flashbacks need a clear introduction, e.g. ‘Eight-year old Clare ran crying to her mother with a scraped knee.’ If a reader has to stop and decipher the time frame, you’ve lost her.

Only one point of view per scene

If your point-of-view switches are clearly executed, most readers won’t even notice, they’ll just love the way all your characters have a say in the action.

Head-hopping, or jumping in a sentence or two from one point-of-view to another, is best left to scenes where it is absolutely critical to know the internal thoughts of multiple characters within a very short span of time. However, clever showing of emotional response can usually replace reckless head-hopping.

No backstory in the first chapter

Backstory dumps, or information overload, anywhere in the book will slow the pace. Feed the reader the information when they need it. Save the big secret for the spot where it has maximum punch. Hint at the mystery before that knockout punch to screw the tension to the sticking point.

Show don’t tell

Telling is best reserved for very short passages, a line or two, where it serves the story to expedite delivery of information to the reader or another character. I’ve seen it used most effectively for setting details or backstory.

Internal dialogue is a no-no

A pox on the person who started this rule! Where would third person deep point-of-view be without internal dialogue?

As with most of these rules, it’s use vs abuse that’s gets under a reader’s skin. If a writer crutches on internal dialogue to the exclusion of narrative and dialogue, then I can see the complaint.

Page after page of internal dialogue interrupts the story line, kills the pace, and bores the reader, especially this reader. Sprinkle it throughout the book as response to dialogue and narrative to reduce intrusiveness. Consider converting a sitting’n’thinking scene to a doing’n’thinking scene. The character does something like driving or dressing that’s related to the story while they’re doing their thinking. The most interesting combination of action and introspection I read was the heroine masturbating while debating the merits of the hero! Is there a rule against that?

No dialogue or humour in the synopsis

As a contest judge, I’ve enforced the no dialogue rule. It made sense to me as it was distracting and was more detail than a synopsis needs. However, if you have a line of dialogue that’s very significant, turn it into a tagline and sneak your dialogue into the synopsis that way.

Humour is hard enough in the manuscript. If you can squeeze humour into a 750 word version of your story, kudos go to you. Humour is an author’s style of voice. In contrast, a romantic suspense needs a synopsis that shows the suspense plot tightly woven with the romance plot.

Format must be perfect, so measure the margins

I can see this rule as appropriate for contests so that all entries to have the same amount of story to be judged. Though measuring isn’t necessary – that’s easily handled by the page settings.

Sex, Hookers, and Dead People

The hero and heroine must meet within X pages. They can’t have sex until chapter X, but must have loads of sex by page Y. The sex must be the absolute best that either partner has ever experienced, but, it can’t be kinky sex.

Adultery is another forbidden concept. There must be a marriage proposal in the Happily Ever After. The hero and heroine can’t be rebound lovers for each other. There must only be one true love per lifetime for the hero and heroine. The hero and heroine must be wrong for each other.

The heroine can’t be a player, a hooker or a slut. She must kick ass but still have weakness that requires her to be saved by the hero. The heroine must be gorgeous yet completely unaware of it.

Only one strong male, who must be alpha, is permitted in one novel. The hero must not have carnal knowledge of another woman after he’s met the heroine.

No domestic terrorists or funerals. No dead babies, puppies, or kittens.

One bit of advice was given over and over again at the workshop. ‘It’s all in the execution!’ All of these rules can be bent or broken in one way or another with enough creativity and ingenuity. If an event is critical but an editor doesn’t like it, can it happen in the background or before the story begins? Can the event be referred to in dialogue without actually being shown? Is the impact evident in the character’s motivation? Is the scene written so beautifully, and so integral to the story, the editor just might think twice?

Unbreakable Rules

Some rules are meant to be followed–those listed in the publisher’s guidelines. If they say “No sex”, they mean it. If suspense is a necessary element, give it to them. Do your research, network at conferences and online to gain an in-depth understanding of the requirements of your target publisher. Then get really creative and break the rules within the guidelines.

Calling all Judges

There are many published books where the author has thumbed her nose at one or more of these rules.

The next time you’re judging for a contest and you’re about to mark down an entry for breaking the so-called Rules, stop and ask yourself one question.

‘Is the story better for those bent or broken rules?’ If you answered “Yes”, then chuck those stinking rules in the garbage!

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More articles by Joan Leacott can be found at Articles for Writers.

© Joan Leacott 2011, 
previously published in romANTICS, 
newsletter of the Toronto Romance Writers