Are Fiction Writing Rules Killing Your Stories?

A look at the origins of two famous rules of writing and why they might not be all they seem.

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There is a sense that if we truly come to know the rules of fiction writing, and apply them meticulously, then our work will become celebrated by readers, writers, agents, publishers and competition judges. To this end, Facebook forums are filled with questions about how to follow these rules, and people laying them down as law when writers deviate. The thing we forget is the context in which the rules were written, and who wrote them in the first place.

Here I look at two rules that have become immortalised by writing groups.

Write what you know

This pithy soundbite is pinned on Mark Twain and featured in a published interview with Fred Kaplan. This is strange because Twain died in 1910 and Kaplan was born in 1954. The explanation: it is a well-researched fictional interview with the answers Kaplan would’ve expected to receive from Twain.

Kaplan points us towards a short essay about an author who Twain viewed a poor writer, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences (available on the Project Gutenberg website). The immortal phrase is not featured there but it is recorded by The Mark Twain Journal that Twain ‘regularly repeated for the benefit of those who had entered any discussion well away from the start that the only thing of value anyone could do was to “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW,” and thus contribute to the sum of human knowledge’.

There are plentiful interpretations from professional authors about what this truly means. The tl;dr version is that the phrase should never be viewed too narrowly. What we know includes our experiences of longing, loving, hating, hurting, and so on, which can be transposed onto other fictional situations; it also includes research not simply life experience.

Show don’t tell

Anton Chekhov is taken to be the source of “show don’t tell”, in particular a letter to his brother on 10 May 1886. This is quoted but not easy to find a full translation of. In lieu of this letter, there are plenty of opinions on the writing of fiction shared with friends and family in his collected letters (avaible on the Project Gutenberg website once again). He also shares the limitations he finds in his own approach and his admiration of others, for example V. G. Korolenko, whose story, ‘Sokolinets’, he likens to a musical composition and thinks it to be the most remarkable novel to have been written at the time.

After Chekhov, Percy Lubbock’s book, The Craft of Fiction, is taken to be the earliest extrapolation of “show don’t tell” but nowhere does it mention the Russian author. Balzac, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, and so on, but not Chekhov.

Lubbock’s focus on showing is illustrated across numerous lines in his book, and here are a selection:

“If time is of the essence of the book, the lines and masses of the book must show it.”

“Let Emma and her plight … appear as a picture; let her be shown in the act of living her life, entangled as it is with her past and her present; that is how the final fact at the heart of Flaubert’s subject will be best displayed.”

“I speak of [Flaubert] “telling” the story, but of course he has no idea of doing that and no more; the art of fiction does not begin until the novelist thinks of his story as a matter to be shown, to be so exhibited that it will tell itself.”

The idea of showing becomes the drum he beats, a little too obsessively, especially in his rejoice of Henry James showing all inner thoughts through action rather than narrative. The underlying current is to spurn modernist writers who were contemporary to him. And promoting Lubbock’s show don’t tell could, in this light, be deemed a return to the nineteenth-century values, unbefitting of a twenty-first century writer, and an inhibitor of experimentation.

This is not to deny the utilty of this phrase. The time when I am most grateful of the guideline is when I fall into the trap of describing things as always (or typically) happening in a narrative. It serves as a reminder how important it is to provide an instance, an example, rather than a statement, and to place the action in front of the reader’s eyes not elsewhere.

Let the reader be involved, otherwise it is like showing someone pictures on your phone and talking about them while the person sitting opposite (the reader) cannot see the subject of the discussion only hear about it.


It is very easy to say, “show don’t tell” or “write what you know” when advising aspiring novelists. But if we’re not clear about the sources of these instructions or their meaning, then we are sharing an ambiguous and selective take on how writing should be written. To repeat them without first reaching our own interpretations of their worth and meaning can be damaging to our work, in opposition to our hope they will elevate it.

Every writer will seek to promote and argue for approaches which they engage in, or are engaged in by writers who they admire. There are no objective rules of fiction writing. This means it is down to you to uncover your own truths and decide whose opinions you will follow, and where you must independently form your own.

Now it’s your turn to go away and research those rules and guidelines taught to you, which you’ve begun to follow religiously with every pen stroke (or tap of the keyboard), and to uncover whether they are taking you in the direction you wish to go, or if they have their roots in an obstruction to literary development and mutation.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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