I thought it would be fun to compile a list of lists of rules for writing fiction. We can, of course, start with Elmore Leonard’s famous list. Many people disagree with some of his rules, but it won’t hurt to read them carefully and make up your own mind. What do you like as a reader? Maybe some of the things he’s against, you like to see when you’re reading. Nothing wrong, in my opinion, in breaking some of his rules, or any others in the rest of the lists below. In case you’ve never seen Mr. Leonard’s, here’s a link.

Of course, Mr. Hemingway had a set of rules. See all seven here:

Here are six from George Orwell, compiled using one of his essays on writing:

And then there is the famous Lester Dent  formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. This is not a list, but no list(!) would be complete without looking at Mr. Dent’s formula. If you spread it out, it will work for any story, short or long:

Final rule from Jan Christensen:

Trust yourself. Yes, learn the craft, read and ponder the rules. Read a lot of fiction. After you do that, you can  trust yourself to know what works for you and your work.

 Good luck!


  1. Jan, thanks for this interesting collection. I keep re-reading my worn Elmore Leonard paperbacks because there are writing lessons on every page.

    • Anita, thanks for coming by and commenting. I read a Leonard novel many years ago, and I don’t remember if I didn’t like it that well, or I just got distracted by other books to read, but I haven’t read another one. I think I probably should grab one out of the library to see if he follows his own rules.

  2. Thank you, Jan! I’m going to share this great list of lists with other writer friends. I already knew Elmore Leonard’s (heard him enlarge on them aloud once), and I love Margaret Atwood’s, but a little to my surprise, the ones that resonate are Hemingway’s.

  3. This is a terrific set of references. I love Margaret Atwood’s piece partly because it captures that sense of lostness I often feel when I’m writing. It’s interesting to me who is serious and who is apparently less so. Hemingway seems so serious but smart, as always.

  4. Jan, great stuff. The artistic process is a fascinating study, from the instructive and practical to the imaginative and magical. To a great degree, the process of creating art is all about controlling the work, which can also include relinquishing control. These “rules” are at the heart of the writer’s art, what she keeps on and off the page. This post is at once an education and a motivation. I thank you for it.

  5. I loved this, Jan. Some of these rules I had not seen before. I think all writers should learn the “rules” of writing and then learn when and how to bend or break them if it’s best for the story.

    • Hi, there, Earl. Totally agree with you–all writers should get as much advice as they can and learn the “rules” the biggies take the time to put out there. Then decide what will work best for THEIR story. Thanks for commenting.

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