Friday, January 20, 2012

Made to Be Broken

Rules, I'm talking about rules.

Some rules are good ideas until proven they aren't.
Specifically I'm going to talk about Elmore Leonard's rules and why they helped me and why I may be ready to move on from them.

1 Never open a book with weather. This is excellent advice stemming from the horrible, horrible line "It was a dark and stormy night". That's telling, not showing.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. I think a prologue can drop a reader into an interesting story like a bomb and grab that reader's interest. That said, if a prologue can be the first scene of your book, make it the first scene, right? I've written prologues and moved them into the story proper as a flashback.

3 Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. Using anything but 'said' is lazy writing. I work very hard to convey emotions through dialogue or actions and using any sort of modifier such as 'stated', 'questioned', 'moped' or anything that ends in -ly takes the reader out of the story. Everyone reads the dialogue in a book.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" ... he admonished gravely. See rule 3. Same things apply.

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. I grew up reading comic books and I've continued to read them into my 40s. Exclamation points are part and parcel of comics. This is fiction. People don't shout every sentence every time. Use proper punctuation to convey the meaning you would have maybe used a modifier adverb for.

6 Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". And that's all that needs to be said about that.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Great idea. Again, going back to comic books, a writer runs the risk of a character becoming a cliche-ridden parody. If that's what you're writing, go on ahead, but at the same time be aware that it may not be read the way you intended it to read and some readers (a minority to be sure) might be turned off by the patois if you don't do it correctly. Y'all unnerstan'?

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. I'm on the fence here. I think having some description is good when it's important to a story. For instance if people are pulling things out of pockets, it's probably a good idea to say the character is wearing something with pockets. In SF, especially, descriptive details are important. I would modify this rule to continue with But if you must, give only enough description for the reader to get a sense of the characters. It's enough to say that one is an alien with white skin and big black eyes like a bug. The writer needn't go on about the slimy green carapace unless it becomes essential to the story later on.

9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things. Same as rule eight, with the same caveat. In SF one must give the reader the sense of the world, but allow for the blanks to be filled in. This rule is great for writers of fiction set in modern times where shorthand notations can be used like "the canyons of Manhattan".

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. A corollary to rules 8 and 9, really. Big blocks of text are what cause eyes to glaze over unless you're especially good at painting masterfully with words.

These rules are GREAT for a beginning writer. They have helped me to learn how to tell stories.Like anything else that requires practice, one must be given parameters to work within and those parameters must be honored while learning one's craft. Rules, they say, are made to be broken. They also say that one cannot break the rules until they are known.

Follow the link up above to read Leonard's original article. Any rules you'd care to add?

Additionally, you might read Keith Cronin's article about Adverbs at Writer Unboxed.


Unknown said...

Oh god, I'm terrible about "suddenly," or it's horrid sibling, "All of a sudden."

This is a solid list; thanks for sharing! :D

Jason Arnett said...

I found this early on and then went and read a bunch of Elmore Leonard to see him put it to use. Staggering how much cleaner the writing is and just as exciting.