Elmore Leonard had ten rules for writing.
1) Never open a book with the weather.
2) Avoid prologues.
3) Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4) Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
5) Keep your exclamation points under control!
6) Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7) Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8) Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9) Same for places and things.
10) Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.
They’re fine rules. Fine. *FOR HIM*.
I have my own rule, a simple one:
DON’T EVER OBEY ANY RULE THAT STARTS WITH “ALWAYS” OR “NEVER”.
Including this one, of course.
The strengths of every writer are different and should be allowed to shine. The weaknesses of every writer are different, and should be addressed. Telling EVERY writer not to describe a setting or not to use weather to begin a book or to eschew prologues on pain of death is just basically silly. So I”ll qualify those rules.
Opening a book with weather is JUST FINE, so long as the weather actually has something to do with stuff.
If you start with “It was a fine summer day,” the rest of that sentence had better read “…when my cat was flattened by the sort of flying saucer we had learned to associate with the cool mornings of early fall.”
There are times that we actually remember the weather. I remember very well the weather when I was dumped by a guy who was breathlessly cruel and manipulative and who had led me on the sort of thin ice it was impossible to see until you were through it and into the dark icy water below. I remember the weather VIVIDLY because it was so utterly ludicrous that it was such a nice warm glorious day full of sunshine ON THE OUTSIDE while my heart was a block of black ice within. One could use the weather quite effectively in a story like that, couldn’t you? So there goes that rule.
Avoiding prologues is probably sound advice in certain genres. But other genres have trucked along quite happily with prologues. Of course, you have to understand what prologues are FOR, and more importantly what they are NOT for, but once you get that straight there is nothing wrong with one.
I have used a prologue a couple of times. Once was in the “Changer of Days” books, and that was to set up – in as small a nutshell as I could and as a preamble to the events of the story itself – the thing that pushed my snowball-of-a-tale down its narrative hill, an event which my main character and protagonist could not possibly have been at but which was pivotal to shaping her part in this story.
I needed that prologue. And it doesn’t do that book one iota of harm, sitting there. As with any rule, you have to know the reasons behind it – and once you are properly aware of what a prologue is supposed to accomplish please go ahead and write one. Especially if you don’t happen to write in the same genre that Mr. Leonard wrote in – you do NOT have to be constrained by the same laws that he was.
About those rules on “said.” Sometimes qualifying a particular “said” is perfectly fine; and sometimes it is absolutely necessary. What you don’t want to do is qualify EVERY “said”.
Tell you what, take, oh, ten pages of your MS and highlight every “-ly” word you find after a dialogue attribution. If your page begins to glow in the dark, you’ve got a problem. But if there is a yellow bit here and there, you’re. Just. Fine. As. You. Are.
Yes, of course things could be improved. They can ALWAYS be improved. If you wrote “said loudly” for instance, consider “shouted.”
And yes, sometimes using a verb other than “said” is also all right. Use the RIGHT verb to convey the RIGHT thing and you should be doing ok with this. If you find yourself straining to find a new way of attributing dialogue, you’re overdoing it, period.
And remember – sometimes, when you have two people talking to each other, it’s all right not to have attribution behind EVERY line of dialogue. For pete’s sake, trust your reader enough to realize that the two people in the conversation GENERALLY TAKE TURNS TO SPEAK. You can go a long way while not using ANY attribution at all.
You may have to practice this. It’s harder than it looks and you may have to hone your writing skills and use each character’s individual voice to convey who is speaking, rather than just hammering your reader with “Jack said”, “Jane responded”, “Jack said angrily” after every line.
Keeping exclamation points under control – that I actually agree with. They really are of limited use. If you find yourself fighting the urge to use them too frequently, do yourself and your reader a favor and go and lie down until the urge goes away.
“Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” ” – well, yeah. there’s that. I’d agree that you probably should avoid using “all hell broke loose”. But only because it’s such a gosh-darned CLICHE. And it might be okay to use it in a dialogue situation where such usage would identify the voice of a particular character perfectly. Just keep in mind that narrative and dialogue are two very different animals.
Using slang, dialect etc. sparingly is definitely a good idea – consider it to be like salt, a little leavens the dish but too much leaves it mouthshrivelling and inedible. I remember giving up on a book entirely once because one of the characters spoke with a Geordie (northern England) accent which I found so dense and incomprehensible as rendered on the page that I simply grew tired of straining to understand and surrendered. I put down the book. It was not worth the drama. Consider your reader. Please. And be kind.
Descriptions. Sure, don’t describe the character if you are the character – readers tend to see through ruses like said character staring into the mirror. And often the only reason you have to describe a character is if they are somehow different from most people surrounding them. In “Secrets of Jin Shei” I only really described two characters – one because she was the only one with red hair and pale skin and stood out like a beacon amongst the dark-haired, ivory-skinned people of her world. The other one was uncommonly fat, which was unusual enough in that society to merit comment. Everyone else… it was safe to leave to the reader’s inner eye. And better for it.
But place descriptions? Really? If you’re writing “Dune” you don’t get to describe Arrakis? How does that work?
“Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” There he was just being difficult. This reminds me of a phone call to tech support that I made after my husband stopped receiving email. I was lucky enough to get a raw novice who couldn’t for the life of him deviate from the script one iota, and who COULD NOT GET PAST THE IDEA that we weren’t using Microsoft Outlook for our mail client. In desperation, he finally blurted: “I’m going to need a list of the people you aren’t getting email from.”
I just blinked and said, “If I am not getting email from them how would I know?”
By the same token, er, if people are skipping bits, how would I know? And besides, different people are practically GUARANTEED to skip different bits, and if you left out all of them, you’re down a novel with six words half of which are “the” or “and”.
The writer owes the reader a decent story. That is not to say that the writer owes EVERY reader the story that THAT PARTICULAR READER might think is perfect, because that is patently impossible.
So the writer writes the best story that he or she knows how. And after it is done and out there in the world… well… one hopes that not too many readers will find too many bits of the thing skippable, but it’s utterly beyond your control and you just have to trust the story to find an audience. That is all you can do. That is all anyone can expect you to do.
And trust me, readers who start skipping your stories are sooner or later going to go out and find another writer whose work they find more sympatico – and there are A LOT OF WRITERS in the world, so it is almost certain that there is one more suited to their particular taste and sensibility than you might be. Leaving out bits of your story in the hope of enticing this kind of reader to stay with you is a ridiculous attempt at bribery and blackmail.
Trust your story and your reader to find one another on a level where both have something to give. But let the reader get there. Don’t do your reader’s rejecting for them.
A most basic rule of writing is simply, “There are no rules”.