I might have mentioned in this space a few dozen times that I am a self-taught writer. I learned by reading and observing and spilling gallons of ink–real and virtual–on projects that never went anywhere. I have also mentioned here my belief that in this business, there are no rules. There’s well-meaning advice, and lessons that have worked for other writers, but there are no inviolable rules.
One clue that there’s a charlatan in the house is the use of absolutes when teaching the craft to new writers. Words such as never, always, and must should ring a bell in your head that the advice-giver/teacher is one to be wary of.
One caveat: If the teacher is grading your work, and that grade impacts your academic future, then you absolutely live by the teacher’s rules and you compliment his or her brilliance for having so enriched your life. Academics are all about the grade, after all. If you learn something along the way, that’s good, too.
Any discussion of the rules of writing ultimately circles around to Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules For Good Writing.” Here’s a refresher:
- Never open a book with the weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify “said” . . . he said gravely.
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.
There is no denying Elmore Leonard’s talent or success as a writer, and these bits of advice have a lot going for them. Personally, I agree with 60% of his rules. The 40% I disagree with all begin with the forbidden word “never.”
I confess that I had not yet read Mr. Leonard’s rules when I wrote No Mercy, the first book in my long-running Jonathan Grave thriller series. Here’s how that book opens:
The fulness of the moon made it all more complicated. The intense silver glow cast shadows as defined as midday despite the thin veil of cloud cover. Dressed entirely in black, with only his eyes showing beneath his hood, Jonathan Grave moved like a shadow in the stillness.
Smart minds might disagree, but I like that opening. It sets the scene, and, frankly, weather is an important component of hostage rescue operations. I think the opening works, and I don’t believe mine is the only successful novel that begins with the weather. If there is a single exception, then “never” is the wrong word. It’s bad advice.
I never met Mr. Leonard, but I’m willing to wager that when he wrote his rules, he never expected them to be taken literally, but if you’ve ever taught a writing seminar, I think you’ll agree that many new writers take rules from such wildly successful authors as gospel. I think that’s a mistake.
I also sense, yet cannot prove, that one of the reasons that so many MFA graduates never publish anything is because they can’t get the professors’ rules out of their head, and as a result, they never discover their true voices as writers. But I digress.
The next “never” on Mr. Elmore’s list is actually the one that drove me to the keyboard this morning. To instruct writers never to use any dialogue tag other than “said” is just plain malpractice. There’s nothing wrong with whispered, hollered, yelled, bloviated, growled, parroted, or any number of dialogue attributions that might come to mind. To me, this advice is akin to saying that “walked” is the only descriptor for ambulation.
My critique group often chastises me for too many dialogue tags. While I respect their opinions, I reject the critique for the simple reason that a writer’s greatest sin is to confuse the reader. The fact is that dialogue tags become invisible to the reader, even as it keeps them dialed in to who’s saying what to whom.
I’ve learned that in addition to the reading audience for my books, I also need to write for the consumers of audio books, where the visual clues of paragraph breaks between characters’ dialogue are absent. Even though I’m blessed with Basil Sands as the voice of the Jonathan Grave books, there’s only so much real-time characterization that the narrator can do to differentiate between the talkers. Dialogue tags make that much easier for everyone.
The next one brings us to the ever-popular hatred of adverbs. I cannot and do not disagree in principle. That said JK Rowling never met an adverb she didn’t love, and her books did okay.
As for never using “suddenly” and “all hell broke loose,” well, I’ll grant Mr. Leonard the point.
I turn it over you, TKZ family. I will be on travel when this post lands on the page, so I’m afraid you’ll have to talk among yourselves. Enjoy!