Have the Courage to Ignore Expert Advice

By John Gilstrap

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:

  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 “said” . . . he said gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. 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!



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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

29 thoughts on “Have the Courage to Ignore Expert Advice

  1. I agree that dialogue tags disappear, and their only function is to let the reader know which character is speaking. “One thing I honed-in on as a copyeditor was the use of verbs that do not indicate a form of utterance as dialogue tags,” he sentenced. I saw that one a lot. The one that literally caused me to sit straight up in my chair was, “Get down off that table!” she ejaculated.

    My own absolute rule is, “Never put anything on the page that is distracting to the reader.” Of course, it isn’t really an absolute, or at least not one the writer can always fufill. It’s impossible to know what will distract every reader. As for Leonard’s absolute about inserting adverbs in dialogue tags, I have to agree. There’s always a better way to write it.

    But the only rules I attempt to follow are Heinlein’s Business Habits for Writers.

    Safe journey.

  2. “Never open a book with the weather.” I LIKE weather as an element of a story. I get that you don’t want to go overboard with it.

    “Avoid prologues.” Eh well. I ignore that one on occasion. Or sometimes I draft a prologue then don’t use it in the final cut.

    “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.” “Never use an adverb to modify “said” . . . he said gravely.” Probably do this most of the time but not all.

    “Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” Not a problem.

    “Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” ” I understand about avoiding cliche. On the other hand, if someone reads “all hell broke loose” they know exactly what you are conveying.

    “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.” My favorite author Zane Grey used it heavily and that’s one of the reasons why I can remember dialogue from his books when I can’t remember anyone else’s. Granted, he was writing and publishing in the early 1900’s but he had voice. Guess the trick in this age is what this advice is about–finding that balance, especially now for attention deficit readers.

    “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.” – I’m all for leaving some of the character to the reader’s imagination, but I often feel when reading modern books that I don’t see enough description of the character–as though they were invisible. And because I’ve heard this advice so much, in my own writing I have to take care not to literally make my characters ‘the invisible man’ for lack of description.

    “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” Again, one of the reasons ZG is my favorite. He was a master at this, and as a kid growing up in a flat and featureless state, I was elated by his masterful use of detail to describe places and things. I WANTED to be carried away to another place. For me as a writer, I don’t go into great detail because it’s not my skill-set.

    “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” A continuous learning process. I know I have to balance what the ‘average reader’ wants vs. my own writing preferences, but if I bore myself by clinging fanatically to too many rules, it won’t be a good result for anybody.

    I appreciate all the guideposts of wisdom I’ve learned from Elmore, TKZ and elsewhere. It’s up to me to sift that advice and develop my own writer’s voice, and if I’ve done that well, and I keep readers’ attention, then it’s ok.

  3. Agreed, John. My debut opened with the weather.

    Even the weather betrayed me. Aqua-blue sky, not a cloud in sight. Niko and I sat in silence during the two-and-a-half hour trip north. Next week offered a new beginning, a chance to leave Boston and not look back. I lowered the back passenger window. A light breeze ruffled farmland acres and a full, round sun shined, burned, blazed as though this was an ordinary day.

  4. One rule I dislike is “never open with dialogue.” Allegedly, a reader isn’t anchored in a scene or somehow bonded with a character. However, ad a reader I can’t help but be drawn in as a curious person when a story opens with a bang (i.e., dialogue). As a writer, when I’m really stuck, nothing gets me going like opening with dialogue.

  5. Before writing novels, I wrote screenplays. Executives in the screenwriting world have many rules. Too many. My only rules are ➡1. Use what fits the story. 2. Stay true to your characters (ensure their actions reflect who they are) 3. Limit exposition. 4. Know how to structure a screenplay/novel and bend that rule by writing something unique. 5. And most importantly, don’t overuse anything.

  6. When it comes to rules (or, as I prefer, fundamentals), I agree with the fiction editor Alice K. Turner: “If you’re good enough, like Picasso, you can put noses and breasts wherever you like. But first you have to know where they belong.”

    I think Leonard’s weather “rule” has had the most negative effect in critique group settings. “Stop right there, Monica! You have afternoon heat in your first sentence! Never, ever open with the weather!”

    Ahem. Weather is a great way to establish tone…so long as you integrate it with the action of a character in motion (there’s a fundamental for you!) Brother Gilstrap’s opening does that by having Grave on the move in the first paragraph.

    • movies and TV shows know this. granted, it’s a different medium, but it’s not unusual to see an opening 10 seconds of a dark and stormy night. It does indeed set the mood.

  7. Spot-on advice, John. Much of my initial frustration writing fiction came from my slavish adherence to expert writing advice. So to make sure I didn’t disappoint readers who had an idea of what my characters looked like, I’d describe them early on — which disrupted the story. It took me a while to figure out when to disregard dogma and just tell the story.

  8. Here’s another use of “never” that I recommend to other writers:
    Never allow anything to remain on the page that might draw attention to itself. This includes but isn’t limited to “fine writing” that exists only for its own sake. The goal is to create invisible writing: readers are so absorbed by the story that they aren’t aware of words on the page.

  9. I’m with you, John. These are excellent guidelines for writing engaging fiction, except for #1. I opened my first published novel with mention of rain. Personally, I’m not a fan of prologues, but that’s my preference, not an immutable law of fiction writing 🙂

    The main thing to me is to engage and hold the reader’s interest as you take them on your novel’s ride, and leave them satisfied at the end.

  10. I always hated the “said” rule. My characters didn’t just talk in my head, they whispered, cried, yelled, etc. Honestly, if we adhere to the “said” and the “no adverbs” and the “no exclamation points” rule, dialogue sounds monotone.

    Saying that, it is always good to scan your work and eliminate a lot of adverbs and such, but you can’t eliminate them completely. As for description, the more you lavish on a description, the more important it has to be in the story. Several years back, I showed my WIP in a workshop, and I got lectured about wasting words on the description of a water fountain. I showed the same passage to my then eighth grade sister, and she said “Well, that’s important” and kept reading.

  11. I agree with others: guidelines are good, rules are bad.

    Having said that, here’s a rule I’d like to add: Never use the word “patois” in a list of rules. 🙂

    • My creative writing teacher told us “NO DIALECT!!!” The next thing I turned in to her was “Mountain Where Rain All-Time,” where half of the characters speak only pidgin. Her comment? “Outrageous!” Gave me an A.

  12. As for prologues, that’s very much a fantasy thing, and I would say that a lot of times they don’t work but not because they’re prologues. Lots of times, writers put in prologues that have nothing to do with the story. I once put down a book because I was so invested in the strong, clever character of the prologue, then was slammed into the head of a whiny teenager. But one of my recent favorites opens with a prologue from the protagonist was six and a traumatic event happened to her, and it sucked me in faster than anything else.

  13. Here are two rules to remember.

    Don’t use writing over 20 years old as examples or models of the way to do it. Narrative and genre requirements change, often drastically.

    Know what readers want in your genre. For example, romance readers want the visuals, the sensual, and the details. Mr. Leonard wouldn’t last one book in the romance genre. With the drastic narrative changes in mystery, he’d have some trouble there, too.

  14. On “suddenly.” It’s a viewpoint error.

    If you write the scene correctly, you don’t need “suddenly” or any other synonym or phrase. The reader is smart enough to know the fighters in a physical battle are moving fast so everything is “suddenly” unless we say otherwise.

    The trick is to get into the head of one of the characters and stay there. Let the reader see what the character sees and feel what the character feels.

    You don’t say,

    Suddenly, the other fighter pulled out his knife and jabbed at him.

    You say,

    Sam dodged the other man’s fist. The hand that should have been blocking his next blow moved downward toward the man’s knife sheath.

    A flash of steel.

    Throwing himself backward away from the other man’s knife, Sam slammed into the ground on his back.

    Or, if you are describing a battle of many men, you don’t say

    Suddenly, a line of cavalry surged over the top of the hill toward them.

    You say,

    On the hill just above the soldiers, the drumming of many horse hooves and the Rebel yell of hundreds of men warned them. The Yankees spun around as the Confederate cavalry charged toward them.

  15. For me, I always have trouble with this advice (paraphrased)

    “Use your voice … be yourself … sound like everybody else.”

    I’m sure you know the advice – never do, always say, don’t use adverbs. Right I should make sure my story sounds just like every other story.

    “Be creative, but do it just like everybody else does.”

    Pet peeve – sentence length – Spend time crafting a perfectly good sentence and then are told to cut it in 3rds because the short attention span reader can’t read more than 8 words at a time.

  16. Maybe our attention span is diminishing.

    We’re in a “Get to the point, dammit. Get on with the story!” world.

    The story’s the thing, and writers ignore it at their peril. Landscapes and alternate worlds and golden orbs and mysterious crystals floating around enchanted forests are nice and so are infodumps, as long as they serve the story.

    That’s got to come first, and Leonard’s guidelines form a good checklist.

    I’m working on a story in which the conservation work of Louis Bromfield (Malabar Farm) figures, so I did a deep dive.

    Bromfield was a contemporary of Gertrude Stein, Fitz and Hemingway in Paris, lost generation stuff, and he was a very popular novelist who made a ton of money from book sales and films, Pulitzer Prize and all, pals with Humphrey Bogart and other mesne Hollywood types. He sunk all his dough into rehabilitating 600 worn out acres of southern Ohio farmland and lost his shirt on it.

    Bromfield ignored the maxim of farmers everywhere, and that is, the way to make a small fortune in farming is to start with a large one. There’s an interesting book about Bromfield and Malabar Farm by Steven Heyman called “the Planter of Modern Life.” Well worth a look.

    In a way, what happened at Malabar Farm was an allegory for his literary career:

    Stick to what you know. Shoemaker, to your last.

    So I started reading one of his novels on google books-public domain, y’all- and it was boring stuff that went on and on and on three or four pages before you even figure out who the character is and what’s bugging them. It was one of those “drop it after three pages” jobs.

    I also read some reviews in the New Yorker Archives and as the thirties progressed, his literary gifts got stale and dated, although he continued to make scads of money in Hollywood.

    I hope I haven’t offended any Bromfield fams out there. If I have, Lord, I apologize.

    How will our works hold up seventy years from now?

  17. There’s only one ‘never rule’ in writing English fiction thsat’s held good for me so far — Never open a sentence with a comma. Everything else is negotiable.

  18. Late to the party, but 1/2 page to 1 page of prologue is good for:
    (1) material outside the book’s timeline of the book. (e.g., a murder 20 years before Chapter 1.)
    (2) meeting a major character we don’t see right away, maybe near the end of the book. (E.g., a narrator.)
    (3) setting tone, mood, theme or motif.
    (4) foreshadowing action without revealing it
    (5) establishing the greater setting (e.g., a description of WWII events not part of the story but surrounding it, to explain underlying motivations)
    (6) vital backstory that doesn’t fit anywhere else.
    (7) flashing forward to open in action.

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