When I started writing, my first novel, I didn’t know that there were rules – some call them guidelines – to writing fiction. I just wrote. My enthusiasm turned out to be a good thing, because it gave me a lot of material to work on and improve as I learned about the rules, and about developing craft.
My way is one way to do it. Others might prefer to learn the rules first. There is no one right, absolute, no room for debate, way to write. We’re all different – that’s the beauty of writing, and so it makes sense that there are different ways to approach sitting down and writing a story, be it a short story, novella or novel. It’s all good, but at some point, probably better sooner than later, a writer needs to know the basic rules of writing. So, what are these Rules. Most introductory fiction writing courses pay homage to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, and, with good reason. They`re good rules and, they speak for themselves. Here they are:
1. Never open a book with 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”…he admonished 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 part that readers tend to skip.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
As we advance in developing ‘craft’ we (I) sometimes need to refresh myself on the basics, and for this reason I keep Elmore’s 10 rules handy. One of the most contentious rules is rule #3 – verbs of attribution “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Said, it is said, is an invisible word – readers don’t notice it as they read. It’s a hard rule not to break – or, be tempted not to break occasionally, and there are different points of view on that.
My view, is that Elmore is right. Here’s an example from my unpublished (still working on it ) novel ‘The Douglas Document – Betrayal’
In this scene, Elora is rushing to the university to see a professor on an urgent matter. She is speeding, and her thoughts are elsewhere.
“He turned his head and their eyes met just before the car lurched to a stop a meter away from him. He turned away and continued his slow gait across the street. How did I miss seeing him? Elora rolled down her window.
“I’m really sorry, sir. Are you all right?”
“Oh, I’m just dandy. The next person on the lodge waiting list was almost in luck.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Slow down and watch where the hell you’re going,” he said gruffly and shuffled on.
The first thing to notice about this example, is the absence of attribution. The dialogue only involves two people. We know who’s speaking and so the ‘he said, she said, is not necessary. In the last line, gruffly is not necessary. It can be inferred from his speech how he said it.
What do you think about attribution? I’d love to hear from you!
Next week: The Elements of Style.