The Rules Of Writing

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.”

― Elmore Leonard

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 Here’s an example from my unpublished (still working on it ) novel ‘The Douglas Document – Betrayal’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.




4 thoughts on “The Rules Of Writing

  1. Hi John, I tried commenting when viewing your blog but it refused to post it, probably because I wasn’t logged in (but I shouldn’t have to be?). Here’s my comments on your “Rules of Writing” via email:

    Great article! I am not a trained writer, nor did I previously know of Leonard’s 10 rules. Yet I think it’s safe to say that not every published author follows these rules as there are a multitude of examples that break them! And I’m glad that not all follow these rules to the letter. I speak now only as an experienced reader who has been occasionally frustrated when authors are ambiguous or misleading, sometimes in pursuit of these rules perhaps.

    The word “said”, used too often, is pretty boring. If used exclusively (avoiding words like “admonished”, “cried”, “whispered”, “shouted” etc.) then the target reading level goes down, and the enjoyment along with it. These verbs (and even associated adverbs) act as body language to the written dialogue; they give nuance and flavor to the conversation that isn’t always evident from the words alone (in spite of what the author may think). As a reader, I hate it when something is implied by the author and it is too subtle to pick up. Dimension is lost. I’m all for clear and explicit disclosure!

    The absence of attributions can keep short and simple conversations clean and uncluttered. But I have read examples where authors have carried this too far, and I’ve had to wade back through a couple of pages of unmarked dialogue when things stopped making sense, to count and see who actually said what. An author should never give the reader a reason to do that! If the conversation is long, throw in an attribution periodically so everyone knows they’re on track. And be very careful how longer “speeches” by one character are handled, especially if it needs to carry over to more than one paragraph. It’s an easy way for the reader to lose count.

    You can sometimes avoid the traditional attribution at the end of the sentence by carefully breaking the dialogue up with declarative statements that describe the reaction of the person listening. For example:

    [Bob and Henry are having an argument. Henry says something negative, then …] Bob sighed as he gave a mighty shrug. “Well, what did you really expect me to do about it?” [Hopefully the statement sandwiched between the dialogue makes it clear that Bob was the one asking this question, and that it was Henry who made the comment before that.]

    Of course, one could also insert a name or two into the dialogue occasionally, but not too often or it won’t seem natural.

    I love rule #10. If only we were so clairvoyant! One can compensate by getting lots of opinions and asking your editors and proof readers what they skipped over.

    And I like exclamation marks!!!!!

    I’m glad you’re enjoying your writing, John.

    • Hi Claudia. Your insightful comments about The Rules of Writing and attribution should now show up on my site. I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. Yes, the rules of writing are frequently broken – and that will be the subject of my next post. In subsequent posts, I’ll also post in more depth on attribution – the ‘he said – she said debate.
      “Stay tuned for my next post,” John said,enthusiastically,and in blatant disregard of Elmore Leonard’s Rule #3. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Sometimes, it just works!

  2. Hi John, interesting blog. I’m a reader, not a writer. When I read those rules, I thought, oh oh. Many of my favourite books begin with the weather and have paragraphs of describing settings and things. Those descriptions ground me, and teach me about my environment, be they land formations, trees, gardens or the styling of a dress by Worth. Your dialogue does carry itself without the word, said or any descriptive substitute.

    What I find most interesting is the look of your blog. Immediately (not suddenly,) I thought CAT or Euclid. It’s fun because it reminds me of their safety videos.

    Love your photography – it’s beautiful.

    • Hi Sarah. Thanks for your comments. “The Rules” are useful for writers learning the craft and help keep us from making basic errors – like using cliches, jargon, resorting to the overuse of adverbs and adjectives. For example;
      “Joe walked quickly down the street.” instead of finding the right verb: “Joe strode down the street.” Most of these rules/guidelines are ‘invisible’ in writing – especially the attribution verb “said.”
      Established writers, of course, can do what they want – it’s all about whether it works for the reader. Some writers – Wilbur Smith and Margaret Atwood – to use two very different style and genre writers – but both are very effective at writing descriptions. The bottom line is read what you like to read.
      Thanks for the compliment on my blog appearance and the photography.


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