More discussion on The Rules of Writing

In my previous post (see The Rules of Writing) I shared Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing . There are actually eleven. The last rule is not numbered. Leonard  states: “My most important rule is the one that sums up the ten. If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.

The post got  strong reaction from Claudia, an avid reader, who disagreed with strict adherence to using verbs other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.

The point that I was trying to make is that Leonard’s rules are useful to new writers and, writers like myself who are working on developing their craft. I’ve found that these rules help me avoid common pitfalls and helps to establish good writing discipline.

For example, when learning to write dialogue, it’s very easy to get into the pattern of using adverbs to modify the verb ‘said’ eg. said angrily; said kindly; said emphatically.  What this tends to do is to give the writer an easy way out, rather than writing strong dialogue. eg.

“I never want to see your lying face again,” Mary said angrily, as opposed to:

Mary’s face was crimson, and she spat out the words through clenched teeth, “I never want to see your lying face again,” Mary said.

So, by keeping that rule in mind, I’ve developed a habit where I seldom need to use an adverb modifier for ‘said’, and I think my dialogue is better for it, but what do widely read authors do? I turned to pages at random in Ian Rankin’s most recent crime fiction novel ‘Exit Music’. It was very interesting. Rankin uses ‘said’ very sparingly.

p. 8. “Never seen him before,” Rebus admitted; “He’s not going to get any odds from me,” Rebus told her; P. 9: “I take it you’re the poet,” Rebus guessed. p. 300. “Fraternizing with the enemy?” Clark offered. P 314. “Course you do,” he said, answering his own question. P. 315. “Little present from your pal?” Rebus guessed.

On the relatively few occasions where Rankin uses ‘he/she said, I couldn’t find any examples of Rankin using an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ . Rankin seems to follow the rule.

I sampled another current and different genre book, The Silent Wife, by A.S.A Harrison. The author uses ‘said’ or ‘says’ to carry dialogue, but I didn’t come across any instances where she uses an adverb to modify it. PD James, the Queen of Crime Fiction in the sixties, doesn’t use adverb modifiers, either.

The clearest voice on the subject is in Steven King On Writing: A Memoir of the Cult. King is very clear in his distain for adverbs. He says of them: “I believe that the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. He goes on to state: “I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution in only the rarest and most special of occasions … and not even then, if you can avoid it.”

I certainly agree with Claudia that it is annoying when a writer doesn’t make it clear who is speaking. The reader should never have to go back to figure that out.

Exclamation marks can become another crutch to support weak dialogue. eg

Mary was overjoyed! Instead, how about something like,

“Mary broke into a wide smile, her eyes glistened with excitement, as she looked  to the heavens, thrust her hands in the air and burst into song.

Discussions about breaking rules often comes up in writing classes, and there are generally two responses (1) You have to know the rules before you can break them, and (2) You can break the rules, if it works in your writing. Whether it works or not, is of course, judged by readers.

There are two of Leonard’s ‘rules’ that receive a lot of discussion. These are: Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, and don’t go into great detail describing places and things (unless you’re Margaret Atwood). 

Those rules will be the subjects of the next post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this an any other posts.

John

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