Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Know the Rules

This is not a blog about writing, however, it is a place for ranting.  Many of the bloggers that I follow also write stories, some even write books, but over and over I see the same mistakes and it's driving me nuts.  If you've been following me for long enough you might remember the series of posts I did about poets last year, I'm just as hard on fiction writers as I am on poets.  What bugs me is how few of these writers really focus on learning their craft before putting it out for the world to see.

I'm not talking about a missed comma here and there, I never pay much attention to them and as long as it isn't frequent it's forgivable, I'm talking about the style rules.  If I see a book blurb, a first page, or the beginning of a post that violates these rules I don't even bother reading further.  Nope, it's not worth it, the rest of the story/poem/book is probably just as bad.

But as I was glaring at my reader feed the other day I realized that's it's not fair to be so harsh on these writers who might not know any better.  At the very least, I should put out the rules before I go back to dismissing these writers.

Now, I've read a lot of books about the craft of writing, I've taken a lot of classes, and I've been in a lot of writing groups.  While I am not an expert, by any means, I've picked up a few things.  Over the years I've read a lot of "rules" about successful fiction writing, but the most concise, effective list comes from an interesting place, Elmore Leonard.  While he's a best selling author many times over I'm not a fan of Elmore Leonard.  I've read some of his stories but much of his work is westerns, which never appealed to me.  However, over the years his list has become more and more relevant to me and many other writers.  In addition, most of the other craft books support the list (they're just far less concise), including Stephen King's "On Writing", which is a must read for any writer.

Elmore Leonard's 10 rules for good writing:
  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.
The basic concept behind these rules is to write simple, clear, strong, understandable fiction.  While 3 and 4 are the most important to me, my biggest pet peeves, I'm going to go over each in further detail.

1. Never open a book with weather.  This is pretty straight forward, the reader needs some connection to the characters and the action first, and unless the weather is somehow relevant to the scene it doesn't need to be mentioned at all.  While "It was a dark and stormy night..." sounds like a good opening, it would be stronger to show the character first and then describe the weather only if it's important.  "Mark stood at the window staring out, despondent, as the lightning flashed through the darkness outside."  While that's not a great example, hopefully you see what I mean.

2. Avoid prologues.  Prologues have a bad rap with a lot of writers because they can be a lazy way of dumping information that could be integrated later in the story.  Often times it's back story, history, or world building that would be better, stronger, if it was woven into the story more naturally.  Besides, half the readers are going to skip the prologue anyway.

3.  Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.  This is a biggie for me.  The reader should flow through the story without getting pulled out, "said" is like an invisible word that doesn't interrupt the flow.  Writing something like he growled, he yelled, or she whimpered are not invisible, our brain takes notice that we are reading, it interrupts the flow.  If that's not enough to convince you, it's also lazy and weak to use something other than said.  He's angry, he yells.  No, show the reader that he's angry, don't tell them that he yelled.  Example:


"This is all your fault," he yelled.

or

He raised his voice, his whole body quivering with rage.  "This is all your fault."

You see what I mean?  "Yelled" might seem like a strong word but it's actually weak and easy compared to describing the action.  This is important because it bleeds right into number 4...

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said".  Most of the reasoning behind this is the same as for #3, it takes the reader out of the story and it's lazy and weak.  Almost every craft book I've read has a rule against adverbs in general, King's being my favorite.  Avoid using adverbs as much as possible, they are shortcuts that undermine the strength of the writing, especially when it modifies "said".

"This is all your fault," he said angrily.  (Gah, it bothers me to write that even for the example.)

or

He stalked back and forth across the room, his muscles flexing beneath his shirt as though looking for the flimsiest reason to hit something.  Every time he glared at her she had to suppress the urge to flinch. 
His words were like the low growl of an angry predator.  "This is all your fault."

Can you see why #3 and #4 are so important?  And why they would bother me so much when I see them in fiction?  When I'm posting I use adverbs all the time because it's quick and lazy, but in fiction writing I try to avoid them as much as possible.  (If you don't know what an adverb is- An adverb is a word that has "ly" on the end and modifies the verb (action word) in the sentence.  He said angrily.  Angrily would be the adverb modifying said.  She quickly ran.  Quickly is the adverb and modifies ran.)

5.  Keep your exclamation points under control.  In many ways the reasons behind this rule are similar to 3 and 4, it's telling the reader that someone is exclaiming instead of showing them.  Also, anything becomes weaker when it's overused, if every other sentence has an exclamation point then lose any meaning.

6.  Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose".  Suddenly, being an adverb, is already of questionable value, and both are so overused as to be meaningless.  Show the reader what's happening, don't tell them.  Don't write that "suddenly" something popped out of the darkness, just show something come out of the darkness.  If "all hell broke loose" show the reader the chairs flying and the bottles breaking.

7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.  Anyone writing a dialect is walking a thin line between offensive and being misunderstood.  It's tempting to slip in something like "Oi, e's a right blimey ain't e" if you were trying to really emphasize a character's speech patterns, but half the readers aren't going to understand it and the other half just might be offended.  Avoid it if at all possible.  Unless you're very talented or ballsy, just say that the speaker has a thick accent then write a normal conversation, the reader's head will fill in the accent.

8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.  Readers need just enough relevant information to picture the character, anything more and they'll skip it.  Don't worry about having a few little gaps in the description, the reader's mind will fill them in.  Only describe what's necessary to move the story.  More on this after #10.

9.  Don't go into great detail describing places and things.  Readers need just enough relevant information to picture the place or thing, anything more and they'll skip it.  More on this after #10.

10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.  What do readers skip?  Overly detailed descriptions and irrelevant information.  Does this sentence/paragraph/chapter move the story forward or is it prose for prose's sake?  If it doesn't move the story cut it.

The bottom line for most of these rules is to write clear, concise, strong fiction, leave out anything unnecessary and weak.  The story will be much better and will have a smoother flow from start to finish.

As with all rules there are exceptions, just about every writer out there is going to break one from time to time, but I think it's important for us to know the rules and only break them consciously when absolutely necessary.  And most of the time there is a better way to write it if we look hard enough.

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