Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Deconstructing the Elmore Leonard Rules, part one

Elmore Leonard died today, on what would have been HP Lovecraft's  123rd birthday.
He was a very successful writer and famously laid down a set of ten rules for 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.
4] Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
5] Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
6] Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
7] Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
8] Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
9] Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

"My most important rule is one that sums up the 10:"

10] If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

I think they are useful guidelines, especially if you want to write like Elmore Leonard.
But the thing is, they are only guidelines. After all, there are two rule 4s in there.

Today, we'll be talking about the first of them.

1] Never open a book with the weather.

Nobody wants a weather report.
"It was a dark and stormy night." is arguably the most famous weather line in all writing.

or you get the extended forecast:
  My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt - sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka. 
  In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old. 

She lost me at rolling down the windows on the airport.  And the temperature says April or October, because Phoenix is a lot hotter than that between May and Sept.

On the other hand, George Orwell did it beautifully:
"It was a cold bright day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen."

My position, unless the weather is vitally necessary to the story, do not start in with it.
Even Ray Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day" where the Venusian rain is practically a character in its own right, doesn't start with the rain.

Also, when talking about weather, please don't tell us things we already know. "The rain fell wetly, saturating the ground." We know rain is wet. We know night is dark and the sun is hot. Telling your readers these things annoys them and makes them think that you think they're stupid.

2] Avoid Prologues.

I can't argue much with this. Most of the time, a prologue is something that should have gone into the body of the story as a flashback or a narrative within the story. It can often be safely skipped without losing the story. If you need the reader to have that information, it's better to either make it the first chapter and put a time stamp on it or include it at the proper point in the story.

3] Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4] Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.

These two go hand in hand. So many people, doubtlessly prodded by English teachers, have a Fear of Said. So they use things like "Enunciated", "quipped" or "thin-smiled." Said is a perfectly good dialogue tag. But it is not and should not be your only one. If your characters are in a library, they can whisper. If one is snake-like, he should hiss (but only if there are sibilants in the word!).

Before you use a dialogue tag, make sure you know what it means and that is is the right one.

This can also apply to creating action to avoid tags. That's using a verb to carry dialogue, since only part of communication is spoken.

And watch your adverbs. You end up with Tom Swifties if you use them in dialogue.
"Here's your allowance for the next two weeks," Tom advanced.
"You have the right to remain silent," said Tom arrestingly.

Just don't. Use adverbs sparingly.

4] Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 

I agree with this, at least until the period. I don't like set number limits. There are times when people shout. Exclamation points probably should not appear in narration. You aren't shocked and they are the equivalent of shouting at your readers.

They should be rationed in dialogue. Unless you have characters who simply gush! And use italics and exclamation points at every turn. Because ZOMG, reasons! But those should be limited to very specific types of character. And those types quickly become annoying. The best use I've seen has been Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson.

Also, exclamation points are solitary creatures. They don't like sharing a page, let alone the same sentence with others of their kind. And they don't herd with question marks.

Excuse please, the galley is calling.
To be continued

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