Like it or not, we all try to play by the rules. Whether it’s passing through customs in a foreign country or having relaxed conversation with friends, there are always rules. We’re brought up with rules, and we consider people who don’t know the rules badly behaved at best, psychopathic at worst. People who know the rules pass through life with least friction. People who like friction have to know the rules to break them artfully.
Writing is no different than other aspects of life. There must be rules, right? But if you look for them, you court frustration. Great writers often differ on what constitutes good writing. Perhaps the truest and most frustrating statement of writing rules comes from W. Somerset Maugham:
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
I draw three conclusions from this:
1. A scientist might say, “There’s no unifying theory, so look for smaller hypotheses.”
2. Maugham has a sense of humor.
3. Turn off the Word grammar checker. For reasons unknown, Word concludes that the ‘they’ in his rule is ungrammatical.
Looking around and through for help on writing in my niche of commercial literature, I ran into rules I think work pretty well from no less than Elmore Leonard (NYT, July 16, 2001). He says:
These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.
1. Never open a book with weather.
If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.
2. Avoid prologues. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.
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.”
This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
(Even) if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
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.
Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.
If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.