Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Rules of Writing Fiction

Seems that lately I've been bringing one thing after another from GOB.
This time it's a reference to Elmore Leonard's ten rules of writing fiction. GOB doesn't say much about them it seems he agrees with the rules.

I read the rules in Elmore Leonard's site and while I tend to agree to one degree or another with most, I also know bestseller authors who break these rules regularly.

Of course Elmore Leonard does bring examples of authors who have "broken" these rules, and explains each rule in more details in his site so it is really worth to go and check out.

Elmore Leonard's ten rules:
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" . . .
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
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.

We are also all familiar with Heinlein's Five Rules which I will bring through Rob Sawyer's site because he adds a sixth:
Heinlein's Five:
1. You Must Write
2. Finish What Your Start
3. You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
4. You Must Put Your Story on the Market
5. You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold
Rob's Sixth:
6. Start Working on Something Else

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alexandra said...

Ah! Excellent rules. I'd forgotten Bob's and, have never read Leonard's, thanks. :-)

redchurch said...

I agree with most of Leonard's. I'd question #2 though... Obviously rambling prologues are bad, but it's all in how you do it. Some stories require them.

As much as I love to follow the advice of layering background information throughout the story, some things are just too big or important, or too central to the story to be left for later. So you've got to open the story with them.

As for Heinlein's, I'm fine with them except for #3. Refrain from rewriting? Yikes!

You see that principle in full effect if you read Stranger In A Strange Land. That book is pretty rough. 400+ pages of philosophical rambling. Don't get me wrong, it has quirk, charm, character... but I don't think it's an ideal example of fiction-writing. Not to mention the wooden female characters who seem mentally retarded just so that Heinlein can paint his author surrogate character Jubal as being the wisest person of any the characters.

Rewriting is important. Never accept a piece of your own work that you aren't satisfied with.

The tough part, of course, is having high standards absolutely has to go along with # 2 'Finish What You Start.'

Some may see them as a contradiction. I don't, I think they're just extremely difficult to balance.

redchurch said...

Oh, and Elmore's best is his summary for the entire 10:

"If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

I think you could easily ignore the 10 rules and just follow that religiously, you'd achieve the same effect.

Melly said...

You welcome Alexandra :)

Yeah, Sawyer also takes exception with Heinlein's rule #3. It is perhaps good for established writers.
As for Leonard's rules, I would rather they'd be less absolute as I've seen countless examples where authors don't follow these rules. Da Vinci Code, for example, starts with a prologue, many successfull romance authors do use verbs other than said, etc.

(On the other hand, LOTR starts with the longest prologe and as much as I love the book and read it at least 5 times, I've never read the prologue)

Carter said...

In writing, probably more than any other field, rules are made to be broken. Just think of all the other "rules" you've head: show, don't tell; avoid passive voice; avoid -ing words; etc. They serve well as general guidelines, but all can be broken upon occasion. The key is break them knowingly and with a purpose.

Heinlein's #3 is often misunderstoiod, simply because he didn't explain it well enough when he published them. What he originally meant was that you should not rewrite while the manuscript is circulating. Wait until editorial order.

Anyway, I think that with Leonard's summary and Rob's Sixth, you have a pretty complete picture.

Jennifer said...

How can I resist NOT commenting on this:

Ready? Here we go! (opps I shouldn't use that exclaimation now should I! There I go again.)

1. No comment on my part. (which means not disagreement or thought to the contrary)

2. Avoid prologues. I like proglogues when they're needed. And sometimes they're needed. I find with 'history/historical/into modern time' sometimes they're needed.

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. Yes and no. I agree that many times simplicity is the beauty of writing. But at times I think only said can overpower a person...

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . AMEN to that! I SERIOUSLY dislike people who use adverbs, especially after ever tag. She said sweetly, he cried loudly, she argued bitterly. Shot me now.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. Despite my use above :D I agree. I try to never use them unless it really adds or is needed.

6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose." Yup!

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Yup, unless your goal is to confuse the reader :D

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Can I tell you how many times I skip over passages of character description. I form my own opinion thru the first words caharacter speak. So no image the author tries to give me will stick...what can I say?

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things. I like this guy :D He knows what he's talking about.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Yes, because it would save us all time and allow us to read that many more books a year :D

Okay, had to add my two cents! (opps, bad Jennifer! Darn it)

:D Seriously I rarely use exclaimation points in my writing. However that doesn't pertain to blogs.

Sorry to go on for so long.

dog1net said...


When it comes to writing well, I try to keep it simple:

If the rule does serve the writing, follow it.

If the rule doesn't serve the writing, break it.


Anonymous said...

I do a pretty good job with sticking with these general rules.

It's funny how you said that writers break their own rules. Orson Scott Card wrote an excellent book called How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (or something like that). He talked about how you should never use a prologue. Don't you know that the next book that I read of his started with a Prologue, lol!

Melly said...

Carter, this is one of The best sentences/rules I've heard:
"The key is break them knowingly and with a purpose."

Jennifer, LOL. You're the best :)
I think my only problem with these rules, or any rules, is absolute. I dislike absolutes. Sometimes, as you said so eloquently (note the adverb), it is necessary to break these rules. But as Carter pointed out, it's importnat to know I break them.

Scot, exactly :)
I love it when we're all in agreement here.

Fred, isn't that the joke!

Jonathan M. Dobson said...

About adverbs.

I think some readers get offended when they read adverbs because adverbs are a way to direct perception. "Don't tell me how to perceive the situation, do your job and write well," would be the sentiment. This is valid when the pacing is slow to moderate. When the pace increases substantially, however, adverbs are great and often necessary short-cuts. They are also harder to take note of and more easily accepted in a pace-race.

Adverbs exist for a reason. When efficiency demands it, use them without shame.

Trée said...

Thanks Melly. I've enjoyed the lists and the comments your readers have left.

jack slyde said...

I haven't seen Leonard's before, thanks for posting those.

melly said...

Sounds good to me Jonathan :)

Trée, good. I'm glad :)

Jack, I didn't see them before today either. Welcome :)

Pat Kirby said...

A big "Meh" on the first set of rules.

I've broken all of them, even on stories I've sold.

Here's a rule. Never use the word "never" when talking about writing. It's like throwing down a gauntlet. Now I must go write a story that starts with the weather.

The more I write, the more I detest "rules."

(The Heinlein ones are okay except for the revision bit.)

Melly said...

Pat, exactly.
It's not the rules so much that I have problems with, it's the absolute. Never.
Of course this doesn't make sense. Never say never.
So while the "rules" might be sensible, I'd rather call them advice.

Anonymous said...

My novel starts with the main character walking through the rain...I guess I will have to fix this by adding a prologue.

melly said...

LOL Fred.
You took me by surprise there.
Oh, you're too much first thing in the morning - nearly spilt my coffee :)