Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Rules of Writing

There's an active discussion going on in the Short Mystery Fiction Society about the "new rules" of writing such as "don't begin with the weather" and " don't use synonyms for 'said' in dialogue." People are asking who makes the rules and when can they be broken. Here's my take on the rules.

There are rules of grammar and rules of style. I don't think anyone has repealed Strunk and White's rules. These are not fads, either, as Strunk was teaching them in 1919. Even Strunk and White distinguished between rule and considerations. In the fifth chapter of the book, An Approach to Style, S&W admit that where previously they were concerned with what is correct, now they are concerned with style in the broader sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing. This is the section where you will find reminders such as "Write with nouns and verbs," "Avoid the use of qualifiers," "Do not explain too much," among others. The last one is where they discuss synonyms for "said' and the use of adverbs to modify "said." These are not rules. Rather, they are stylistic considerations that can lift the writing out of the ordinary and into the distinguished.

Elmore Leonard put forth a list of "rules" that include, " don't use any synonym for 'said,'" "don't begin with the weather," and others. They seem like stylistic considerations to me, but Leonard has been turning out some of the greatest mystery stories of the modern era and making a ton of money at it, so I think he's entitled to call his considerations rules. We don't have to follow them, but we'd be hard pressed to deny their efficacy.

Leonard's rule about "said" is clearly a restatement of S&W's Reminder 11, which is not a rule either, but a guide for making your writing distinguished. So why shouldn't one use a synonym for "said" or modify it with an adverb? The synonyms and adverbs aren't bad words in themselves but, as part of a dialogue attributive, they serve to explain the dialogue to which they're attached. As S&W remind us, explaining too much weakens our writing. We shouldn't have to explain our dialogue to the reader. If the meaning and tone aren't apparent from the words, then the dialogue should be rewritten.

Don't start with the weather? Plenty of good stories begin with the weather. I don't think the weather is the issue so much as what makes for a good beginning to a story. Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer, says, "The function of the story's beginning is to let your reader know there's going to be a fight. . . and that it's the kind of fight that will interest him." He adds, ". . . beginning spotlights three things: desire, danger and decision."

Joe R. Lansdale begins Sunset and Sawdust with the weather.
On the afternoon it rained frogs, sun perch, and minnows, Sunset discovered she could take a beating as good as Three-Fingered Jack. Unlike Jack, who had taken his in the sunshine, she took hers in her own home at the tail end of a cyclone, the windows rattling, the roof lifting, the hardwood floor cold as stone.

Sure, a rain of fish and amphibians gets our attention, but that's not what holds our interest. The weather is just stuck in a subordinate clause, a warm-up, if you will, for what we really want to learn about: this woman in a fight, probably for her life, with a just-discovered reserve of strength. It's all about the woman in the fight. The storm swirling around her is nothing more than the frame. For too many writers, however, beginning with the weather is a way of avoiding desire, danger or decision and the reader loses interest in whatever fight is brewing. Don't start with the weather? No, don't start with something inconsequential.

The word "rules" gets a lot of writers hackles up, because, after all, we're artists. The cutting edge is where we live. Rules are for beginners, writers with learning permits. We don't need no stinking rules. Rules are made to be broken.

I disagree. I think writers tend to break the rules they don't understand. I would rewrite the rule about avoiding adverbs and synonyms for "said" so it's something like this: Let your characters speak their own feelings; don't explain how they mean to say it. And I'd still avoid adverbs and synonyms for "said."

The weather rule would be: Begin by throwing your character into a fight for her life or her dreams. If storms are raging, I'll make sure the bigger one is inside her.

That's my take on the rules. What's yours?

Mark Troy


F. M. Meredith, author said...

Excellent post. Everyone seems to do it different, if the writing is good, no one notices the rest.


Ben Small said...

Well said, Mark. Robert Parker always uses "said," and he's not done badly. Stephen King offers a pragmatic take on "rules," in his book ON WRITING. I like pragmatic; I understand pragmatic.