Writing Rules

“There are three rules for writing a novel, unfortunately no one knows what they are.” W. Somerset Maugham.

That might be so, but more than once I’ve heard a writing instructors say, or a writer say, “Never…” and then go on to give a rule.

Although I’m very conscious of rules, and usually follow them, there’s something about the word “never” that makes me want to go and do it (whatever I’m never supposed to do).

Elmore Leonard published a book titled “10 Rules of Writing.” ( http://goo.gl/8ZCnF3 ) Yesterday he died, and he will be missed, especially among mystery writers and readers. His books have been best sellers, made into movies, and produced as TV shows. Because of his recent death, you can find his list of rules in several places. The Detroit Free Press printed it yesterday ( http://goo.gl/0B5H2B ).

Although I’m sure we’ve all read books where one or more of these “rules” has been broken, sometimes successfully, other times not, Leonard’s list is wonderful advice for writers. Still, it’s that word NEVER that bothers me. For examples, Rule #3: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Years ago at a writers’ meeting someone (I don’t remember who) handed out an  8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper with columns of words that could be substituted for “said.” How wonderful, I thought, and began using some of those words in my writing. And then I read a book where I swear the author had the same list. The story was a good one, the characters well developed, but halfway through I found myself looking for and wondering what would be the next word she used in place of said. In other words, she pulled me out of the story and made me aware of her as a writer. I never bought another of her books.

But back to the word NEVER. Personally, I think a writer can use other words, but they should be used sparingly and only when the dialogue or character’s actions don’t make it clear that the speaker yelled, or gasped, or…whatever is necessary.

I’ve heard it said that the word “said” and the word “asked” become invisible to readers, which is why we’re encouraged to use those words rather than one that might pull the reader out of the story. So can said and asked be used too often? I think so.

It really bothers me when two people are talking and the writer uses “he said” or “she said” after each bit of dialogue.

“Nice day,” he said.
“I think it’s going to get hot,” she said.
“Want to go for a bike ride?” he said.
“No, it’s already too hot for me,” she said.
“Come on, we won’t go far,” he said.
“Forget it, I’m not going,” she said.

First of all, I would change the dialogue tag after the question mark to “he asked,” but that’s a personal choice (and breaking Elmore Leonard’s rule), but more than that, after the first two lines I would drop the “he said/she said” tags. We’re dealing with two people. The reader is intelligent enough to follow who is speaking.

Now, if the give and take conversation continued, yes, a tag here or there to remind the reader who’s speaking is necessary and helpful. Better yet, drop some of the “he said/she said” tags and use action tags instead. This gives the reader more than talking heads.

For example:

“Want to go for a ride?” He patted the side of his new ten-speed.

If you have three or more people speaking, then dialogue tags with each bit of dialogue may be necessary. I say “may” because if you’ve given your characters distinct patterns of speech, you should be able to leave off some of the tags since the speech pattern will make it clear to the reader who is speaking.

Also, don’t fall into the pattern of including the person’s name in the dialogue, at least not over and over. When you have two people talking, they rarely will say each other’s name. Maybe once for “I think it’s going to get hot, Tom,” but not immediately followed with “No, it’s already too hot for me, Tom,” she said, and then, “Forget it, Tom, I’m not going,” she said. Well, maybe if she thinks he’s really dense, she might keep saying his name, but normally we don’t.

Anyway, I think it’s good to know the rules, but don’t be surprised if you pick up a really good book and discover the writer broke one of those rules…and you don’t care.

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5 Responses to Writing Rules

  1. Kristen says:

    Great post! I try to be always conscious of this in my writing, but I don’t completely discount the word “said.” I’m glad I’m not the only one! 🙂

  2. Wonderful post! Mr. Leonard will definitely be missed! I love it when he says he doesn’t want the reader to be aware of him as a writer. Really makes you think about your writing!

  3. Melissa Keir says:

    Loved the post. I had to laugh…you and I would be so much trouble with that word never. I’ve learned pretty early that the easiest way to get me to do something is to tell me I can’t. You and I and someone telling us no or never…we might need bail money!

  4. Lucy Kubash says:

    I, too, have always felt rules were made to be broken, especially when it comes to writing. Tell me I can’t do it, and I’ll figure out a way. But I have to agree on he said/she said. I try to eliminate as many taglines as possible while still keeping it clear who is speaking. Sometimes easier said than done! RIP Mr. Leonard and a toast to your long writing career.

  5. Connie Bretes says:

    Hi Maris, I find that using he said/she said in dialog seems boring.

    Using action tags or verbs makes the story more interesting and stimulating.

    I think nothing gets the attention more than reading someone “rolled their eyes,” or someone’s face getting red, etc. Expressions and reactions to me, seems important.

    I’m a beginning writer so I could be wrong about this.

    Great Post!