by Jean Roberta
Anyone who follows the careers of celebrity writers knows that the great American crime-writer Elmore Leonard passed away on August 20, 2013. Amidst the eulogies, his ten writing rules have been trotted forth:
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 “said.”
5. Keep your exclamation marks under control.
6. Never use “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great details describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Much as I would have liked Mr. Leonard to live past his eighties, the current media-storm of analyses of his writing style is timely for me. I am on schedule to teach a creative writing class for credit for the first time in September. Note that non-credit classes (such as the one I taught in the 1990s to senior citizens) are much different, more like hobbies; there are no grades and no pressure. This time, I will be expected to teach some useful techniques which might actually result in publishing contracts. Therefore I have been checking out “writing rules” of various kinds.
My senior colleague, experienced mystery-writer Gail Bowen (whose novels are all set in the town where we both live) has discussed Elmore Leonard’s rules with approval in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail:
Well, yes and no. My students all had to audition for my class by submitting samples of their writing to me. I have definitely seen some “Hooptedoodle” in the form of self-conscious writing that strains to be witty or memorable. It would probably be good for all my students to have to follow Elmore Leonard’s rules while writing one assignment. Writers, like singers, can benefit from expanding their range.
It doesn’t surprise me that Elmore Leonard admired Ernest Hemingway, who apparently developed his famously terse style as a journalist, pounding out news articles on a manual typewriter in various war zones. (It should be noted, however, that journalists did not always write like Hemingway. Nineteenth-century newspapers often combined floridly-written news articles with fiction, and at first glance it can be hard to guess which is which.)
I have nothing against the school of Hemingway, Leonard, and their many followers. Showing action rather than describing people and scenes can be an effective way to develop character and a plot at the same time. If dialogue sounds true-to-life as well as expressive, “said” is the only verb that needs to be added.
However, there are other ways to write. Writing about sex, in particular, lends itself to description. (“They met, they fucked, they came” doesn’t work for me as a climactic passage.) Even Hemingway resorted to an extreme metaphor when “the earth moved” for his central characters. A precious, overwrought, bejewelled and archaic style can be great fun to write – and to read.
“Purple prose,” the sort of thing that Hemingway and Leonard aimed to stamp out, is now associated with the famous opening sentence of an 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton before Charles Dickens had become a household name. Note the way this passage violates Elmore Leonard’s Rule #1:
“It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
This is not the sort of opening scene that appeals to a reader who wants to cut to the chase. In its way, however—like a lady of the evening in a corset and flounced petticoats–this long sentence is damn sexy. Notice what the author has accomplished, even before introducing a single human character. The reader is plunged into a sensuous experience, as though caught in a sudden downpour. The location has been identified. If even the housetops are “rattled,” the shelters that humans have built for themselves are clearly no match for the power of nature. And the struggling flames that fight against darkness suggest the brave fragility of human consciousness or life itself.
After this introduction, characters can be brought into an imaginary world that has already been set up. As a prologue or declaration of purpose, the opening sentence can be considered direct and concise, rather than too long. And every word contributes to the general effect.
I would like to give a “dark and stormy night” assignment, not as a joke (like the annual Bulwer-Lytton Award that offers prizes for the most extreme parodies of the famous sentence) but as an exercise in writing vivid description.
Writing “rules” can be useful in helping fledgling writers find the subjects, the styles, the genres and the philosophies that work best for them. Ultimately, however, good writing seems to me to be a matter of coherence and faithfulness to one`s own vision.
“Different strokes for different folks” is not only a snappy way to advocate acceptance of other people`s sexual tastes. It can describe a smorgasbord of different writing styles. Just as finding the best Significant Other can require kissing a few toads along the way, finding the best style for a particular piece is likely to involve a few failed experiments. And the journey can be more fun than reaching the destination.