Monday, June 22, 2020

Important Writing Rules (For Me)

I enjoyed the emails I received in response to the last post. A lot to work with, and a number of passionate discussions. However, the most interesting response was a defense of the quote I used that started with, “It was a dark and stormy night…” Some people enjoyed that opening sentence because it really dedicated itself to establishing the mood in that particular sentence. By reinforcing the stormy London street, the reader feels the moment. I appreciate that sentiment, but maybe I should offer some rules for good writing and show how they disagree with this piece.

Every author has some basic rules for writing. By the time you consider yourself a writer and can admit it in public, you should be able to explain five rules you follow for writing. Here are some of mine (with appreciation to Elmore Leonard), so you can see how they go against that first sentence:

  1. Start with the main character
  2. Know when to use passive voice (rarely) and when to be active (mostly)
  3. Dialogue needs to sound better out loud than on the page
  4. Avoid redundancy
  5. Wishy-washy words like “seemed,” “kind of,” “except,” and “almost” weaken the storytelling
  6. If something isn’t important to the story, don’t spend time with it
  7. Appeal to emotions; let the reader fill in the physical details
  8. Loose ends equal sloppy writing

-- Emphasis added for rules violated by that first sentence.

Let’s see how that sentence violates the rules, starting with rule 1. We can quickly see that in that opening sentence, the main character is not the storm, and it is not London. Having read the chapter, it is an injustice to start with a storm that is nothing more than filler to create a mood that is abandoned. Elmore Leonard’s first rule was “Never open a book with weather.” Nothing is more common or mundane to the human experience, so unless the weather is so freakishly out of place that the main character notices it, just cut it out.

For those who are not as familiar with rule 2, the passive voice stands out when the verb is “was” or some variant. Instead of saying “It was a dark and stormy night,” (passive), talk about the rain slashing through the streets, the wind howling, and so forth. The verb needs to grab the reader, not repeat the obvious. The sentence does use some good active verbs, but starting so passively is not how an author should introduce the story to the reader.

Redundancy. Think about a dark and stormy night. How many nights aren’t dark? Nights are dark, so why even talk about the darkness? Unless this was an unusually bright night, don’t mention it (this is also an appeal to the rule about not discussing things that aren’t important.)

Wishy-washy words take away from the author’s voice. If I describe a wall as being blue, except where it was red, I am waffling in my narrative. My descriptive voice should be solid, which means describing that same wall as a patchwork of blue and red, or blue broken with red blocks – whatever unifies the narrative and holds the discussion. In that regard, I would never say it rained, except when it didn’t.

Speaking about the rain, why is the rain even important? It might establish a mood in the beginning, but the rain is mentioned exactly once in the rest of the chapter. The first sentence offers a huge description of the London weather, but proceeds to discuss London more than the weather throughout the balance of the chapter. Again – if something isn’t important; if it doesn’t offer a challenge or contribution to the character or the plot, why is it even worth discussing?

Now, these are in fact just my rules. Everyone needs to develop their own rules and their own style, and they may not agree with mine. However, what makes a rule good is that a writer can justify exactly why that rule fits their style and how it contributes to their storytelling. As your skills develop, these rules will come naturally, until you reach the point that you can mail me your rules and show how they work better than mine. At that point, you are a writer in your own right.

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