By Jay Stringer
I have dismissed the culture of writing advice many times. The only reason I pay any attention to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is because they’re Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing. He knew what he was doing. There are countless people out there on the internet right now offering you advice, and I’m fairly sure most of them aren’t Elmore Leonard.
But I still get asked for advice from time to time. So, with the standard disclaimer that these might only work for me, and you gotta do you, and with the reminder that these are offered for free, here are my own current 10 rules of writing.
Dialogue is about what people aren’t saying.
What are they hiding? What are they omitting? Where is the lie? Particularly in crime or mystery fiction, where characters can be driven by secrets, and self deception.
This approach can be of real help if you’re stuck. Back up. Look at the characters in the scene, and figure out what is the one thing they don’t want to say. Note that down for each character, then get them talking, and let them talk around those secrets. The conversation will flow, your subtext will be grabbing out for the reader’s attention, and your page will fill with words.
Apply show-don’t-tell to character, and plot takes care of itself.
There are many nuggets of well-meaning writing advice that are handed down and repeated, over and over, to the point when they become hollow. Show don’t tell is one of these. It’s often talked about it terms of plot. Exposition. Details. Reveals. Clues. It becomes a rule used to show the audience information, rather than tell it.
Once again, pause, back up.
This tip is tied up in another modern little trap. Character has become the person, not the traits. The word is now shorthand for our dramatis personae. And that’s not wrong. It’s a good shorthand, we all use it. But we sometimes lose sight of character as aspect, as the traits that are revealed by the plot.
And this is the real power of show don’t tell. Show things about your character. Show who they love, who they fear. Who they trust, who they hate. In a recent interview I was asked how I’d managed to juggle all the plot details of How to Kill Friends and Implicate People in my head, because there’s a lot going on in that book. But the truth is, I didn’t. I managed the plot by managing the characters. At any given point in the story I was aware of their goals, their hopes, their fears, and I chose (hopefully) the right moments and techniques to reveal them to the reader. The plot…..took care of itself.
Think of an action movie like San Andreas. Yes, it’s a big dumb spectacle. But it’s also one of the purest examples of this. The film is all about trust. Again and again, the story is showing us trust affirmed and broken. Heroes, in fiction, are the ones who people are able to put their faith and trust in. Horror films are driven more on fears. Crime can be driven on trust, or fear, or any number of similar elements.
Show them. Reveal them. And show us why characters have earned -or haven’t earned- these trusts, hopes, fears. And the plot, I promise you, will happen.
Write the scene from the POV of the person most invested in it.
Elmore Leonard didn’t make this one of his own ten rules, but it can be found throughout his work. Which character is most invested in the action, the drama, or the tension of the current scene? Or who will have the freshest, most engaged take on what is happening? If the character is interested or engaged in the moment, the reader will be, too. And, once again, this will reveal character, which will, in turn, move plot.
Okay, I hear you right now, saying, but I write my books all in first person, there’s only one character narrating. Hey, go write your own rules. Or figure out how to make this one work for that one voice. You think this is a free ride? Go do some work.
Never use exclamation marks. Ever.
Don’t all shout at me at once. You want to use them? Go right ahead. I mean, if you’re reading someone’s rules of writing just to disagree with them, there’s probably something more productive you could be doing. Writing, maybe?
This one is a personal preference, more than a general takeaway. I think a good writer can express tone through dialogue. An exclamation mark -or slammer, as I like to call them- generally feels lazy to me. Most of the editors I’ve worked with have operated under a rule of one slammer per fifty thousand words (give or take.) I say that is one too many. The words, the way you use them, the speed, the urgency, all of these things can be expressed without sticking a slammer on the end.
So, sure, use ‘em if you must. Just be aware you lose a year of your life for every one, and proceed with caution.
‘Write what you know’ is a dangerous trap.
This is another of those pieces of advice passed down from yore. I believe it’s the most dangerous. It puts a limit on your work. Of course, like all the worst ideas, it’s got a grain of truth to it. We should know what we write. But we need to remember we can change what we know at any time. ‘Write what you know’ is the hill that bad fiction dies on. Generations of straight white men, writing straight white male fiction. Giants of the literary world who are feted for writing navel-gazing, middle class kitchen dramas, about navel-gazing, middle class people. Or, even worse, it leads to genre fiction where authors write the genre fiction that they know. The same tropes and cliches, trotted out, page after page.
Push past your own walls. Go out and talk to people. Hear how they talk. See how they think. Learn what’s important to them. Ask questions. Read outside your comfort zone. The real thing, the real thing, is empathy. If you approach your work with empathy, pretty much everything else will be figured out along the way.
Forget write what you know.
Live by know what you write.
Never take writing advice from the kind of people who offer you writing advice.
Yes, even me.
Stories have endings. Anybody can write, but you become a writer by finishing what you start. Not everything, don’t worry. We all get stuck. We all throw out work. But at some point, you need to knuckle down and finish a story, and then…..let other people read it.
One of the reasons I’ve become hesitant to give writing advice over the years, is that it seems most of the people who are asking for it haven’t finished their book or story yet. And you, dear procrastinator, are standing in your own way. You can’t become a good stand up comedian until you perform in front of people. You can’t progress as a filmmaker until you make a film. And you can’t really learn anything as a writer until you finish writing something, and let people engage with it.
Once you do that? I can help you. Other writers can help you. You can help yourself. You’ll see the shape of story. You’ll know the pitfalls, you’ve proven you have the motivation. We can get down into the foundations of what you’ve built and help you move it all around.
Come to us with a story, we can help. Come to us with an idea, and all you have is an idea.
Rule six was really important.
Dialogue should vary.
Here’s another dangerous old piece of advice; ‘read your dialogue out loud.’ This is problematic on a number of levels. Firstly, you absolutely should do this. Secondly, this can absolutely become a trap.
Wa-huh? Stop confusing things, dude.
Okay. Well, I’d say that advice doesn’t go far enough. You should read everything you write out loud. The whole thing. Language is alive. It flows. It needs to move like fire, searching for oxygen. If you don’t read your work out, there’s the risk of ending up with stilted, dead prose.
And dialogue needs to sound like people talking. So of course you need to check that it actually….sounds like people talking. But at every stage of the process you need to be aware of the potential trap. Be conscious of not making every character sound like you talking. It’s an easy thing to do. In making sure that all the dialogue flows easily off your tongue, it can start to all sound the same.
A common phrase I hear is ‘I write dialogue to a rhythm, like music.’ Usually -in fact, almost always- I hear this from people who aren’t musicians. Certainly not drummers. Probably not bass players. Possibly a rhythm guitarist, whose grasp on such concepts can be hazy at best.
We don’t have to look far to see auteur screenwriters who are feted for writing great dialogue, and yet churn out the same voices again and again.
Do I have any extra tips for overcoming this? Well, half the time I’m lucky. When I have the luxury of time, I’ll let the characters audition for me on the page, and in my head, waiting until I find a distinct voice that interests me, and then I’ll write for that voice. But the rest of the time? When I’m writing to assignment or deadline, and I need to be getting words down on the page before I have a clear idea of the voices? I’ll cast people. Friends. Celebrities. Actors. I’ll pick distinct people for each role, and I’ll write to their voice, rather than mine, while I wait for the character to take shape.
I need a tenth rule? Okay. Guess I do. What will it be? I’VE GOT IT. Don’t be solitary.
Writers aren’t solitary.
The job can be, but don’t give in to it. We sit at desk, or on the sofa, or on the toilet (what? don’t judge me, this post has gone longer than I expected) and type. We talk to ourselves. We throw exclamation marks around. But we need other people. We need contact. We need ideas, and laughs, and frustrations. We need to get out of our own heads and into other people’s, and we learn to do that best by doing it. Once outside, we’ll find there’s a wonderful, large, supportive community of people who want to help.
There will be authors who’ve been exactly where you are, and know how to get out of whatever rut you’re stuck in. There will be readers who want to lift your spirits by telling them how much your words have meant to them.
As with everything else, there are traps here. There are people who want to take advantage of other writers. There are people who want to use you to elevate themselves. There are emperors with no clothes on, and they’re going to dare you to notice. And there will be people who will give advice they haven’t earned. How do you tell the good people from the bad? I’m afraid that’s on you. There’s no way around it, you need to learn that lesson yourself.