Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Justified


R.I.P. Georgy Girl.





Watching the best episode so far of JUSTIFIED, I was reminded of Elmore Leonard's ten rules for writing crime fiction.
Justified, based on his work and produced by him, is such a good example of why most of these rules make something work. Not all apply to a television show, but most of them have some equivalent. Last week's episode especially made use of #10.


Ten rules for writing fiction

Elmore Leonard: Using adverbs is a mortal sin

1 Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

3 Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "Ameri­can and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

25 comments:

George said...

I like #10 the best. I'm an impatient reader and I tend to skip long descriptions of flora and fauna.

Richard R. said...

I notice it's not all adverbs, just those (mostly) modifying speech identifiers. I guess there should be some sort of rule about parenthesis but he must have thought 11 was too many.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Good one, Rick. I will ask him if we can add it. Also one about ...

Anonymous said...

"There are two words you must never use. One is swell and the other is lousy." Hans Conried in I LOVE LUCY.

pattinase (abbott) said...

In writing or in life.

Dana King said...

JUSTIFIED is the only TV show I watch. The way the carry the arc from story to story while wrapping up this week's business and not telling you anymore than you have to know has me zeroed in.

Plus there's Timothy Olyphant for the Beloved Spouse and Joelle Carter for me. Something for the whole family.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Your darned tooting. I could watch him walk into a room, or duck his head, or blink his eyes for quite a long time without him opening his mouth.

Todd Mason said...

Of course, most of Leonard's rules have been pretty common coin for quite some time...almost everyone hates what James Blish called the "Said book" (alternatives to "said"). But it's a swell corrective to a lot of lousy tendencies, as I note in my preface (in progress) to this note...

Dorte H said...

I have vowed never to respect a rule that begins with the word ´never´ ;D

Well, there is some sense in Leonard´s rules, but Richard´s comment points out one of the flaws. Besides there are people (and I am one of them) who like good descriptions. I also like Hemingway, but if I only read his works, I would soon feel severely deprived of words.

Jacob Weaver said...

Good news! They just picked up Justified for a second season. It definitely has been better as the season progressed.

pattinase (abbott) said...

That is good news because I am already dreading its end in a few weeks.
I like description too, but I think we're fighting an uphill battle.

Rob Kitchin said...

My problem with rules is that whilst they no doubt help some writers, they also can stifle creativity and inherently seek to place limits and boundaries. One of the great things about the English language is its flexibility and versatility. That's why there are so many great books that have wildly different styles. I find it odd that Leonard's rules for writing for the most part do not concern the substance of a story - plotting, structuring, characterisation, pacing, dialogue, etc (other than weather and avoiding thick description).

My one and only rule (as opposed to general guidance) would be rule makers should not try and place excess limits on, or second guess the preferences of, either readers or writers when formulating rules.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, it is very rigid and would have us all write like he does. I would agree with some of them though. I wonder if Peter Leonard follows these rules. I have never read him.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - Thanks for these rules. They really do make sense, and hey, Leonard must have done something right! Because I have a background in linguistics, I especially noticed #7. Using too much regional, patois or slang really can turn out so completely contrived - or hard to understand. Neitehr is good.

Zipper said...

I almost gave up on "Justified" in the first episode but because Elmore Leonard was involved, I stuck with it. Each episode gets better. After the last episode I looked at my spousal unit and we both (exclaimed), "That was a damned good show(!) Leonard's rules work great for crime fiction. Whenever I read his works I'm amazed at how much he can say in a few words.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Our sentiments exactly, Zip.

Richard S. Wheeler said...

His rules are fine, but rules are made to be broken. I've recently kicked out the "show, don't tell" rule, which speeds up my stories and gets rid of tedium. Very little in a novel has to be shown.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I like the occasional adverb, too. Sometimes it saves writing two more sentences to say someone said something fearfully or sarcastically or honestly. But I try to watch it.

Rittster said...

Richard,
I was thinking about your comment, "I've recently kicked out the 'show, don't tell' rule... Very little in a novel has to be shown."
I agree. Hieroglyphics, through pictures, show a story. Movies, though pictures and words, both show and tell a story; the same with comic books. But books, using only words, tell a story. A lot of the great myths and fables passed down through the centuries were told, not shown (unless the teller gestured or acted part of the story out). As a prose writer, even if you're story is just action and dialogue, it's still being told. So-and-so said this, or so-and-so did that. That being said, with words you can create pictures, but the pictures are in the mind of the reader, not on the page. Sounds obvious, but I think this "show, don't tell" rule, in terms of prose, is too broad and needs to be put in a more specific context. For example, a descriptive passage that might have worked better as a scene with one or more characters. That might be an example of the reader thinking, "I wished the author would have 'showed' me this in a scene, rather than just 'telling' me about it."

Charles Gramlich said...

Hum, I have to say I like some of the things he says don't do. I love to read prologues. I love to read description. I love to read description that includes weather. most of the rest of it I agree with.

Deb said...

George Orwell had a similar list. The very last rule on the list was, "Break any of the above rules rather than write something truly barbaric."

Deb said...

As usual, my memory misled me. What Orwell actual said was, "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

Richard S. Wheeler said...

My rule now is to show the truly important things, narrate the rest. That speeds up the movement and banishes tedium.

Juri said...

Leonard's rules apply only to the 20th (and 21st) century. Nothing written like that would've been published in the previous centuries - think of Jane Austen, think of Daniel Defoe (and Defoe was quite sparse in his own time), think of Goethe or Sterne. I really like what Leonard sayd (and does), but there's always the historical context. More and more young writers and scholars are getting interested in the previous centuries and what they did differently back then - we might be seeing the renaissance of flowery prose and two-page descriptions of weather and what not.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I wouldn't mind seeing a wider range of writing styles. They are getting all too much alike for my tastes. I think the internet is to blame for some of it.