Thursday, January 14, 2010

Breaking the Rules

By Beth Terrell

Elmore Leonard, one of the masters of crime fiction wrote a now-famous list of rules for writers. They're excellent rules, and any writer could benefit from studying them. You could, as Leonard himself has demonstrated, have a long and illustrious career by following them. Yet, in the right hands and with the right techniques, almost every writing rule ever devised can be broken. Knowing the rules is important, but knowing when and how to break them may be equally important.

Consider Leonard's first rule:

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 to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

Notice how Leonard himself allows for exceptions to the rule. In my opinion, one of the best examples of a book that successfully opens with a description of weather is Glendon Swarhout's masterful coming of age novel Bless the Beasts and the Children:

In that place, the wind prevailed. There was always sound. The throat of the canyon was hoarse with wind. It heaved through the pines and passed and was collected by the cliffs. There was a phenomenon of pines in such a place. When wind died in a box canyon and in its wake the air was still and taut, the trees were not. The passing trembled in them, and a sough of loss. They grieved. They seemed to mourn a memory of wind.

From this description of tumultuous wind, the author breaks yet another common writing rule (though not one of Leonard's) by taking us into a nightmare one of the boys, John Cotton, is having. But that dream, in which Cotton relives a traumatic event (the slaughter of buffalo in an annual culling "hunt") that occurred earlier that day, is what impels him to lead a band of teenaged misfits, all emotionally damaged, all sons of well-to-do families, on a mission to save the remaining buffalo. If you've never read this book, I highly recommend it. This is a guy who knows how and when to break the rules.

Here's another rule:

2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

Leonard goes on to give an example of a prologue that works. I think it's Steinbeck, who can get away with breaking pretty much any rule he wants to. As I mentioned last week, without the prologue to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I might not have read on. (Well, I would have, because we were discussing it at our Sisters in Crime meeting, but I wouldn't have wanted to.)

Although most of Leonard's rules, like most writing rules, can--and sometimes should--be broken, the last one is pretty much non-negotiable:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

It's hard to argue with that one, and I can't think of a single instance where you'd want to break it. Why put in anything readers are likely to skip? It's a hard rule to follow, though. If we thought it was "skippable," we wouldn't have put it in there in the first place. What I think Leonard means, though, is big chunks of description that go on and on until readers start skimming them.

There are a total of ten Elmore Leonard rules, with a bonus rule that encompasses the rest--If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. You can read the rest of them here:

One of my favorite quotes about writing rules is by Somerset Maugham, who said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are."

Thank goodness for that.


Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree with most of Elmore Leonard's writing rules (which I included in my forthcoming book, Mysterious Writers), but I take exception with the weather rule. All of my novels start with or contain severe weather: tule fog, blizzards, a downpour or flash flooding. Man (or woman) against the elements is a great way to build suspense.

Tenn Irish said...

Well, I'm still rewriting a prologue, but it's occurred to me more than once to either make it chapter one or just dispense with chapters altogether. Someone once told me in college that "style" is how you break the rules. Someone else told me that a technician is a master at following the rules that artists break.

Bill Kirton said...

I agree that rules are there to be broken (as long as you know what they are first) but I'm particularly fond of Leonard's set - mostly they make a lot of sense. I agree, too, though that the one about opening with weather is strange and the least persuasive for me.
The 'rule' which annoys, angers, upsets, infuriates (well, you get the picture) me is the Point Of View one. It's not one of Leonard's but there are so many people who've been warned against 'head-hopping' by their tutors that they can't see beyond it and their diligent search for shifting POVs gets in the way of their enjoyment and apreciation of perfectly good narratives.