Rules to Live By?

I’m tired. Seriously tired. Like, what are those things on the ends of my, whaddaya call ‘em? Limbs? Legs? No, those are arms. Fingers. That’s what I was thinking. That kinda tired. There are reasons for it, of course (I mean, I *always* have reasons; that’s how a good villain operates, after all). Foremost, I’m taking up two more time sinks. I’m getting my physical training regimen back and running, and have moved to the next phase of the Great Garage Sort-N-Purge. There’s a whole pile of stuff for donation, and a buddy turned me on to the Home Despot’s line of storage tubs, so I have a stack of those into which things will be put. I’ve already cleared more floorspace than I’ve seen in months. It’s encouraging, it’s just eating at my energy, y’know?

Anyway, one of the things that happens as you start to get into the community that surrounds the publishing industry is you start hearing stuff. You read – or at least I did/do – various How To Write books, blog posts (that’s what you’re here for, after all) and you start attending conventions, where you hear the same things in a pretty piecemeal format. It’s especially egregious if you attend the wrong creative writing courses or writing workshops in a secondary or continuing education setting (I praise the Author for my college creative writing prof, whose office was floor-to-ceiling genre fiction novels, amongst the more pedagogical stuff. Thanks, Vic, for pushing the Anubis Gates at me).

These are the “rules” from the title.

Specifically, these are the Always/Never commandments that often do little more than make you doubt your ability to tell a story. For example, Eschew Adverbs. Adverbs are shortcuts. They allow you, as the writer, to skip a whole mess of description. “He snarled ferociously” paints a picture in the same way, “his lips peeled back from teeth bared in a rictus as his rage howled its way out of his mouth.”

NOW. The second is a much prettier, and far, far more emotionally satisfying. BUT, if I was in the middle a fight scene with the short, punchy sentences that are ideal for moving the reader through confusing action at a breakneck pace, I’m not going to use the more descriptive line. I’ll save that for the tight focus of a duel, during the climax when the hero confronts his nemesis. At that point, you *want* the emotional impact of the second one. When the action is rolling, though, it’s worth using a couple of shortcuts.

Now, adverbs can, of course, be overused, which is what the “rule” is actually about. Adverbs are a tool, nothing more. You don’t use a spade when you actually need a shovel, nor a reciprocating saw for screws (unless you’re cutting the screws out, but that’s a different story).

What all the “rules” come down to, in the end, is an attempt to help us write the best stories we can. The trouble is we’re human, and when we’re given something as a rule, we usually (hehe) append always/never to it, without thinking very hard about what that means. For example, one of the rules floating around for a long time has been about tagging dialogue with “he/she said,” and ONLY with “he/she said.” The reasoning goes it’s invisible to the reader on the page. Which is true to an extent. When story was a matter of words on a page, and only words on a page, it was true. Again, to an extent. In an audio recording, however, it’s often like someone standing next to you and hitting a chime with every line. It’s jarring, and interrupts the flow of the story.

Now, when Mrs. Dave and I take the Wee Horde out a’pillaging, I often ride shotgun, and the help the miles pass by reading stories out loud. We’re currently in the midst of A Horse and His Boy, which Wee Dave and Wee-er Dave are enjoying. Thing is, when I’m reading, I infuse the dialogue with characteristics beyond what’s on the page. Bree speaks with a Liverpudlian accent, as it happens, which is very different from Shasta’s Received Pronunciation. There are tonal and pacing differences, as well, which further distinguish whom is speaking when. I don’t need to tag a spoken line with “he said.” It slows down the story. And ideally, when writing the stories, you should so distinguish the characters that it’s obvious who’s speaking even without tags of any kind. That’s not easy, and a valuable skill to develop in its own right.

All the “rules” are just tools, when it comes down to it. Use them, don’t abuse them, and don’t overuse them. Always and never are unhelpful when it comes to crafting stories, past a very small set of guidelines. Always include the reader. Always play on their emotions. Never sacrifice story for message. That kind of thing.

5 thoughts on “Rules to Live By?

  1. “One of my pet peeves, a habit some writers have that breaks reading rhythm, is that they wait til the very end of a very long piece of dialog before tacking on the attribution — and then it’s just the obvious,” he said.

    Seriously, if the attribution can wait longer than the first point of natural breath — it’s not needed at all; and if it _is_ needed and you wait longer, the reader often has to reread the whole thing in light of the late-train attribution. (And as a general rule, if it’s just ‘he said’ — isn’t that already obvious??)

    Also, putting any necessary attribution early on, and ending the paragraph with dialog (rather than an orphaned ‘he said’) makes everything flow more naturally among characters, because they’re handing the baton back and forth with their dialog, rather than getting END STOPs from trailing attributions.


    1. Well. That’s a lot pithier than I managed.

      The writer looked at his meticulously crafted post, then at the single line quote from someone with a lot more in the way of experience and writing chops. Back and forth, and then again. A quick rattle of keys selected the whole post, and he hit Delete. After a moment, the put in the quote, followed by “just do that.”

  2. Sometimes these “little” rules are mere corollaries of “big” rules. When it comes to the use of adverbs, the “big” rule is: Make every word carry its own weight. For example, consider the following snatch of bad writing:

    “You can’t talk to me like that!” she said angrily.

    Not only is the line of dialogue ho-hum, the word “angrily” is unnecessary. It expresses nothing the dialogue hasn’t already made plain.

    My sense of the “no adverbs” pseudo-rule is that it’s largely about such dialogue-tag attributions. And then, of course, we have the “Tom Swifty:”

    “My girl prefers lamb’s wool sweaters,” Tom said sheepishly.
    “Quick, Watson, the needle!” said Tom in a serious vein.
    “What our team needs is a top home run hitter,” Tom said ruthlessly.
    “I’ll have another martini,” Tom said drily.

    …But that is another and much sadder story.

    1. “I’ll be there in a little bit,” Tom said shortly.

      “I have to go now!” Tom said hurriedly.

      Okay, if I have no sleep tonight and am therefore completely worthless tomorrow – let it be known that it is all Tom’s fault!

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