A’s to Your Q’s

My good pal Derek asks:

In writing novels/stories, I find I have a hard time letting dialogue be dialogue. I always want to add adverbs or describe facial expressions. I’m sure you’d have some good insight into this as a screenwriter.

Something I feel I’ve improved on is “showing instead of telling”, which obviously adds a great deal to storytelling, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on this as well.

This seems as good a time as any given the recent death of Elmore Leonard to revisit his “10 Rules of Good Writing:”

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip

I’m not sure I have much more to add except I think you’re on the right path there.

As a screenwriter, I can’t show a character’s thought process (and facial expressions are up to the actor), so I have to rely on their decision-making to show what kind of person they are. It helps that a character making decisions is a lot more interesting cinematically than a character blabbing on in some kind of voice over.

I do use describing words in my scripts, but it’s mostly for tone and voice.

As a prose writer, you have a lot more freedom, but I think those principles still apply. Go crazy with your vocabulary to get across your voice, but try to limit your character work to actions.

Which leads to the second part of your point on showing not telling.

Let’s say you’ve got a character and his biggest value is he never lies. If you do your job well, then he, as a character, nor you, as a writer, have to tell the audience this.

His wife asks him if her jeans make her look fat. He says “well, yeah.”

He finds out his employee tells a small lie (called in sick, went to the ball game). He fires the employee on the spot.

You’ve established a character trait by showing his decision-making which is so much more affective than him telling someone “I don’t like lying.”

And off-topic, but the great part about setting up characters this way is you can play with audience expectations. “Oooo, someone just lied to him, what’s he going to do?” or “Oooo now he’s put in a situation where he has to lie, what’s he going to do?”

And then you have an opportunity to show character change, if he does one thing in the beginning of the story and the opposite by the end.

Check out Derek’s writing and blog here.

How do you guys handle “showing not telling” and simplicity in writing? Any other Q’s? Post them in the comments below.

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