Rules and commandments

There’s been a bunch of guidelines and rules for writers published over the years. As long as people want to write (but don’t quite now how or what about) I guess there always will be. I thought I’d share my two favourites.

The first is here simply because it’s long amused me. Father Ronald Knox was a priest and crime writer who wrote a number of detective stories during the 1920s and ’30s. He also famously wrote a (admittedly slightly tongue in cheek) list of commandments that he thought all detective fiction writers should follow.

Here they are:

  • The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  • All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  • Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  • No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  • No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  • No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  • The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  • The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  • The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  • Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
  • You will note, of course, that every one of these commandments has been violated at one time or another in a classic mystery novel.

    I particularly like the no Chinaman rule, which seems so oddly bizarre. Sax Rohmer and Robert van Gulik would not have approved.

    Knox’s period saw a fair few other writers come up with similar lists and they capture why this genre has never much appealed to me. Ok, he didn’t really mean people to follow them, but there is a degree of truth to them all the same. The point in good detective fiction is a hard but fair puzzle, capable of solution by the reader, which is told via an entertaining story and protagonist. That’s not stuff that much interests me.

    Here a much more interesting list. Elmore Leonard’s famous rules of writing:

    Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing
    Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

    from the New York Times, Writers on Writing Series.


    These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

    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.

    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.

    There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. 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. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

    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 to get 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 flavor 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, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

    9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

    Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

    And finally:

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

    A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

    My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

    Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

    If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character—the one whose view best brings the scene to life—I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

    What Steinbeck did in “Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

    “Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

    Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

    This is a more serious list than Knox’s, but it has in common that each rule can and sometimes should be broken. For all that though, they’re not bad rules. Leonard’s examples are well chosen. His explanations make a lot of sense. Following these rules would help a novice writer avoid writing a truly bad book.

    Naturally many of the greatest writers merrily ignore Leonard’s prescriptions. That’s fine. Those writers know what they’re doing. Leonard’s rules are pretty solid requisites for good writing. That doesn’t mean they’re requisites for great writing. Leonard’s a good enough writer to know there’s no formula for that.


    Filed under Crime, Personal posts, Publishing

    18 responses to “Rules and commandments

    1. An addendum, if I may: Kurt Vonnegut’s rules.

      1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

      2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

      3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

      4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

      5. Start as close to the end as possible.

      6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

      7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

      8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

      Of course, as Vonnegut points out, many great writers – he names Flannery O’Connor – break these rules (except the first).

    2. Interesting stuff.
      Strange there is no rule about using commas and semi-colonns. There could be a rule like “Don’t write long paragraphs with lots of commas and semi-colons, unless you’re Marcel Proust”

      I guess Martin Amis follows none of these rules. But at the same time, he doesn’t want to be invisible.

    3. Commas and semi-colons are much more heavily used in French literature than English I think. Vagaries of style. The potential problem is getting lost in sub-clauses. I do have to pay attention to Proust in part for that (and for many other reasons).

      Proust though always obeys Vonnegut’s rule 1. Thanks for that list John, I hadn’t seen it before. I don’t agree with 2 but the rest are pretty good…

      And yet, in good enough hands they’re still all breakable. Except the first.

    4. I am skeptical of this hate towards adverbs. Certainly they have been abused in certain styles of popular fiction, but they are still a useful part of speech and when used skillfully are often integral to good dialogue. It’s too simplistic and easy of a rule to be valid. I have memories of bad english teachers and pretentious college students going through and cutting out all adverbs just because.

    5. The no Chinaman rule is odd. There goes Charlie Chan.

      Going over the first list, some of the ‘rules’ seem like good advice–the no-more-than-one secret passage rule makes sense. However, I’d argue against the no intuition. I can think of a few examples where it works. In fact it just appeared in Jim Thompson’s Savage Night. The main character gets these vibes and doesn’t listen to them. Big mistake.

      Personally I get tired of the dumber sidekick (Watson). I think it’s been overdone.

      On to the next list. Leonard is right about dialect and patois. It makes reading a lot more difficult. I just finished a novel full of patois and it was annoying.

      Thompson described his characters with just a few words and managed to convey the essence. When Lou Ford meets Joyce Lakeland (The Killer Inside Me), one of the comments he makes is “I wondered how she lived so long.” (Or something like that–my copy isn’t right in front of me). I didn’t need much more than that.

    6. I’m a little surprised about the rule to avoid prologues. They’re a staple of crime fiction, a scene set out of time with the rest of the novel like in D.O.A. – you need the shock opening of a man reporting his own murder before going back to the start of the story to see how we got to that stage. Not having read any Agatha Christie I don’t know if she used them but the TV adaptations certainly do – we get to see a version of a (or the) crime and then it’s on with the story. It works best when we are shown something that seem to have no connection with the story itself like in Murder on the Orient Express, something that happened years before the actual murder Poirot ends up investigating. The writers on the TV series Department S were very good at this, setting up a scene with, say, a spaceman walking down a London Street or something equally bizarre, something to pique our interest. I’ve did this in my third novel. There’s a short exchange between two characters, Joe and Lucien, written in pure dialogue and then we jump to a guy feeding swans in a park. If you are going to use them I think the one thing you need to bear in mind is this: make them short, a couple of pages at the most.

    7. Walkerp,

      I think the rules, if used at all, are best used to make people think about what they’re writing and why. So with the adverbs, if someone thinks about whether an adverb is appropriate that seems a good thing. Blindly striking them seems though as useless as loading a shotgun with them and firing it at the page. The point of the rules I suspect is more to prod people away from laziness in their writing than anything else – to make choices conscious.

      Guy, I think I read once (though I no longer have the source) that the no Chinaman rule was a reaction to an awful lot of stories suddenly featuring mysterious powers and agents from the East. That said, I don’t know much about Knox but I suspect his tongue was firmly in his cheek on that one.

      The no intuition rule I think is a genre thing. Detective fiction is supposed to present puzzles the reader has a chance to solve through the clues in the fiction (though the author can misdirect to their heart’s content). Intuition shortcircuits the need for clues and so plays with the fairness of the puzzle.

      In noir (or general crime fiction) none of that is relevant. Routinely the reader knows “whodunnit” from very early on. There’s no puzzle to solve. Rather there’s a literary examination of character, society and/or a thrilling plot (depending on the novel and how literary it wishes to be). Intuition there is I think only a problem if it becomes quasi-supernatural in its power and causes the reader to lose their sense of the intuitive character as a real person.

      Watson’s went out 0f fashion. I can’t say I miss them. They’re still common on tv though I note. Law and Order Criminal Intent in the early seasons is all about a brilliant detective and his less brilliant sidekick that he explains stuff to. House of course is modelled on Sherlock Holmes and features a whole group of Watsons. In fiction though it was fine for Conan Doyle where it was (as far as I know) original but it got quickly tired after him.

      Jim, the Leonard list is a much more serious one and I think more interesting (though I love that Vonnegut list that John posted). The no prologues bit I suspect is about cutting to the meat of the fiction. To nick from Vonnegut, is a prologue revealing character or advancing the action? Probably not, it’s probably more establishing mood which makes it more like opening with the weather.

      I can’t speak for Leonard obviously but I suspect that’s what he’s getting at. Of course he then goes on to cite a good prologue. That’s the thing with Leonard – he’s well aware there’s good reasons to break the rules. He’s arguing more I think against complacent writing. Having a prologue because prologues are what novels have. That sort of thinking.

      I wouldn’t want to lose the prologue as a tool. It exists for good reason. Used well it piques the interest as you say. It sets reader expectations and perhaps gives them a moment to slip into the novels mindset. They can be a warming up exercise for what’s to follow. Particularly in crime fiction though they can sometimes just be what amounts to filler, saying nothing that won’t be said anyway in the pages to follow.

      Still, I’m not particularly defending the rules. Most of them can and should be knocked down. Leonard’s at pains to make that point in fact. Except the one about exclamation marks. That one I pretty much agree with.

    8. I recall PD James saying something about ‘increasing your vocabulary. Words, after all, are the tools of your trade.’ And yet, no other writer suggests anything similar. John Braine, in his book on the subject, is far more reductive, and suggests that someone ‘Who has spent their life inside an empty room has plenty with which to write a novel.’ There always seems to be a suggestion that lexical issues are secondary and that ‘experience is key’. What would you say, Max?

    9. It’s good advice, though perhaps Cormac McCarthy shouldn’t have followed it quite so diligently (really Cormac, discalced? I know, I should drop it and move on).

      I don’t agree with John Braine at all (as quoted, I’ve not read his book). The novel is more than a mere reiteration of personal experience. The philosophy that you should write what you know would rob us of several genres entirely (SF, fantasy and horror would all be gone as would the vast bulk of crime, romance and historical fiction) and would rob us of many of the greatest works literature has given us. I profoundly disagree with it.

      Write what you know in the sense don’t write that which you can’t convincingly speak to isn’t bad advice. Trying to write a novel from the perspective of an East Coast socialite will be harder if you’ve grown up in the Paris banlieues, but then again if you did grow up in the banlieues why should that stop you imagining other voices? Other experiences? Writing that East Coast comedy of manners will be harder, but research, imagination and talent can carry you a long way.

      Vocabulary though, that’s handy stuff. You may choose to write in a reduced idiom or with a seemingly simple style, but it should be a choice.

    10. I think on the vocab issue it’s clearly a bonus to have as much musicality and exactness at your disposal. It’s surely a little like being a musician (say Jonny Greenwood) and not having listened to all that classical music. Why not have it in there and, even if it is never referred to, let it settle and form part of a silent but enriching sedimentary basis?

      I pretty obviously agree with your comments re: ‘write what you know’. Don Delillo writes ‘to find out how I feel about things’. Which doesn’t get to the nub of the issue. But, of course, there is the negation of those genres you mention were all writers to self-impose such rules. I suppose there’s ‘write what you know’ and ‘write what you know in metaphor’ as well. The Tommyknockers being an example of an alcoholic writer writing his way out of a very quotidian hell by dealing with it as a buried, rediscovered spaceship.

    11. Max: Absolutely you are right. With noir, intuition isn’t a problem as there’s so often that sticky feeling of betrayal (intuition that something doesn’t add up, someone is less than transparent). If I think of someone like Holmes using intuition, it feels awkward but then I’m not that hot about Holmes anyway. It seems that I can remember Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect having gut feelings about something in more than one episode.

      There’s a difference linguistically there, isn’t there? Gut feelings vs intuition.

      What’s that saying: By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.

    12. I’m not sure about the adverd/said use at all. I tried both and to only use said can start to sound like a parody after a while. Balance is the key to it, I guess. An adver once in awhile may be ok. One after the other is alos bad writing. Maybe these are tips for those who only just begin.
      Show don’t tell is a rule that has become a cliché and is very American. It is hammered into every ones head who has ever taken a course or read a book on creative writing. What about poor Sebald? He didn’t do a lot of showing and still his books are great (just one random example). There is really still a huge difference between American and European/Asian… story telling.

    13. My favourite rules — and the ones that have guided my journalistic career — were those set down by George Orwell:

      1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
      2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
      3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
      4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
      5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
      6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    14. There’s one I love (the name Hilary Mantel comes to mind): you shouldn’t describe things when you’re following a character unless something changes, the way SF writers let their creatures go undescribed till foreigners come into the narrative.
      This may be the one non-reflexive rule that cannot be broken without the writer sounding idiotic.
      As for why I love it: remember all those thrillers/”fast-paced” books which suddenly into the life-stories of one of the characters the moment the narrative shifts into that character’s pov? (“Gnarls Barkley was sitting and staring at the window of the train when he started thinking of his ex-girlfriend. ” This shit makes me want to tear my heart out.)

      And I would like to add one of my own: don’t add an extra pov just to tell the readers that there’s something you’re not telling them more than thrice in the same book. After that, the secret becomes less interesting than the laziness of your writing.

    15. Oh, and also: never, ever map out the character’s psychology before you’re done with the second-last draft.

    16. I think they are more for beginners Caroline, for those looking to get into writing (which is a lot of people after all).

      Show don’t tell can be useful, but it’s another one that’s a question of thinking about how you apply the rule rather than slavishly following it. I agree it can be a problematic one. Ronak raises that issue of description and it’s a common issue in SF. The narrative stops while the author basically lectures the reader about the setting of the novel. It rarely works well and I think it’s partly that sort of thing that the rule is getting at, but it gets overapplied.

      The other classic error on that front is a character looking at themselves in the mirror. “Gnarls gazed steadily at his reflection. The man looking back at him looked drawn, tired, bloodshot eyes and three-day stubble.”

      It’s a common novelistic trick, but not a good one. How many people actually inspect themselves that way unless they’re actually looking for something specific in their reflection? It’s a cheap way of getting in some character description but it doesn’t work (I would be fine though with “Gnarls inspected his forehead in the mirror. The bruise was already starting to show.” since there’s actually a reason there for Gnarls to be looking at himself).

      Kimbofo, Orwell’s are rules I’d like to see used much more widely. Not so much in literature, but definitely in journalism, politics and above all corporate communications.

    17. There is so much to comment on in this interesting post. I like Knox’s “Watson” point – as you say, it is surprising how often this is still used on tv to provide a running commentary for less perceptive viewers.

      Leonard’s “weather” point is very good. The much hyped David Vann should read this one for the glowering Alaskan weather with its gales and ice-storms gets very tedious over time – when I think of his books its just a mass of dark skys and torrential rain that come to mind.

      The exclamation mark is more overused today than ever before I’m sure – but in email rather than novels perhaps – continually annoying, although I am a culprit myself.

      I wonder what Leonard thinks of the author appearing in his own novel? An increasingly common novelty I find! (excuse exclamation mark)

    18. Hello Tom, sorry for the slow reply, I’m buried in Proust and work at the moment. Not an ideal combination wonderful as Proust is.

      David Vann? Not one I’ve read. Not one I probably will read based on that brief comment though I’ve changed my mind often enough before on such things. Is he all about the mood? Sometimes the situation you read such authors in makes a real difference. I can imagine based on what you say that reading him at winter might be more rewarding (or even overwhelming) than reading him on a bright Summer day.

      I do have to admit to a particular dislike of exclamation marks (yours is totally excused though, it did make me laugh). Few things are so exciting as to merit one, let alone more than one. Has god incontrovertibly revealed his presence to the world? Have aliens landed on the White House lawn? Is the sun exploding? Even if so, one exclamation mark really does cover it.

      I suspect Leonard wouldn’t be a fan of author self-insertion. I have pretty mixed views on it myself. Still, as with anything with enough talent any rule can be broken.

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Google photo

    You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s