Continuing a dissection of Elmore Leonard’s Rules,
looking at rules 5-7.
5. Keep exclamation points under control
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
“Keep your exclamation points under control.”
Leonard’s rules keep coming back to the theme, “don’t be fancy if you don’t have to be.” The occasional exclamation mark in dialogue is forgivable, especially if you want to highlight tone of voice without having to add “she yelled” as your dialogue attribution. But an exclamation mark in description or action is bad form. You’re basically telling us what we should think is exciting, instead of showing us.
Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
He could have also said, “avoid clichés like the plague.” Both of these phrases are– like exclamation points– designed to manufacture excitement instead of letting it be created naturally.
Examine these two phrases:
- I pulled over by the side of the road and got out of my car. The night sky lit up as lightning sizzled the ground in front of me.
- I pulled over by the side of the road and got out of my car. Suddenly, the night sky lit up as lightning sizzled the ground in front of me.
Here, “suddenly” doesn’t add anything useful to the sentence. In theory, it’s supposed to make the sentence feel quick and surprising. But, since it adds an extra word and a comma, it actually makes the sentence feel slower.
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
In David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, one of the short stories is a far-future dystopian tale in which characters speak in this quasi-southern dialect, and Mitchell gleefully uses this thick dialect full of apostrophes and hyphens during every single piece of dialogue. It’s maddeningly complex. But Mitchell does it on purpose, as that whole book is a meta-joke on genres and bad writing.
A southern character might say “y’all”, but he doesn’t need to say “are y’all comin’ to the dance?” We can infer from the y’all how the rest of the sentence goes. Dialect slows down the reader, which slows down the story. An occasional tidbit like y’all or youse is enough for us to get the sense of the character. Let the cadence and subject matter do the rest.