05 March 2016

Writing No-No's and When to Use Them

For those of you who don't know him, Herschel Cozine's work has appeared not only in many of the national children's magazines but also in AHMMEQMM, Wolfmont Press's Toys for Tots anthologies, and Woman's World. Additionally, he is the author of many stories in Orchard Press MysteriesMouth Full of BulletsUntreed ReadsGreat Mystery and SuspenseMysterical-E, and others. His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and he has a story in the upcoming Dark House anthology Black Coffee, due for release in May. Thanks, Herschel! -- The SleuthSayers team

(Caveat: The following is for your amusement only. Anyone who survived Creative Writing 101 will find nothing new in this piece.)

Recently I had the good fortune to have a couple of stories published in Woman's World (or, as it is otherwise known, "John Floyd's journal"). I was taken to task by some readers because they had to suspend disbelief when they read it. Under the circumstances it was a legitimate criticism. But at the same time, I felt it was unwarranted.

In this particular instance I had my protagonist, a police detective, discussing an ongoing case with a member of the family. This is, of course, not allowed in real life. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. I have seen defense attorneys and prosecutors discussing open cases on talk shows. Granted, they are not participants in the case. But often the cases they are discussing have not yet come to trial. So they are influencing potential jurors. Do you suppose for one instant that similar conversations do not take place among family members?

Suspension of disbelief in performing arts and literature has been around since Shakespeare. If a woman can don a hat and put on men's clothing and fool her husband of twenty years (as is done in Shakespeare), the poor sap is either completely bereft of any intelligence, or the audience has to suspend disbelief.  In this case, both.

I was a huge fan of the TV program Columbo. Peter Falk had developed a character, an outwardly bumbling police lieutenant who fumbled his way through murder investigations, while in reality he was a keen and competent investigator. But his methods, if tried in the real world, should have had him dismissed from the force. Carrying crucial evidence around in a paper bag, accosting the suspect at work and home and at all hours of the day and night. Discussing key issues of the investigation in public places. You get the point. Did one have to suspend disbelief? Absolutely. Was this a problem? Evidently not. The program was a huge success and ran for several seasons.

I will not bore you with the many instances that occur with regularity on this subject. (Relax, Jessica Fletcher.) And it isn't just happening with poor writing. It is, to my way of thinking, a literary tool that is used to get information to the reader or to create a situation in an interesting manner that is critical to the story. If one stops to think about it, they wouldn't want it any other way. Without the privilege of using it, many stories would become dull dissertations that readers would quit reading by the end of the first chapter.

Another common complaint is that of coincidence. This is not to be used in writing. It is a copout. It is sloppy writing by a writer who is too lazy or too inept to come up with an alternative.

Again I say "Poppycock." Coincidences occur all the time in real life, and nobody pooh poohs them. Some pretty wild coincidences have happened to me, and I'm sure to all of you as well. Could I use them in a story and get anyone to believe it? Doubtful. But it convinces me that coincidence in storytelling is not much different from life itself.

When Ilsa walked into Rick's place in Casablanca, that was a coincidence of the highest order. By an even bigger coincidence, Rick held the documents she and Laszlo needed to escape Casablanca. If she had shown up a few days earlier she would have been dealing with Ugarte. So instead of Bogart/Bergman chemistry we have Bergman/Lorre. Not even the beautiful and talented Ingrid could pull this off. Thank God for coincidence. Without it we would be denied one of the great movies of all time.

And what is all the fuss about the use of adverbs? I suspect this came about with the advent of the Tom Swift books. (I also suspect the sin of opening a story with a weather report was caused by Lytton). In both cases, the hue and cry is deserved. But why should these isolated cases cause a wholesale banishment of legitimate tools?

When I was learning the rules of grammar and was tasked with parsing sentences, I learned about nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, etc. At no time was I told that I couldn't or shouldn't use adverbs. They are legitimate words. They are a part of the language. Why are they there if we aren't supposed to use them?

I recently read one of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct stories. Among the comments on the blurb page was a quote by Elmore Leonard, the "rules of writing" man, praising McBain's storytelling skills. By the end of the first chapter, McBain had used adverbs on several occasions. Shocking! How could this possibly happen?

I--and I am confident that some or all of you--have used adverbs from time to time. Consider this: A laugh can mean many things. If one of my characters laughs he can be doing so because he is amused, disdainful, disbelieving, or a host of other reasons. It can be loud, soft, and so on. It is important for the reader to know how he laughed.

"He gave a disdainful laugh." Or, "he laughed disdainfully."

My preference would be the latter. It uses fewer words, and it is a smoother read. But what about the adverb? Ah, yes, We must do something about that. It is not allowed. "He laughed a disdainful laugh." "His laugh was disdainful." Oh, the hell with it. "He laughed disdainfully." There. I said it and I'm glad.

Then there is the rule one learns in Writing 101: Show, don't tell. I won't insult your intelligence by defining this. I just mention it because it is so basic to writing that I had to include it. Again I ask, inviolate?

Evidently Sinclair Lewis didn't think so.

"Elmer Gantry was drunk."

To my way of thinking, a perfect opening line. Succinct. Defining. Efficient.

To sum it up, the use of coincidence and the suspension of disbelief in writing are--warning: adverb ahead--perfectly acceptable. So, too, is the use of adverbs. They must be used (OMG, more adverbs!) sparingly, intelligently, and in such a way as to not get in the way of the story. So, too, may one "tell" and not "show" when the occasion calls for it. I will suffer the slings and arrows of irate readers while continuing to use these tools of the trade. "To thine own self be true."

(I am well aware that the split infinitive in the above paragraph is a writing sin of epic proportions. I make no apologies.)

If there is an inviolate rule in writing, especially for mystery writers, it is this: Play fair with your readers. That may be good advice for our fearless, upright congressmen as well.

Now, about these adjectives.

Thanks, John, for this opportunity.


  1. Welcome back to SS, Herschel! I enjoyed the column.

    I confess to being one of those writers who strives to avoid adverbs. I still use them, but I'm trying to cut back to only one or two a day. As for telling vs. showing, I see your point. It brings to mind the opening line of Watership Down: "The primroses were over."

    My pet peeve is the overuse of exclamation points!!!

  2. Great piece, Herschel! I really enjoyed it. And agree with pretty much everything you said.

    As to this: "If a woman can don a hat and put on men's clothing and fool her husband of twenty years (as is done in Shakespeare), the poor sap is either completely bereft of any intelligence, or the audience has to suspend disbelief." He's also bereft of any sex I would think... :)

  3. Very nice piece, Herschel, and welcome back!

  4. John, again my thanks for your generosity in allowing me to prattle. I, too, hate !!!. Also have a problem with semicolons; I don't know when to use them.
    Paul, come to think of it there were no children running around in "Merry Wives of Windsor". Is that significant?
    Dale, thanks. Glad you like it. And thanks, too, to Anonymous. The name is familiar. Do I know you?

  5. Welcome back, HC., Another rule McBain broke regulary was "Don't start with the weather." As I recall one of his books began:"Winter came in like an anarchist with a bomb." Who could improve that?

  6. Rob, you're right. I have read many of his 87th precinct books. Several start with the weather. It is done effectively which gives lie to the rule. If I'm not mistaken, Jack London used it on occasion. Thanks for checking in.

  7. Good points. One thing we'd probably all do well to remember: Even Elmore Leonard, who came up with those "Ten Rules of Writing," broke his own rules fairly often. Whatever works, works. Look at Cormac McCarthy and his avoidance of quotation marks, J.K. Rowling and her many adverbs and synonyms for "said," and Larry McMurtry with his abrupt switches in POV (sometimes several on the same page). Suzanne Collins packed loads of backstory into the first few pages of The Hunger Games, the James Bond novels are full of endless tiny details, some of James Patterson's chapters are no more than a page in length, and even John Grisham regularly spells "y'all" with the apostrophe in the wrong place.

    It's great to know the rules, but sometimes if it feels good, do it.

  8. "And thanks, too, to Anonymous. The name is familiar. Do I know you?"

    I think you must be thinking of my uncle. He said to tell you "hi." :-)

  9. Well said, John. It just proves the point made by a writer friend who said, "there are no rules" in this business. While that may be a bit of an overstatement, there is certainly room for improvisation.

    And thanks, anonymous. I know your uncle well. He also goes by "Name withheld".

  10. There are rules. Break them when necessary. And fun.

  11. Thanks for this sensible, thought-provoking post, Herschel. It made me think of the six rules George Orwell presents at the end of "Politics and the English Language." Orwell isn't shy about stating his opinions: Four of the first five rules contain the word "never," and the other contains the word "always." Even these absolutes, though, recognize the need for exceptions. "Never use a long word where a short one will do"--sometimes, a short word won't do. "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out"--sometimes, it isn't possible. And the final rule drives home the point that no rule is truly absolute: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

  12. Thanks, Eve and BK I agree there are rules. All disciplines have them. None, or almost none, are inviolate. BK, I am not a big fan of the words "never" and "always", especially when used as Orwell does. Rigidity in writing is not an option. My opinion anyway.

  13. Herschel, it’s Sunday morning and I finally sat down to read your article. I laughed so hard at Woman's World (or, as it is otherwise known, “John Floyd’s journal”), that I had to read it aloud to my friend Sharon. She immediately started leafing through WW/JFJ to look for your article. What date do your stories appear?

  14. Leigh, I fudged a little on the "recent" comment. My last story appeared in late 2014. I have sold a total of 14, but none within the last year or so. Hoping that will change with the one I have under consideration. Glad you enjoyed the blurb.


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