Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules

Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules

 

 

Among all the lists of writing rules and advice, this one ranks high, in my opinion. Simple, yet so important.


 

  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.

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

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

 * Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”


 

Some of you might agree with these, some might not. Feel free to add links to additional lists/tips in the comment section below.

Let the discussion begin…

104 thoughts on “Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules

    • I’m with you on this one. There are some good rules on this list, but I’m not sure I agree with number three. Then again, there is something to be said for ‘said.’ There have been a few rare occasions when I have been reading and an author has gone out of their way to avoid the word ‘said.’ That gets old fast.

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      • You don’t have to work to keep from using it, but I don’t think it alone is quite enough. But I agree with you, people tearing through thier entire vocabulary to keep from using the same term twice gets old.

        Liked by 2 people

    • All I can suggest is read one or two of Leonard’s novels and decide for yourself about his characters and dialogue. I agree he’s not everyone’s favorite, but he’s unique, and his stories and characters stay with me long after I’ve read the books.

      Chris

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      • I read Leonard a long time ago, and his style was very spare. His atmosphere was created by a few mannerisms and dialogue, and it was wonderfully evocative. But that’s not what I’m trying to do in my writing, so why should I follow his rules? His rules are for the kind of stuff he writes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Of course don’t try to write like Leonard, just appreciate his particular gift with words and use it or not or modify it to fit your style. I don’t try to copy anyone, but I sure as hell like the inspiration I get from the best (and best-selling) writers.

        Chris

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  1. So true about ‘said’, so many authors think they need to pepper up their writing with adverbs to spice things up, but it just ends up looking too wordy. The only problem is, if you have a page of dialogue, you can’t keep using ‘said’, but if it is only between two people then there is no need for its use, apart from sparingly.
    I like the point that says ‘leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.’ If we knew that secret then just think how successful we would all be! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Overall, a great list! Thanks for sharing. The “said” point reminds me of Stephen King’s advice in On Writing. I’m with Mark on the prologues, though. The fantasy genre lives by these and I don’t have an issue with them.

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    • I read one book that gave that advice and then explicitly said sci-fi and fantasy are an exception for obvious reasons.
      And I’ve definitely seen science fiction books criticized for NOT describing what important characters and objects look like.

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  3. In response to #1, I can’t help but think of the opening line to Raymond E. Fiest’s “Magician” – in fact he used weather a lot when opening his chapters! didn’t really bother me.

    Also, I am definitely guilty of overusing exclamation marks!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. So, “It was a dark and stormy night,” is out?

    I was once advises to never open with a dream sequence. It misleads readers and angers them. Especially when they are potential agents or editors.

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  5. An editor I didn’t respect once told me that you should never start a sentence with “it.” I immediately quoted, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …”
    I think it just goes to show that if you understand a craft, you understand when it is acceptable to bend or disregard so-called “rules.”

    Liked by 6 people

  6. Good post for aspiring writers. I am just wondering though. Doesn’t the very act of writing come from different places inside? I am unsure that there can be a definitive, even a constructive one, for just writing. Perhaps, rules for writing blog posts or handling a writer’s block or writing on tissue papers at restaurants.

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  7. I completely agree with every thing on this list even though my WIP has a prologue…I’ve already prepared myself that readers will most likely skip over it. Heck, I do…

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    • If your readers will skip over the prologue, don’t include it. From the perspective of your audience, it won’t even be there. It’s not about preparing yourself. It’s about preparing your work. Once it’s done and out there, it’s not yours any more. It’s theirs. 😉

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  8. Reblogged this on Nothing At All and commented:
    I have been writing my magnum opus for 13 years now, and upon looking at my manuscript and with these rules, I may have to re-write it. Hopefully, I can publish that novel before I die.

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  9. Reblogged this on Literary.Schizophrenia and commented:
    I’m on board with all of these except the one about the prologue. I do agree that if there is a prologue it should be short and not a necessary part of the story as many people skip over them. In my novel I have a prologue that introduces the tone of the book. The reader won’t be missing any facts if they skip it, but it’s a nice bit of prose.

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    • Do not be so in love with your prose that you cannot delete it. If your readers won’t read your prologue, why have one?

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      • If we work off the premise that a reader may not read something, then nothing would ever get written. There is no standard. I would agree that in Mr. Leonard’s genre a prologue is meaning less. But I write mainstream fiction and I write for myself. If the reader likes it then I get compensated. If not, then I’m okay with it. There are some rules that should be loosely followed, this is one of them. But there are no hard and fast rules about writing. There are a lot of books on the market right now, selling that crazy, that proves that point. And for me, good prose is an end in and of itself in a good book.

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      • It you are your own audience then none of the rules anywhere apply to you. A woman who wanted to translate my novel, Martin of Gfenn, into German let me know after she translated the first 15 pages that she didn’t like it because I “…don’t write like Henry James.” I hate Henry James. Personal taste might actually be everything and there’s no way to please everyone (and why would anyone want to?). My belief, however, is if an audience doesn’t read something it’s the same as if it had never been written. Here are my rules: http://marthakennedy.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/my-rules-for-good-writing/

        Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t read romance. But that doesn’t imply, at least not to me, that it shouldn’t be written. I think you’ll find that there are many, well known authors out there who write prologues for their novels. If they didn’t we wouldn’t be having this discussion. As you said, it’s a matter of personal taste. And to give you a further example, I Iove Henry James and Wm. Faulkner, and many others in a similar vein, but I would never say, I don’t like your book because you don’t write like ___________. Every author should develop their own voice, their own style, and we each have our own internal set of rules. If a reader chooses not to read something, it is their choice. I can’t fix that. I also don’t want to be like everyone else. With all that said, I totally agree with your rules of writing. 🙂 You said, it’s all about reaching your audience, but its also about providing what you, the author, has to say in the best way you know how. Again, not everyone is going to like it. So you write for yourself, and hope someone else will enjoy it as well.

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  10. These are great rules for writing like Elmore Leonard. What I take from this is that he had a personal literary vision to which he was faithful. I respect that, but I’m not sure I’d necessarily adhere to any of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I can’t say I agree with all these rules. I think it would get boring and repetitive if you only used the word “said” and especially without any adverbs. I do agree with the detailed description of characters and places etc but only when it’s to the extreme. There are some authors who go on and on for pages describing things and you find yourself thinking, “come on! Get on with the story already!”

    Liked by 1 person

  12. The prologue advice immediately resonated with me. I’m reading Let The Great Wrorld Spin, which has a vivid, breathtaking prologue. Just stellar word smithing. Unfortunately, it’s too good. I’m almost at the end of the book (divided into 3 sections). The rest of the writing does not measure up to the prologue. No writer, great or not so great, could possibly sustain that level of writerly intensity included in this writer’s prologue throughout an entire novel. I suppose that’s the danger of writing an incredible prologue. That said, I’m glad to have read the book for the unforgettable prologue and several passages later on in section 3 that harken back to that prologue.

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  13. Reblogged this on moniquerockliffe and commented:
    More great writing advice. Simple and easy to remember. I agree with all the points. What say you, dear Writer? Are there areas in your writing that need tidying up and analyzing? I have learned over the years how to tighten up my writing and make it sound less like writing and more like storytelling. Is there a difference? I think so. Do you?

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  14. Darn, I have a few “suddenly” to get rid off…I never realised how many I actually used until I read that. I am good at using “said” instead of anything else but I am still guilty of adding adjectives to it once in a while (or a little more than that)…Oh well, one for the editing stage. Thanks for the advice!!

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  16. I wouldn’t lightly disagree with Elmore Leonard, but my big problem with this list is the over-use of that word ‘never’. For that reason I prefer #7, because it uses ‘sparingly’ instead. That I think is the key here. There is a huge amount of wisdom in these rules, and I think they should be taken very seriously (there’s another word I’ve been told to avoid – ‘very’!), but I don’t like being told I can ‘never’ use ‘suddenly’ or any speech tag apart from ‘said’. Or some arbitrary limit on the number of exclamation marks!!! That said, I should be very (sorry) careful of all those things. I should avoid unnecessary verbiage, cluttered sentences and clichés like the plague (oops – cliché alert). (Along with one of my personal shortcomings, over-use of parentheses – as you can probably tell.) And the ‘if it sounds like writing …’ advice is useful in that regard.

    It’s just all those ‘nevers’ I have a problem with.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Forgot to add – rules forbidding opening with weather, dream sequences or prologues smack more of subjective taste than of any objective problems. The golden rule, surely – just as with description – is to include any of those things only to the extent they are needed, so that they enhance the book rather than detract from it. Less is very often more. And of course, as per rule #10, if a reader will tend to skip it, don’t include it. I think that rule is the best one actually.

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  18. I wrote a quasi-response to this list and others like it on my blog (http://michaelcristiano.net/2014/07/29/8-rules-for-writing-fiction-and-why-you-should-break-them/).

    In a nutshell, I’ve seen successful authors break rules that dictate that prologues are fatal flaws, that “said” is the only acceptable dialogue tag, and that adverbs are evil. I guess my point is that if the voice and the story is good, a few adverbs and a prologue isn’t going to change that. My biggest issue is Elmore Leonard’s use of the word “never”. I’ll probably get crucified for the cliché, but never say never. I like to believe that writing is an art, not one bond too tightly by rules. If a writer breaks one but it doesn’t detract from the story, why not?

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  19. “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”
    Not even “asked”? It’s unusual to use “said” to carry a question; the only reason I’d ever do that would be to intentionally indicate that the character said it in a way that didn’t sound like a question.

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  20. Robert B Parker used “said” most of dialogue and I got used to it without judgment as other colorful similes and metaphors used by main character/narrator Spenser brighten the text in other ways so I became forgiving of monotonous “said”. Often the spoken sentence itself overrides the need for alternative to boring “said”. For me the alternative over used bellowed, exclaimed, offered, replied , etc get to seem contrived as author tries to avoid mere “said”. If the text is engrossing I don’t become irritated by simple “said” . You would certainly enjoy “Eats Shoots & Leaves” by Lynn Truss. Further Carl sayeth not.

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  21. I like this post, however I am at fault of committing many of these ‘never’s’. My writing sounds a lot like writing and I overdescribe everything – however if the cliches are minimal, I don’t think its too much of a bad thing.

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