1. Never open a book with the 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 think if writers at least bear these in mind as they are working they will usually be doing themselves and their readers a favour.
They are a curious mixture on the face of it aren’t they? Some are pretty much standard advice – how often do we hear the tip to avoid adverbs where possible? Others strike you as quirky on first reading them. ‘Never open a book with the weather’ being a good example.
I think with this weather one Leonard is offering us two things. Firstly he is helping us avoid cliché. The all-time worst opening line of a book is often held to be ‘It was a dark and stormy night,’ the first line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford. It is so often mocked that there is even a Bulwer-Lytton competition now for the worst opening line you can come up with.
So best avoided for that reason alone. But I think Leonard is also encouraging us to get to the point and, more importantly, to get to the people. Novels are so often more a success at describing emotions than they are at describing things. I’ve mentioned before how Yann Martel describes the shipwreck in Life of Pi in one line ‘The boat sank.’
I have a weather scene – a storm, near the start of Song of the Sea God. But it’s not right at the start. The opening belongs to the narrator Bes who is under the impression he is dead, but turns out to be mistaken. Somehow I thought it best to talk about people first and save the wind and rain for later.
The tip to avoid exclamation marks also seems a little quirky. But it’s advice I know well, because we were also given it as young newspaper reporters by wise old sub-editors. In newspapers, exclamation marks are often used in headlines (we had a rude name for them used in this way, referencing a dog’s anatomy, but I will not include that on this ‘safe for work’ blog). But they are much less often used in copy. Where, I remember an old hand on the subs’ desk telling me: “They simply serve to highlight the wide-eyed incredulity of the reporter.”
In fiction they simply serve to show the author thinks something is exciting or amusing, and that the reader ought to think so too. But the reader will make up her own mind – exclamation point or not!
Perhaps Leonard’s key rule is the last one – leave out the parts readers tend to skip. We would all like to do that wouldn’t we? Leonard’s feeling was they don’t tend to skip dialogue – and he was a genius at that. This point is advice about rewriting I suppose – cut out the bits which are not good, leave the bits which are.
So there they are, Elmore Leonard’s rules – food for thought for all of us I think.
Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.