Elmore Leonard’s rules

682px-Elmore_LeonardThe late great crime writer Elmore Leonard had ten basic rules for writing fiction, which I think all writers should be aware of, whatever kind of fiction they write. Here are Leonard’s rules:

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.

ImageDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.


11 thoughts on “Elmore Leonard’s rules”

  1. Interesting. These could also have been written by Stephen King, especially the one about adverbs. I’m slightly bothered by the point about only using ‘said’ to carry dialogue. I’m not sure I follow what he means there. I can’t think of anything duller than a stream of ‘X said’, but then maybe I need to read his books to see what he means! I must say I would add one more point…”Never say never”. There’s a place for everything – just try not to overuse any device 🙂

    1. The ‘said’ one is another we used to use in journalism and I do pretty much stick to in when I write fiction. The idea is that you read through ‘said’ without it intruding whereas almost anything else will get in the way and seem artificial. You should also be conveying the emotion of the scene in what you are writing so a ‘stage direction’ of this kind should be unnecessary. That’s the idea anyway.

  2. Some of this is good advise..sadly I always open with the weather: in a Dickens pastuche sort of way ….. reminds me of George Orwell’s 10 rules for writers, rule 10 being : feel free to ignore rules 1 -9.

  3. In a way, I agree with you all, and that’s what’s so good about writing. People try and put down rules and tell you how it should be done, but in the end, you have to do what feels right for you and the subject you are writing about…

    1. Quite right – what I like about advice like this is that it at least makes you examine what you are doing. You might want to still go on doing it your way – but you will be doing so mindfully, which is a good thing.

  4. Some excellent guidelines here! I agree with much of what he says, although I also agree that sometimes rules are made to be broken. I do like what he says about getting to the people!

    I actually agree with what he says about not using anything other than ‘said’. In fact, I am now experimenting with not using it at all and just letting dialogue flow. Hopefully the dialogue will be clear enough that the reader knows who is saying what.

    I recently read a book where everyone spoke telepathically and thus all of the dialogue was written as straight text with no punctuation or use of ‘he/she said’. It worked quite well and there was no confusion at all as to who was think-speaking.

    Thanks for the post Chris!

    1. They are certainly food for thought aren’t they? And I think you can see where they are all coming from even if you wouldn’t stick to them like glue yourself.

  5. Odd proscription on the detailed decription of characters. I assume he means avoid detailed descriptions given all in one chunk and also allow the dialogue and actions within given situations to do the work of description. Allow characters to reveal themselves, in other words, rather than stage manage our understanding of them.

    Thinking it theough this way, I take his point! Sorry, post started in one place and ended in quite another!

    1. I think you’re right Merriam – he’s trying to steer writers away from long descriptions which slow up the story, I suppose it’s also another way of saying ‘show don’t tell’ as, if you can’t bung in a lengthy description, then you have to draw your characters in other, more organic ways.

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