Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

Elmore Leonard expired a few years ago, and apart from his brilliant books, the best legacy he could’ve left for writers was his ten rules. Do modern novels really follow them? Let’s take a look at a breakdown of the rules.

  1. Never open a book with weather.

The reader is likely to “leaf ahead looking for people.”

There are tons of bestselling books that open with weather, including those by PJ Tracy and Christopher Paolini, for example. So there are exceptions, but it must be done with care.

  1. Avoid prologues.

He thinks they are annoying and if the prologue is backstory, “you can drop it in anywhere.”

I have to say I agree with this a hundred percent, but even then the occasional bestseller pops up flaunting a prologue. It still features prominently in popular books, but I do see the number dwindling every day.

  1. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

Since “dialogue belongs to the character,” anything else is simply “the writer sticking his nose in.”

I’ve spent most of this year reading short stories online and in print. And in stories of all forms, this holds true. Though I have to say, JK Rowling proved it doesn’t hinder the flow for most readers if exciting things are happening. I am also not sure if anyone except writers even notices this as much.

Here’s a snippet from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:

“Alastor!” Dumbledore said warningly.

  1. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said.”

He writes that these words, that distract and interrupt “the rhythm of the exchange,” are a “mortal sin.”

See point 3.

 

  1. Keep your exclamation points under control.

Leonard’s law: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”

This is true. Though I feel it should be allowed in dialogue, but never in the narrative. If it shows up in the narrative it might be regarded as authorial intrusion.

 

  1. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

“This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.”

LOL at this. It is so true.

 

  1. Use regional dialect, patois sparingly.

“Once you start,” he writes, “you won’t be able to stop.”

True, though I don’t see much of this nowadays.

 

  1. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Leonard cites the famous Hemingway short story in which the only physical description of a couple introduced as the ”American and the girl with him” is: ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” Enough said.

Here’s what I wrote a year ago in my diary about this rule:

I understand this, but isn’t it nice to have a picture to go along with the names? Whenever I’m reading a story that doesn’t offer any descriptions of the characters, I assign a random face in my head to the person speaking, only to have it shattered later on when I find that the person is of a different race/gender/sexual orientation etc.

This is what I think today:

He’s absolutely right. Unless the physical aspects matter to the story and/or naturally come out during the story, does it really matter?

  1. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

They bring “the flow of the story to a standstill.”

By this token, most books would never be published. Rebecca features pages and pages of vivid descriptions of Manderley. It builds an elaborate, haunting atmosphere that would be lost if skipped or cut out. Modern books can get away with little description, but again would be hard to picture a place if it’s described perfunctorily.

  1. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Leonard advises writers to “think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose [with] too many words in them.” And he reminds us, “I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”

This is a good one, the ultimate cardinal rule that should serve as a guiding principle for all writers.

Leonard’s ultimate rule sums up the previous ten:

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. 

Almost all novels nowadays sound like writing. They don’t always sound natural. Teenagers sound like adults, adult characters in books sound way more sophisticated than the average adult might be, and narrators often use words that send one scurrying to the dictionary/thesaurus.

I refer often to these rules for guidance. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing, one must know the rules in order to break them!

What do you think of these rules? Do you have any that you follow strictly? Refer Anne R. Allen’s latest blog post for an excellent takedown of “The Rules Police”!