Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

It’s a pretty popular thing for accomplished writers to compile lists of rules* for writing fiction. This week, Steve and I tackle 10 of these rules as suggested by Elmore Leonard. You can listen to the cast below, or download it here.

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elmore-leonard-07Elmore Leonard cut his teeth writing westerns, but quickly moved on to crime novels. He wrote nearly two dozen novels (many of them best sellers) including Get Shorty and Rum Punch.

You can see the list of his rules and what he has to say about them here. This is what Steve and I have to say.

*A fast note on rules. Some writers maintain you should follow all the “rules” of fiction, while others make a point to deliberately break the rules. We take a more moderate approach to them. The rules are here for a reason. They work, for the most part. If they didn’t they’d never last as “rules.” You can break them, sure, but why would you? If you feel it necessary, and you must break the rule for your fiction to work, then go ahead. But when you’re a beginning writer, it’s best to follow the rules. They’ll keep you on the right track. The more you write and stretch your wings, the more you’ll find when it’s appropriate to break the rules.

1. Never open a book with weather.

Weather in isolation isn’t compelling. If, however, it becomes conflict (a hurricane, let’s say while a small boat works toward the shore). And while there are several notable exceptions to this rule (which you hear in our podcast), the point remains: weather openings are overdone and cliche.

2. Avoid prologues.

Prologues generally do not focus on the protagonists, and often feel disconnected. In literary fiction, it’s an excuse to “info dump” and bring the reader’s up to speed on the important events that happen before the primary conflict. But in genre fiction, prologues are often expected, especially in fantasy. There are some reasons to include prologues. Often in first person books, prologues give you an opportunity to explore a different characters perspective.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue and 4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

I generally agree with this one. Verbs other than “said” tend to distract the reader and call attention to the author. However, I believe there are a few exceptions. I allow “ask,” or the occasional “whispered” or “shouted,” if they’re conveying something that may seem to contradict what’s being said. For example, “Look out,” he whispered, or “I love you,” he shouted. Another trick is to use action to carry a line of dialog. Rather than ending each line of dialog with “he said,” try giving the reader subtle stage directions. For example, “Have a seat.” Frank motioned to the black swivel chair on the opposite side of the desk.

5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald says “using an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” In the same way that verbs other than “said” point back to the authors, so do exclamation points. The best writers are invisible. Additionally, it’s a slippery slope from exclamation points to melodrama. Speaking plainly, if you’re using an exclamation point, there’s a good chance your dialog isn’t strong enough. If your grammar has to carry your emotion, your words aren’t doing their job. This is a rule that’s best to follow.

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

Pretty self explanatory. These are cliches and should be avoided at all cost. These are also clear markers of amateur writers.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

There’s a few reasons not to do this. The first is because it’s very difficult to do well. Secondly, the non-standard spelling makes for difficult reading. At some point, we cease to be readers and become decoders. There are always notable exceptions. Mark Twain can do it. Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner as well. They let the words they use carry the feel of dialog rather than using grammar to convey an accent.

8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters and 9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

The key to good writing is not overloading the reader with detail. Instead, it’s about finding the right details. As Bret Anthony Johnston says, “the goal is not to give the reader a linguistic blueprint of a library, but the raw materials from which they can erect their own library: the smell of old pages, dusty motes of dust swirling in sunlight near the windows, the sound of librarians whispering like the trickle of a stream.” One or two solid details are always better than pages and pages of overused imagery.

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

This is rather self-explanatory. Keep the writing to the point, moving the story forward. Don’t drag your feet. If the story’s not progressing, the reader will know, they will get bored, and they will skip entire chapters.

10 Comments on Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

  1. Those are helpful rules

  2. Jonathan Davila (Spartacus) | October 10, 2013 at 8:38 am | Reply

    Rule 6 clearly tell me I’m an amateur, but I understand it’s overuse because I constantly see this myself and become frustrated with my own writing. Rule 8 also stumps me cause I use intense imagery but also in an overuse with deep detail. I will try to figure out how to find pinpoint detail that’s raw enough for my reader to create, after its for their imagination not mine.

  3. It’s neat that certain authors can perform these Don’ts while others should avoid them at all cost. With skill comes the ability to do the almost unthinkable.

  4. Jacob Roberts (Tron) | October 15, 2013 at 8:07 pm | Reply

    Wow. I’ve now realized how many mistakes i make while writing.

  5. On rule #3 I never realized that you could say something more creative other than “said”. But as i was reading the rule i remembered a story i tried to write, and the word “said” just seemed in my comfort zone but now i think I’ll start using better words.

  6. After listening and reading the rules i am shocked on how helpful these rules really are. #6 made me think because i always use the word suddenly and now that i no its wrong ill be sure to correct myself its very helpful and will help my writing be in more depth.

  7. Word choice is important and I agree with Morgan. I have certain words that are in my comfort zone. But I want to expand my word choice.

  8. Adriana Coonce | November 5, 2013 at 10:33 am | Reply

    I really like rule #6 it struck me at home because I tend to use a lot of words all the time. That is something that i should work on.

  9. While I agree with some of these rules I tend to disagree with any rule stating that something is cliche I like to right how I like to write these rules are good but some of them seem a little strange but I agree with most and I plan to use them in my future works

  10. I’m a number 6 type of person. I’ve noticed that suddenly seems to be a word I use a lot when writing a story. I should probably try to avoid that.

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