Thursday, July 9, 2015

Do You Agree with Elmore Leonard's Writing Rules?

Elmore Leonard's writing rules have been quoted many times and I agree with most of them. How about you?

1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.

I've found that weather can serve as an antagonist, which I've used several times in my Logan & Cafferty series, such as Rocky Mountain blizzards, San Joaquin Valley fog, Southwestern flash floods, etc.; essentially man or woman against nature or a deterrent to reaching one's goals.

2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

I agree as long as backstory is spooned in lightly.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

LOL. I agree but still like to occasionally use "gasped" or "lied."

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”: he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.

Agreed. ("Dutch" Leonard had a good sense of humor.)

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

Excessive exclamation points is a sure sign of a fledgling writer,

6. 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.

Also agree on this one. And we all know about the use of cliches.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.

I think he was referring to Mark Twain.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

A few words go a long way.

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

I think it depends on where your novel is set. If a foreign or exotic place, I personally like enough detail to be able to imagine the setting as long as it doesn't slow the pace to a crawl.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue. My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)


You'll find the above rules as well as my interview with Elmore Leonard in my book, Mysterious Writers.

~Jean Henry Mead


Lorelei Bell said...

Oh, I've seen these before. Whether I agree or disagree here doesn't matter, but are a few authors who disagreed and they seemed to have done alright.
#1-Tony Hillerman
#2 Dan Brown, Stephan King, Peter Straub (it was sort of cool in the 80's to do them).
#3 J.K. Rowling... eh-hem...
#4 Same as above.
#5&#6 Oh dear God! I'll have to agree with these.
#7-yeah, Mark Twain.
#8. Rowling, and most fantasy writers.
#9. Yep... or you could do it like Janet Evanovich, in shorthand.
#10. It's an old rule that if you leave it out and it doesn't make any difference in the reading, or feels left out, then by all means.

Thanks for posting!!!

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks for your good reply, Lorelei. You did a better job analyzing Leonard's rules. : )