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Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing

What was Leonard’s secret to success as a writer? Here are 10 tips which were taken from a New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.”

1.      Never open a book with 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 parts that readers tend to skip.

And the most important bonus rule that sums up number 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

 

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Comments 6

Tilmer Wright Jr. on Thursday, 20 April 2017 11:33

Wayne,

This is very insightful. So much for opening with, "It was a dark and stormy night."

I find myself struggling mightily with #3. I start feeling like I am "cheating" somehow when I use "said" too many times, but I have heard several successful authors give this same advice. I need to trust those folks more. They must be doing something right.

Amen to #5. I really try to keep those down.

With regard to #8 and #9, my guess is that Leonard is urging us to "show" rather than "tell". Sam reminded me of that important rule while reviewing the first chapter of my new book. It's harder with places than people. You can paint a character's portrait with behavior, but that's not always feasible with setting. How do you make a skyscraper "act" like it's 75 stories tall? How do you make a canyon "behave" as though it yawns inexorably toward the horizon? That's tough. Every time I try to think of a way to "show" setting characteristics, I end up essentially going into detailed descriptions. I could say, "The building towered majestically over Robin's gaze as she shielded her eyes from the noonday sun. The roof line, studded with antennae, brushed the very edge of Heaven." OK - so it's a tall building with a bunch of stuff mounted on the roof. And - I mentioned the weather. I hope that's not in the first paragraph of the book.

The fact that Leonard can follow these rules himself while enjoying so much success is a testament to his considerable talent. You've made me want to pick up one of his titles and read it for educational purposes. (I almost put an exclamation point there, but I thought I should save it. My new 98,000 word rough draft has a couple in it so I don't have many to spare.)

Tilmer

Wayne, This is very insightful. So much for opening with, "It was a dark and stormy night." :) I find myself struggling mightily with #3. I start feeling like I am "cheating" somehow when I use "said" too many times, but I have heard several successful authors give this same advice. I need to trust those folks more. They must be doing something right. Amen to #5. I really try to keep those down. With regard to #8 and #9, my guess is that Leonard is urging us to "show" rather than "tell". Sam reminded me of that important rule while reviewing the first chapter of my new book. It's harder with places than people. You can paint a character's portrait with behavior, but that's not always feasible with setting. How do you make a skyscraper "act" like it's 75 stories tall? How do you make a canyon "behave" as though it yawns inexorably toward the horizon? That's tough. Every time I try to think of a way to "show" setting characteristics, I end up essentially going into detailed descriptions. I could say, "The building towered majestically over Robin's gaze as she shielded her eyes from the noonday sun. The roof line, studded with antennae, brushed the very edge of Heaven." OK - so it's a tall building with a bunch of stuff mounted on the roof. And - I mentioned the weather. I hope that's not in the first paragraph of the book. The fact that Leonard can follow these rules himself while enjoying so much success is a testament to his considerable talent. You've made me want to pick up one of his titles and read it for educational purposes. (I almost put an exclamation point there, but I thought I should save it. My new 98,000 word rough draft has a couple in it so I don't have many to spare.) Tilmer
Wayne Zurl on Thursday, 20 April 2017 13:11

It's too bad Elmore is no longer around for us to ask more questions. I doubt any writer had a better love affair with the Hollywood studios. I've lost count of the number of movies his books inspired, and a short story of his spawned six seasons of JUSTIFIED on FX TV. Having read a few of his books I'll say his stuff is not for everybody. Here are my first lines from a review I posted on Goodreads today for his thriller, THE HUNTED:

Elmore Leonard is always consistent—you can’t tell his good guys from the bad guys without a score card. I’ve always thought he casts his characters through Skell Central. But you can also count on his books telling a story through lots of realistic dialogue.

If nothing else, studying his use of dialogue would be worth your time.

It's too bad Elmore is no longer around for us to ask more questions. I doubt any writer had a better love affair with the Hollywood studios. I've lost count of the number of movies his books inspired, and a short story of his spawned six seasons of JUSTIFIED on FX TV. Having read a few of his books I'll say his stuff is not for everybody. Here are my first lines from a review I posted on Goodreads today for his thriller, THE HUNTED: Elmore Leonard is always consistent—you can’t tell his good guys from the bad guys without a score card. I’ve always thought he casts his characters through Skell Central. But you can also count on his books telling a story through lots of realistic dialogue. If nothing else, studying his use of dialogue would be worth your time.
Guest - Cheryl Peyton on Thursday, 20 April 2017 16:33

I've broken more of these rules than the rules of etiquette. My first novel begins with a Prologue, followed by a rain storm in Chapter One, which has one character "asking pleasantly" and another one that screams three different times followed by exclamation points. I needn't go on.

I think Elmore's list is excellent and I've printed it for reference. The only thing I'd add (from other good writers) is to avoid using many dialogue tags. Instead, surround speech with action to identify characters. I know you do this, Wayne. I found an example of a rewrite avoiding dialogue tags.

What's written as:
"I don't know where I'm going," said Derek.
"You have a map," said Ramona. :Figure it out."
"Haven't you been here before?" asked Derek.
"It's been twenty years," said Ramona. "How am I supposed to remember?"

Could be:
Derek frowned at the street sign overhead. "I don't know where I'm going."
"You have a map." Ramona took a drag from her cigarette. "Figure it out."
"Haven't you been here before?"
"It's been twenty years. How am I supposed to remember?"

I haven't read Elmore Leonard in a while. I do remember his dialogue was realistic and flowed.

I've broken more of these rules than the rules of etiquette. My first novel begins with a Prologue, followed by a rain storm in Chapter One, which has one character "asking pleasantly" and another one that screams three different times followed by exclamation points. I needn't go on. I think Elmore's list is excellent and I've printed it for reference. The only thing I'd add (from other good writers) is to avoid using many dialogue tags. Instead, surround speech with action to identify characters. I know you do this, Wayne. I found an example of a rewrite avoiding dialogue tags. What's written as: "I don't know where I'm going," said Derek. "You have a map," said Ramona. :Figure it out." "Haven't you been here before?" asked Derek. "It's been twenty years," said Ramona. "How am I supposed to remember?" Could be: Derek frowned at the street sign overhead. "I don't know where I'm going." "You have a map." Ramona took a drag from her cigarette. "Figure it out." "Haven't you been here before?" "It's been twenty years. How am I supposed to remember?" I haven't read Elmore Leonard in a while. I do remember his dialogue was realistic and flowed.
Kaye George on Thursday, 20 April 2017 23:16

And, of course, rules are made to be broken, right? My favorite set of rules:
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
W. Somerset Maugham

Seriously, I think these are good guidelines, but you can always find a situation where you need to run counter to them.

And, of course, rules are made to be broken, right? My favorite set of rules: There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. W. Somerset Maugham Seriously, I think these are good guidelines, but you can always find a situation where you need to run counter to them.
Wayne Zurl on Friday, 21 April 2017 07:25

Cheryl,
Couldn't agree with you more about the dialogue tags. Another very successful writer, Robert B. Parker, littered his stuff with incessant I saids...even during two person conversations. The bad part of that shows up even more when a novel is made into an audio book.
And, "what's wrong with using asked?" I asked. Parker also has used prologues a few times in his best sellers, but broke another rule I heard: If you use a prologue, add an epilogue.

Kaye,
After finishing THE HUNTED by Leonard, I started ROUGH COUNTRY by John Sandford. I think he might have more best sellers than Elmore. And he began the first chapter describing a doozy of a thunder storm encroaching on a Minnesota lake.

Unfortunately, writers with those big names are afforded more slack by publishers and editors when breaking the so-called rules than new authors trying to sell their first book to a traditional publisher.

Cheryl, Couldn't agree with you more about the dialogue tags. Another very successful writer, Robert B. Parker, littered his stuff with incessant [b]I saids[/b][i][/i]...even during two person conversations. The bad part of that shows up even more when a novel is made into an audio book. And, "what's wrong with using asked?" I asked. Parker also has used prologues a few times in his best sellers, but broke another rule I heard: If you use a prologue, add an epilogue. Kaye, After finishing THE HUNTED by Leonard, I started ROUGH COUNTRY by John Sandford. I think he might have more best sellers than Elmore. And he began the first chapter describing a doozy of a thunder storm encroaching on a Minnesota lake. Unfortunately, writers with those big names are afforded more slack by publishers and editors when breaking the so-called rules than new authors trying to sell their first book to a traditional publisher.
Kaye George on Friday, 21 April 2017 11:24

Wayne, I totally agree that brand new writers should probably follow all the "rules" with at least the first book. After a few, you can stretch and grow--that's the fun part!

Wayne, I totally agree that brand new writers should probably follow all the "rules" with at least the first book. After a few, you can stretch and grow--that's the fun part!
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Thanks, Cheryl. I tried to tell this short story with almost all dialogue. I hope Raymond Chandler would approve.
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