Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, pt. 1

If you are a certified writing junkie like me, you have probably already seen these rules, but they deserve repeating. I have never read any of Mr. Leonard’s work, but certainly plan to.

Here are Mr. L’s rules:

  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 part that readers tend to skip.

Leonard addresses each of these rules here.

I would also like to address these. In my last post, I talked about the proper and improper use of description for both characters and settings. Rule #1 is about that same thing. If you are describing the weather, it needs to hold more importance than just setting the scene. If it is important that it be raining for your scene, then mention it as you go, don’t use a block of exposition at the beginning to let us know it is raining. That is author intrusion.

This is also true for #2. Prologues are, in nearly every case, just an excuse to front-load a novel with exposition so the writer can make sure the reader “understands” a few things before they get started. This is not only author intrusion, it is equivalent to reader mind-rape. The author is trying to force exposition on the reader under the guise of something important, when, in fact, it can be skipped without any detriment to the story that begins with Chapter 1. Don’t do it (I’m talking to you, Fantasy guy, and Sci-Fi guy!).

This leads nicely into rule #3. Using anything aside from “he said,” “she said,” is also author intrusion. Does that mean you can never use anything else? No, or course not. Don’t be so literal… You are permitted to use another dialog tag if the dialog itself does not express the way the words are spoken. So, you would not write, “HEY JAMES! COME HERE!” If he is yelling, say, “Hey James,” he yelled. “Come here.” Rule #4 is an extension of this. In the rare, and I mean bloody rare, event that you absolutely must use an adverb to modify your dialog tag (I can’t think of a reason to), then do so at your own peril.

And, rule #5. As you see in my example about the character yelling, I excluded the exclamation points from the dialog. I’ve read many amateur writers’ work, and many are riddled with exclamation points because they do not know how to convey urgency, tension, or excitement with their prose. Look at a piece of your own. Examine every exclamation point, and determine why you used it. If you are trying to convey something your prose does not, cut it. In fact, cut all of them.

I went back to my first story Sentinel, and counted no less that 13 of the little bastards. My later piece, John Smith Writes a Book, has zero. To my knowledge, none of my later pieces contain them, but I am certainly on the look out.

Next time, we’ll look at rules 6-10. Until next time, keep writing!!!! (just kidding)


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