Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, pt. 2

  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

In the last post, we talked about rules 1-5. Now, let’s look at 6-10.

Number 6 follows along with the rule about exclamation marks. If you find you are using words like, “suddenly,” “just then,” “all of a sudden,” or “out of nowhere,” then you will want to consider rewriting that part. These are instant indicators you are having trouble building tension or building a scene.

Number 7 affects a lot of writers who set their stories in areas with distinctive dialects, or with characters with unusual accents. If you find you are writing sentences like this, “I hav’na bro’a damn ting yoo won gon fine in heyah,” then you don’t know how to properly imply patios. The reader will become exhausted trying to discern the meaning of your words, and should only be done with a character who has only one or two lines of dialog. You can often achieve the same affect in two ways. You can explain the characters accent through exposition, or by using specific dialect indicators in key phrases: “I’m going to go down where they is.”

I feel many beginning writers violate rule 8 and 9. In my post Shooting the Dead Horse, I talk about this as well. They do this because they feel the reader should see the character just as they do. Why? What difference does it make if your character is blonde or brunette? Who cares? Unless it has some bearing on character or plot development, leave it out. I have read novels where they never describe the characters, but you still come away with a feeling of what they look like. If it is necessary to describe a character, do so sparingly, and sprinkled throughout the narrative. This is the same for the places and things in your stories. If it is important, then handle the description with great care, using strong nouns to characterize them.

Finally, rule 10. This is the most subjective of Leonard’s rules. It is difficult to really pinpoint what he is saying here, but another piece of his advice clarifies it. He said, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” This is a very broad reaching and all encompassing rule. My word for this is that all famous, “author intrusion.” Author intrusion are those instances where the reader becomes keenly aware that the story they are readings is being “told” rather than experienced. When we read a good story, often the words seem to melt away and we experience the narrative in our minds as if we are watching a movie, or dreaming, and when the author shows their hand, it is like the movie has been paused, the screen goes white, then we hear the author’s voice explaining something we could have figure out for ourselves.

One example of this is when authors use words other than “he said,” or “she said” for dialog. Sometimes the reader may not notice, but if done frequently enough, or with words that stand out, then it stops the narrative and we become aware of the man behind the curtain. Another example is if the author begins to preach through their writing, explaining or pointing out an idea or thought that isn’t derived from the story itself. This is often the author pushing an agenda, consciously or not, onto the reader.

I feel this rules are succinct, and accurate. I think they apply to all types of writing, and every beginning writer should abide by them. Just like any rule, they can be bent, broken, or ignored once there is an understanding of the fundamentals of writing.


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