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03 December 2010

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing


I couldn’t resist this book. I’m looking to simplify my life and tighten my writing style, and I admire Leonard’s lean, eloquent, often unexpectedly moving prose. So I thought maybe I’d share his admonitions.

Rule 1: Never open a book with weather.

I guess . . . unless you’re Jack London describing snow or Zane Grey describing the purple sage and the sky.

Rule 2: Avoid prologues.

“A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s okay because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. [One character] says: ‘I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like.”

Sweet Thursday came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.”

Rule 3: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

“Said” is far less intrusive than ‘grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.’ Or his most disliked word, used by Mary McCarthy: ‘asseverated.’”

Rule 4: Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

As in “he admonished gravely...”

Rule 5: Keep your exclamation points under control.

“You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”
Aw, heck.

Rule 6: Never use the words “suddenly” or “all Hell broke loose.”

“I have noticed that writers who use ‘suddenly’ tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.”

Rule 7: Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

“Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.”

Rule 8: Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

“In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephant, what do ‘the American and the girl with him’ look like? ‘She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.’ That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.”

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

“Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.”

Rule 10: Try to leave out the part[s] that readers tend to skip.
“Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them . . . I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”

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7 Comments:

Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Wow, he manages to hit multiple writers/works that I find loathsome. I think I'll do the exact opposite of everything he suggests.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

I hear you... I find it very, very difficult to give up exclamation points.

5:57 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

It's just such a man's list of how to write something. Pare it down to the bare bones, don't give details, be spares and spartan. I'll take Heyer over Hemingway any day.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

My sentiments exactly, Isobel!

7:05 PM  
Blogger Jane O said...

As a reader, I wish more authors would follow rules 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 10. Too many authors seem to have taken to heart some teacher's admonition to avoid repeating a word and strain for other, frequently awkward, ways to say "said." As for the adverb, the dialogue should make the tone clear.

In fact, I wish he had added a rule to avoid adjectives.

I am not advocating Hemingway's style (too mannered), but I do dislike overwritten prose. That has me tossing the book on the discard pile faster than anything else.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I think a good writer can break all of those rules and I would never notice as a reader....if he/she has captured my attention, made me feel what the characters feel, see what they say, and understand why the do what they do, what the heck, "exclamation point" and "suddenly" away!

I try to read without my author critquer cap on nowadays...otherwise, it takes too much of the fun out of it.

7:42 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Lots of good reminders (I too tend to use said over more complicated synonyms and I confess I avoid exclamation marks like the plague). But obviously different writers have different styles and also different types of fiction call for different styles. In an action thriller, it's important to pare description to a minimum to keep the pace going. In an historical novel on the other hand, readers usually expect some sense of time and place or what's the point of it being historical.

10:53 AM  

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