Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

Sadly, writing great Elmore Leonard passed away today at the age of 87. With 45 novels under his belt (and a 46th in the works) he sadly suffered from a stroke August 5 and passed away Tuesday August 20, at 7:15am (America).

Many of his novels were turned into movies, with hits such as Hombre, Get Shorty and Jackie Brown all taken from his works.

Another thing Elmore Leonard is famous for leaving us with are his 10 Rules of Writing. These are a set of somewhat controversial tips Leonard detailed in his book 10 Rules of Writing. Me, personally? I think there’s some serious gold in there, as well as a few items you can take with a grain of salt. However, I’ll let you decide for yourself which ones you think are useful. Here they are, as taken from The Guardian:

1. Never open your story with the weather, jump straight in with the protagonist. 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 will be encouraged to jump ahead look­ing for characters. There are however exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

 2. Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. 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 OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He 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. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

 3. Another of my writing fiction tips is to: 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 and go to the dictionary. (I’m not too sure about this one!)

 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.

 5. Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

Exclamation marks are not welcome in Leonard's works. Photo: Big Stock Photo

Exclamation marks are not welcome in Leonard’s works.
Photo: Big Stock Photo

 6. Another of my writing fiction tips is to 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. (Essentially, you should be using your words to create the exclamation points. The reader knows the tone by the speech and context.)

 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. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range. (Sayings and humour specific to a particular location, can be alien in another country. You want to appeal to everyone.)

 8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, 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. (I personally love descriptions in stories, but you can make up your own mind.)

 9. Another of my writing fiction tips is not to go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

 10. Try to leave out the part 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.

My most important writing fiction tips is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and you can purchase it here.

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6 thoughts on “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

  1. I agree more or less 100% with all ten of these rules. It’s interesting that I’ve heard every single one, via other sources. I wonder if he invented them or whether they go back in time to Shakespeare and beyond. 🙂

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