Elmore Leonard’s Rules

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I borrowed Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing the other day from the library – although I had read many of his rules before, I realized I hadn’t actually read the whole (albeit very short) book. Since we have been doing our first page critiques, I thought it was probably a good time to highlight his rules – many of which we have already discussed in our critiques – and to also fess up to my own shortcomings…

Here are his 10 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”…
5. Keep your exclamation points under control
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

While these are excellent rules, I have to confess to breaking at least half of these in my own work. I have used a prologue and (mea culpa) even the word “suddenly” on the odd occasion.

As a writer of historical fiction I also admit to giving pretty detailed descriptions of places, things and people in order to give the reader insight into the time period. However, the hardest rules for me, are rule number 3 and 4. While I certainly try and avoid overusing adverbs and bizarre speech handles such as “asseverated” I find when I try and limit my dialogue to using only “said”, it becomes stilted and hollow. My solution has been to try and limit my adverb use and to highlight gestures, actions etc. to provide appropriate texture to the scene – but still, I fear my dialogue drafts are way more ‘flowery’ than Elmore would like:) As part of my editing process I am extra vigilant when it comes to this rule, but also equally aware that stripping my work down too much saps it of its color. It’s a balancing act, as with most things in writing.

So what about you? Which of these rules have you broken in your own work?

25 thoughts on “Elmore Leonard’s Rules

  1. What Joe said, sheepishly.

    Nice post, Clare. I love Elmore Leonard. I just bought one of his books this week, the book of short stories that inspired the TV show, Justified. And I have to admit to breaking 2 & 3. I use the occasional prologue for various reasons and although I try to stick to “said”, I’ve been known to use other ways too.

  2. The only one of these I would call a “rule” is #10. How can anyone argue with that?

    The others are good “default settings” but can be overdcome if the situation calls for it. For example, a vivid description of a secondary character can add to the feel of a scene. Ditto descriptions of places and things, esp. in historical fiction.

    Oh yeah! #5 is a good guideline, too!

  3. Suddenly I feel the urge to let all hell break loose with my exclamation points!!!!! Actually, I agree with Jim, as far as I am concerned rule number 10 is the critical one. It is always helpful though to be reminded of the others so you don’t accidentally slip into some boring description of the weather…

  4. #2 – Avoid prologues (as opposed to “never use”)

    I agree – if the prologue is being used as an info dump or is really just backstory in disguise – BUT I’ve now used prologues in both of my YA books to describe a historical event that creates the basis for the present day adventure. Another BUT – The prologue, in my opinion, needs to be a story in itself, entertaining, not simply informational.

    Good points.

  5. I occasionally drop in a prologue, but I’m pretty strict with myself on the rest.

    I also try to stick as much as i can with Rule 11, which has informally added elsewhere: If it sounds like writing, leave it out. Sometimes I can’t help it, but if any of my dialog sounds to my ear as though it was written, I change it.

  6. I agree with Jax. Usually prologues are used to tell a short incident that serves as a catalyst for the novel. And just like any good beginning, they should not be boring. And for some reason, I’ve used them in my first two YAs as a teaser of the plot to come and my editor loves that. And so far, the readers have too.

    And #10 is like getting directions to someone’s house and they say, “Turn left two miles before the bridge.”

  7. I confess to using the occasional “suddenly” (especially in my YA books). Very rarely I’ve used replacements for “said”, although I avoid ‘retorted’, ‘yelled,’ ‘shouted,’ ‘exclaimed,’ and ‘screamed.’ It’s hard to avoid using ‘replied’ a couple of times in a book, however.

  8. I SO disagree with #3. All things in moderation of course, but an exclusive diet of “said” is repetitive and boring. Whispered, hissed (has to be an S-word for hissed to work), growled, yelled, shrieked, hollered, whooped, replied, whimpered, whined, asked and others that I’m missing all add texture and/or emotion.

    I reiterate Gilstrap’s Single Rule of Writing: there are no rules. Good suggestions, yes. Things to keep in mind, yes. But no rules.

    John Gilstrap

  9. I like John’s rule: there are no rules. They’re more like guidelines. I could find examples of all ten in books that are either massive hits or that are classics still read 100 years after first publication.

    That said, if you decide not to follow Elmore’s advice, you’d better know what you’re doing.

  10. One problem with #10 is that people skip different things. For instance, I’m not a science geek at all so I always skip all the stuff in technothrillers about how submarines work and that kind of thing, meaning that I skip nearly half of each Michael Crichton book I read, but a lot of people LOVE that stuff and wish there was more.

    Anyway, these rules are only valid if you’re trying to write in the style I have dubbed the Heming Way. Not all novels should be written in the Heming Way, and I get tired of reading such stripped-down prose. Adverbs are absolutely essential to knowing what’s going on in a novel. Prologues often do a wonderful job of setting the scene; think of the one to Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that one! Also, I hate, hate, hate it when authors never use an alternative to “said”. It’s very irritating to read said, said, said over and over, and gives you no idea of tone or anything else.

  11. I can think of any number of novels which read very, very well which igonore the first five rules entirely and apply the last five rules to varying degrees, though not religiously. They certainly work for E.L., but not everyone can be E.L., nor should they.

  12. What Leonard was trying to illustrate with these rules was that, too often, the author gets in their reader’s way. That’s what number 10 really means. Don’t put in a bunch of stuff that shows you, the writer, can write. Just tell the story. The reader couldn’t care less about your ability to describe how someone said something, or what their face looked like. If you just give them basic cues, their imagination will do all the work for you.

  13. Okay, having given it more thought, I have concluded that only rules #5 and #7 are ones I want to see followed. Exclamation points should only be used in the exposition if the story is a first person narrative, and then only to effect. (A modern edition of Gilman’s Benigna Machiavelli took out the exclamation points even though the narrator was a little girl, which changed the entire tone and not for the better.) Patois gets irritating very quickly most of the time.

    I must admit that I do not like Elmore Leonard. Years ago I picked up one of his books and couldn’t get past the second page. When I read this post I went to Amazon and read the openings of several of his novels, and none of them made me want to go out and get the book. He himself defies his own Rule #11, as by the second page I was very conscious that I was reading words that had been chosen by an author. His stripped-down style is just too unnatural. It is not how humans talk or think or write letters to their friends.

    Evidently, a lot of people disagree with me, as his books have sold a lot of copies. But so have a lot of authors who ignore all of this.

    Rule #1 is a very bad one. Take a few examples:

    “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” ~Jane Eyre

    “The temperature hit ninety the day she arrived in New York.” ~Valley of the Dolls

    “Indian summer is like a woman.” ~Peyton Place

    “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.” ~The Big Sleep

    And let’s not forget the classic: “It was a dark and stormy night.” ~Paul Clifford by Bulwer-Lytton

    I could go on, at length, but I think that I’ve made my point. Also, I have resolved to specifically seek out authors who flaunt as many of Leonard’s rules as possible – except for #5.

  14. I wasn’t going to mention it before, but since it’s come up twice I have to. There is no rule 11. What you guys are referring to as rule 11 is, in fact, an in-depth explanation of rule 10.

    I’m just sayin’.

  15. Basil’s Ten Rules of Writing:

    1. Never open a book in bad weather…the pages get soaked
    2. If you do a prologue make sure you say something about fish, salmon if possible
    3. in addition to “said” occasionally use “enunciated”, “vocalized”, “elucidated”, “screamed”, and “belched”
    4. Be careful not to become infected with adverbial logorhea (aka: word poo)
    5. Avoid exclamation points, use wide eyed smileys instead
    6. Never use “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose” unless all hell did in fact suddenly break loose, then the option is open
    7. When possible write dialogue in a combination of Cockney meets Georgia Cracker or Welsh Coal Miner meets Detroit Rapper slang
    8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, make them all stick figures….its a whole lot easier wardrobe-wise … and name them all with variations of “Bob”
    9. When describing scenery or objects always open with the phrase “According to the vision of Astronimides the Seer”
    10. Don’t eat overly jellied toast while writing…it makes the keyboard sticky
    10. Don’t write crap no one wants to read

    (while there is no rule 11, ten appears twice…hence the common misperception of an 11)

  16. What Fletch said (in his first comment) is probably the best advice I’ve seen for writers. As a reader, I just want you to give me the story, and I get extremely frustrated when a writer over-explains or over-describes things. Give the reader some room to get inside the story.

    As for #5, I tend to agree. When I want to express something important, I THINK IT’S BEST TO WRITE IN ALL CAPS, PREFERABLY BOLDED. (Now see, if I were to write “she said sarcastically”, I would be over-explaining myself. But since I’m writing this comment assuming it will be read by an intelligent reader, that would be unnecessary and insulting to said reader.)

  17. Great discussion – the Aussie timezone means I chime in late (or very early) and I think the critical message is that the author shouldn’t get in the way of the story. I love basil’s rules and have resolved to use belched more often in my dialogue. I have to admit use of caps is very annoying. When JK Rowling started to use it in dialogue in Harry Potter I really felt it was sloppy. Ditto with all the exclamation marks (!!!!!!!!!)

  18. I am a HUGE fan of Elmore Leonard’s novels and Justified and even the crisp Lands End white shirts he used to advertise. We are even pals on Facebook. Nobody writes better dialog or funnier situations using real characters.

    That said, another of his “rules” (not on his list) is that he never writes more than a certain number of pages (I think 325) before having the book typed from his hand-written pages. That is more of a quirk, and not one of his rules. I think his rules are his preferences and all of them can be broken and still have a good novel. In fact, I suspect, all of them can be broken in the same book. I’m sure Cormac McCarthy has rules too, and I’m sure they work for him.

    Truth is I’m not Elmore Leonard’s student, just his facebook friend. He never pokes me though.

  19. Those are all good rules, many of which I’ve learned from editorial comments. These days, I try to avoid “said” at all, using actions to tag my characters. Much I what I do has been shaped by my editors or what I learn in workshops. But each to their own. No rule is absolute.

  20. That ‘prologue’ rule is controversial. I’ve read just as many first chapters that were nothing more than prologues in poor disguise. Whatever it’s called, the opening better pull the reader into the action. Is it getting cliche to say it’s okay to break rules as long as you know what they are and why your story needs to break them?

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