Dutch Treat: Ten rules of writing

Elmore Leonard is gone. A moment of silence, she intoned gravely.
If you don’t get where I am going with that opening line then you definitely need to read on – at least as far as Nos. 3 and 4 below. The rest of you can go play Spider Solitaire if you’d like, but I’d really like it if you stick around. Because today, I’d like to talk about Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. 
Now I have to admit right off here that I haven’t read a lot of Leonard’s books; he’s one of those titans whose stuff is part of my cram-course in belated crime education. (I just downloaded “Glitz” on my Kindle in fact).  But like all writers, I’ve heard that he’s a master stylist, the Picasso of crime fiction, whose dialogue, in the words of one critic, is “like broken glass, sharp and glittering.”
But do his rules hold up? Well, I think this is a good time to go back and take a look. And I’ll be the first one to admit, I have broken almost all of them. 

1. Never open a book with weather. 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 is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
I opened my book ISLAND OF BONES with a woman so desperate to escape her killer that she took off in a skiff in the middle of a hurricane. But generally I agree with Leonard here that in too many books, weather is a metaphoric crutch meant to telegraph the hero’s conflict or a mood of foreboding. (Blatant self-promotion alert: We have published the eBook of BONES this week.  Click here to read my “weather” opening — or you can even Click here buy the darn thing for $2.99!.)

2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
Sigh. Broke this one, too. In my book A THOUSAND BONES, I am telling the story of Louis Kincaid’s lover, Joe Frye. The entire book is a flashback to Joe’s rookie year but I felt I had to connect it to Louis so I book-ended it with a prologue (wherein she tells Louis about a crime she committed ten years ago) AND an epilogue (wherein Louis accepts what she did). But again, I think prologues are usually unnecessary; they almost always indicate the writer is not in control of back story or the time element of their plot (linear is almost always best). Or the writer tacks on a prologue where he throws out a body to gin up suspense because the early chapters are slooooow.
3.  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 to get the dictionary.
Have broken this one, too. But only with the greatest trepidation. I’ve used “shouted” and “asked.” But I’m convinced that if you feel compelled to use something stronger, that means that what you are putting between the quote marks ain’t up to snuff.

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. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”
Guilty again. I have used “whispered,” “shouted” and “asked.” But I always hate myself in the morning.

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.
I hate exclamation marks! But yes, I have used them. Mainly when I have someone shouting. And what’s worse, I have probably written, “Get out of here!” he shouted. 
6. 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.
I have never used “all hell…” That’s really amateur hour, akin to “little did he know that…” But yes, “suddenly” has appeared in my books. I didn’t realized what a stupid tic it was until I re-read Leonard’s rules. Suddenly, “suddenly” looks really bad in my chapters. And I now see that the action feels more immediate without it.

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 flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”
We did this in our first book “Dark of the Moon.” Set in the deep South, we felt compelled to drop some “g’s” and use some dumb idioms, and at least one reviewer took us to task for it. Here’s the thing: Dialect is hard on the reader’s eye. You can convey the feeling of it by judicious word choice, mannerisms, and sentence rhythm. We are in the process of preparing “Moon” for eBook and this has given us a second chance to go back and rewrite things. So y’all can bet we’re fixin’ to fix our mistakes. 
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, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

Whew. Finally, one sin I don’t commit. I am a strong believer in less is more when it comes to character descriptions. I think if you tread too heavily in the reader’s imagination, you stomp out some of the magic from your book. Here is how I let readers know what my heroine Joe Frye looked like:

She had a flash of memory, of sitting next to her dad in a gymnasium during her brother’s basketball game, watching the cheerleaders.
I’m ugly, Daddy.
You’re beautiful.
Not like them, I’m not.
No. They’re easy to add up. They’re plain old arithmetic.
So what am I?
Geometry, Joey. Not everyone gets it.

 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.
This one is hard for me because I love to write setting descriptions. But I have learned to pull back some. The best advice I ever heard on this comes from Coco Chanel who said you should put on all your accessories and then take almost all of them off before you go out. So yeah, I over-describe but then I go back and pare it down.

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. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
Like all writers, I struggle with this one. When we’re deep in the writing zone, we can fall in love with the sound of our own voices. And sometimes, a passage will come so hard that you just can’t bring yourself to delete it. But you must kill your darlings. Lately, my sister tells me I am “underwriting,” so maybe I am pulling back too far. But I still think it’s better to leave ‘em wanting more, not less.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

I have nothing to add to that last one. It might be the single best piece of writing advice out there. If you’re working too hard, your reader will as well.  Here’s the quote that hangs over my desk: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”  It was good enough for Nathaniel Hawthorne — and Dutch — so it’s good enough for me.


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27 thoughts on “Dutch Treat: Ten rules of writing

  1. “She used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”’

    I very much doubt I’ll laugh harder all day than I did at that line.

    Thanks. I have seen his rules, of course, who hasn’t the last couple of weeks. But I’ve never seen them with the longer explanations. Brilliant.

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    • John, yeah…I almost spit coffee on my keyboard when I read that line. And until I started this post I hadn’t realized he had longer takes. He actually compiled them into a book on writing as well.

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    • It seems to me that the longer takes are just as important as the initial, possibly overly-brief, “rules.” Those longer takes are full of exceptions and caveats which, taken together, can be summarized as, “If you do it well, you can get away with anything.”

      It’s a truth that the vast majority of writers don’t do some (or, sadly, all) of those things well, and therefore shouldn’t do them. In that case, the rules become good warning signs: Caution, dangerous curves ahead.

      But for others, those who do those things (some or all) well, the rules are at best a hindrance, and at worst a source of self-doubt or self-flagellation. In the worst case (see your own comment about breaking a rule but “hating” yourself after), I think the rules are actually counter-productive.

      My $.02, for whatever it may be worth after taxes and inflation. 😉

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    • I’m with you, Peggy. I’ve seen the ten rules posted in bare bones form several places, but they really need the context of the brief explanations he provided in the original NYT piece.

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  2. The parts I tend to skip:

    1. Details about things I already know. I know what a Weeping Willow looks like, and I know what a garden hose looks like. Leave it to me to envision. I don’t want to waste my time reading about what normal things look like. This sort of detail is stuff which should be used in sci fi to describe what I DON’T KNOW, like a giant earthworm with 4 pairs of green wings.

    2. Boring back-story. If it’s not intriguing or important to the scene, leave it out, because I will skip it.

    3. Internal monologue early in the story. If I don’t know your character yet, why would I care what they are thinking? Save it for later, when it matters to me.

    If these sound harsh, they’re not meant to be. I’m a reader first, and these things I notice. They are frustrating, and I always promise myself I won’t do them. Let’s see if I can keep the promise. lol

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    • Diane,
      That is an excellent point about description. You’re right that we don’t need the banal and every-day explained to us. And I think that is exactly what most writers rely on. And your 2. and 3. rules are useful as well. Backstory and naval-gazing puts a hard brake on a story…needs to come after you have momentum.

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  3. Like many writers, I strive toward these rules as goals; some I have achieved better than others. As for leaving out the parts readers tend to skip, what might be my most cherished review comment runs along the lines of, “he writes in a sort of literary shorthand, not leaving out so much the reader is lost.” So I know at least one reviewer wasn’t prompted to skip over too much.

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    • Huh…nice review, indeed. It’s good when a critic gets what you are trying to do. I was re-reading one my own chapters yesterday of WIP and realized I was skimming. Well, duh…I shortened the passage considerably to only what was necessary, deleting what I thought I needed to put in to show off.

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  4. It is indeed a good time to take stock of “Leonard’s Rules,” which have taken on the patina of stone tablets from the finger of God. I’m not against talking about “rules” and have even offered my own three. The balance is in this “mortal sin” idea. When you know a rule and break it for an artistic purpose, you can get Picasso. If you don’t know the rules, or don’t care, you get crayon scratchings from a caged monkey. So:

    Prologues: Because of Leonard’s rule there is certainly a prejudice against them now. But don’t tell Harlan Coben or Robert Crais. My advice these days is use one if it works, just don’t label it “Prologue.” Leave it blank, or call it Chapter One.

    “Said”–You’re right, Kris. There’s no other way to convey a whisper than to call it a whisper. The occasional “asked” is actually good for variety. “Shouted” acceptable, too.

    I agree about adverbs, though I would only call it a venial sin if used in a context where the tone is unclear. Almost always you can show the tone and nix the adverb, but let’s not condemn a writer’s soul to hell.

    Description of character? Maybe minimal for the Lead, but not others, because how the POV character perceives another character is a great opportunity for spice.

    Same vis-a-vis place.

    As for rule #10, Stephen King violates it all the time. I do think we have to watch for long blocks of text. That’s a simple readability thing. But writers skilled at going “into the character’s heads” actually write the best books, IMO. Yes, it can be done poorly. But when done well it elevates the story like nothing else.

    It’s easy to say don’t write what readers might “skip.” It’s pithy and funny, but can you imagine Ken Kesey following this advice? Or Tom Wolfe? These rules worked wonderfully for Leonard’s minimalist style in his chosen genre. But others, like John D. MacDonald, wrote in the same genre with equal or (some might argue) better success.

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  5. James,
    Exactly…I posted the rules because, as you said, they tend to be tablets from the mountain and that isn’t necessarily good. I actually LIKE a well-done prologue. It is a useful device but I have seen it abused too often of late. And I also agree with your comment on sometimes you DON’T need to delete the parts that people skim. John D. MacDonald, as you cite, was the Great Digressor. He would go off on these odd, hilarious and sometimes wise riffs. But he always knew just when to come back to the main road.

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  6. I try to live up to Elmore’s rules. I’ve read almost all of his books and they are a pleasure. More often than not I find lines that make me wish I’d written them.

    I have added another rule. In a mystery or thriller, your character should be in deep within the first few pages.

    Lately, I’ve been listening to tutorials (on photography) on the web. Most of them take forever to get to the meat of the topic. It is boring listening to the presenter’s background, the history of the software, etc. I realized that stories can be the same way. Get to the action now.

    In Elmore’s last book Raylan, he starts this way:
    Raylan Givens was holding a federal warrant to serve on a man in the marijuana trade known as Angel Arenas, forty-seven, born in the U.S. but 100 percent of him Hispanic.

    Goodness.

    In fact, the first page review on this site is a great test. Can I grab you in 400 words? No. Rewrite.

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    • Brian,
      I’m sort of ashamed I haven’t read Leonard…only one book. But he’s in my Kindle for upcoming vacation. And yes, I agree that our First Page review is good. We learn best through example, so kudos to our brave contributors for letting us use their WIPS.

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  7. Knowing why Leonard’s ‘rules’ make sense most of the time means when you ‘break’ them, it should have extra impact. I’m guilty of too many suddenlys, so seeing the rule made me go back and check to see if they’re needed. Most of the time, they weren’t. (I had an Aussie editor who wasn’t familiar with the term “all of a sudden” and told me that because there couldn’t be “half of a sudden” that I shouldn’t use it. Although I objected to her telling me what was or wasn’t an American idiom, I did see that I had way too many variations on sudden.

    All rules can be broken IF you understand why they’re there in the first place, and breaking them adds to the story, doesn’t detract.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place

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  8. Excellent recap! One of the things that I took away from years of reading Leonard was the importance of strong dialogue. I did my best to write one whole novel using dialogue to move the story along, rather than introspection and narration. Didn’t quite work, so I did go back and include some of that stuff in a later draft. But that’s the only one of my books that has been optioned for a movie, so maybe that was a direction I should have continued…

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  9. I love rules, especially firm rules. The firmer they are the more likely they will hold my weight as I climb over them. The stronger the sensibility of the bricks used to build the rule, the better they will withstand being used to remodel the wall.

    That being said, whether one views the ‘rules of writing’ as rules or suggestions, they are there for a reason. And only a master builder should attempt to do any serious remodeling of the wall. Or my pet Picasso Monkey that my cousin Leonard (no relation to Elmore) brought back in the Time Machine last week. Picasso Monkey can break any rules he wants, because he is….well…he is Picasso Monkey and makes his own walls.

    I just have to figure out how to stop Picasso Monkey from flinging poo at the walls, it’s weird. His poo is all primary colors and has random eyeballs in it…creepy.

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  10. Good blog, Kris. I’ve broken all those rules. But a writer needs to develop her voice. My personal rule — No semicolons. Hate them. They belong in termpapers. I’ll rewrite a sentence to avoid them.

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  11. You’re a genius. I was just coming to the website to recommend one of the top ten rules of formatting (don’t place yellow text on a white e-mail) when I realized the yellow text went very well on the actual web page. So, I arrive at the website (the true goal of every piece of promotional mail) either to post this message or view the article in a readable format. Bravo!

    Good job.

    🙂

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    • Funny.

      I once ran across a spam email that had yellow text on a white white background we discovered by chance when a user accidentally printed it to her b/w laser jet. When she, a former Naval Intel NCO, saw the text on paper that was invisible on screen she was a bit alarmed and came to my IT shop so we could find more details about who sent it. The text was an excerpt from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and seeemd to refer to leaving from the Mid-West, going to New York, secretly boarding a vessel and then sinking another vessel.

      Finding the trace on the email led down a blind alley I forwarded it to both the State Troopers and the FBI. The Troopers were interested, the FBI scoffed. Just in case I also sent it to Senator Ted Stephens’ office. A few months later I got a letter from the good Senator thanking me for my vigilance and for passing on what had apparently become an actionable item to the appropriate security agency.

      So, yeah…no yellow text on a white background..unless you’re a terrorist. 😉

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  12. Love this post to infinity squared. And I actually keep to most of the rules. I am so spare that I have to go and put in rather than cut out.

    I used to suffer from backstory-itis, a rather bad case of it. Then I read a self-pubbed piece where a science guy was sitting on a hill waiting for “the bad thing to happen” and passed the time ruminating on his eight different college degrees (with honors and prerequisites.) It was painful, but necessary to put me in my place.

    I am incapable of using an adverb on a dialogue tag. However, the best of the worst on that has got to be the Harry Potter books. I am listening on audio and every damn bit of dialogue is said quizzically, emphatically, questioningly, ponderingly, wonderingly, and my personal favorite, interjectedly. I love the stories (of course) but it is rather over the top (she typed annoyedly.)

    I love the rules. The choice to break them is often the hallmark of voice, but you need to do the compulsories along with the freestyle and the rules are always a superb tie-breaker in the never-ending game of “kill your darlings.”

    Terri

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  13. Thanks so much for all that. I admit I’ve gone dialect crazy in my current WIP. I hadda do it.

    I did a “Suddenly…” hunt and came up with thousands of them. Don’t know how they got in there. But I killed them all. Felt good, too.

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