I Broke Almost All Of Elmore Leonard’s Rules Of Writing

“There are 500 million people on Facebook, but what are they saying to each other? Not much.” — Elmore Leonard

By PJ Parrish

Elmore Leonard was trending big on my Facebook feed this week. Everyone was quoting, but mainly misquoting, his famous Ten Rules Of Writing.

True confession time, she intoned gravely, I have read only two Leonard books. (ten bonus points if you get that reference).

Leonard is one of those titans whose stuff has been part of my cram-course in belated crime education. But like all writers, I’ve heard that he’s 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. Hey, it works in The Tempest, right? In the play, the small ship atoss in a raging storm is a metaphor for the characters, high-born and low, all at the mercy of natural events.

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 Thouand 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.   See no. 4. But if you’re into “grumbled, bellowed, snapped, begged, moaned” and the like, then I’m pretty sure that the stuff you’re putting between the quote marks isn’t up to snuff. And if I ever catch you using “he barked” I will hunt you down and bite you, she yelped doggedly.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said.” 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 made this mistake 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 all of them off except one before you go out. So yeah, I over-describe but then I go back and take off the pearls and leopard hat.

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, I feel myself “underwriting,” so maybe I am pulling back too far. But I still think it’s better to leave ‘em wanting more, not less.

11. 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 Leonard — so it’s good enough for me.

Phoebe ready for trick or treating

Postscript: I am en route today from Michigan back to Tallahassee, two dogs in tow. If I don’t answer to your comment it is probably because I am somewhere over Cinncinati or stranded in Big Daddy’s Burger Bar in the Charlotte airport. Happy Halloween!


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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

23 thoughts on “I Broke Almost All Of Elmore Leonard’s Rules Of Writing

  1. Ah, the rules. I see the value in all of them but there’s a time & place to break them.

    1. Never open a book with weather.
    There are exceptions. I have read a few books that opened with weather that were just fine.

    2. Avoid prologues.
    I have a WIP that starts with a prologue—although I’ve debated with myself over this very ‘rule’ I have yet to convince myself to remove it.

    Rules 3-6: I can usually adhere to 99% of the time.

    7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
    I struggle with this in some stories. I get that heavy use can be awkward, and hard on the reader but I also want to give the reader some credit for being able to roll with something that isn’t on the nose wording. But do agree that ‘sparingly’ is the key to rule 7.

    Rule #8, no problem.

    9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
    Of the 10 rules, this is the one I bristle at the most. While I get that under most circumstances it’s good advice, I also think back to my childhood and how powerfully I was impacted by outstanding descriptions of places and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I would have felt robbed if they HADN’T done that. And I don’t look back and say “Oh, that horrible author. He spent time taking me to that particular place so I could feel like I was right there. Guess he should’ve read the rules of writing.”

    10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
    An ongoing learning process, complicated by the fact that not all readers are the same.

    • Yeah I strongly agree with you on the description rule. I want to be grounded in a sense of place when I read. I get impatient with overly spare novels

  2. Understand the ‘rules’ before you break them. But I’m going to do a search for “suddenly” in the wip before sending it off to my editor. Back in a minute …

    Whew! None there. No “sudden”s either.
    Safe travels, and Happy Halloween.

  3. With all due respect to Elmore, I prefer this simple admonishment from my friend and mentor Dennis Foley:

    “The only rule in writing is don’t bore the reader.”

  4. Checking my ms for “suddenly” as well before I turn it in. As it is, I still have the ending to write and that’s what I should be doing instead of checking out TKZ! But, hey! I found something I needed…
    I thought I knew what “asseverate” meant…I was wrong. Here’s the definition to save anyone else the time: looked up declare or state solemnly or emphatically.

  5. I’m proudly breaking rule #1 about the weather because it’s my inciting incident and key to the story. Think of the movie “Open Range” with Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner.

    • Whelp II am with you on weather. As long as it relates to or amplifies the central action

  6. These rules are fair when doing editing passes, but I would disagree that they should be adhered to 100% of the time. Especially during first draft when you’re just trying to get the story out.
    Occasionally, prologues work, but it’s always good to double, tripple check.

    And I really do take issue with rule 3. If I don’t say “she murmured” I then have to use an adverb, or else the reader won’t get the emotion. “No,” she said, has a very different sound than “no,” she murmured, or “no,” she said softly.

  7. Echoing Debbie above. There’s only one rule, which I learned from my mentor Eric Witchey, “Affect the reader emotionally.” The rest are all guidelines (and often excellent ones).

  8. Although I think Elmore’s list is a great reference, I noticed four of the eleven rules start with the word “Never.” I propose a prologue to any list of writing rules: “Never use the word ‘Never’ when writing a list of rules.”

    I also had to look up the word “asseverate.” Maybe this is an exception to the “never say never” rule.

  9. Elmore Leonard is old-style with his sparse language and minimalist characterization, etc. Let modern writers beware because modern readers often want more than what he offers.

  10. See this-here for lots more roolz to brake (sick):

    1 “No weather openings.” I don’t know weather I agree wif this, or not. Ain’t done it yet.
    2 “Avoid prologues.” Yes, not every book needs a prologue, but I have a better rule: Keep prologs short and unchapterlike.
    3 through 5: OK. “Said” is invisible to readers.
    6 ‘Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”.’ This is the same as “Show, don’t tell.”
    7 “Use dialects sparingly.” Lin Rolens, the instructor at Ventura College, told us this. The very next thing I turned in, Mountain Where Rain Alltime, was half pidgin. Nothing sparing about that. She gave me an A on it, noted “Outrageous!” at the top.
    8 through 10: OK

    • Thanks. Our connection flight to Miami was delayed so in order to make it home to Tallahassee we now have to go to Reagan. It’s only 2:30 and I need a glass of wine. The dogs, however, are excellent travelers!

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