Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing

J-Sun

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Was reading a story that contained the line "I’m overwhelmed by the sense that there’s no captain steering the ship. He’s swigging gin in his life boat and we’re all cruising towards an iceberg." This reminded me of lines in a Dylan song about Eliot and Pound ("The Titanic sails at dawn... / And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot / Fighting in the captain’s tower") and a websearch to help me stick the lines into the song also had me stumble across some exegesis and, on that site, there was Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing. Y'know: just another example of how the internet helps you to focus.

So. The actual rules:

Never open a book with weather.
Avoid prologues.
Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

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

I've never read Leonard, so don't know how closely he followed these rules or how they worked out for him in practice (though apparently pretty well) but I think, as long as it's not a dark and stormy night, you could possibly have a good weather opening. Prologues can serve their purposes but certainly aren't obligatory. I don't always mind character or other description but I think it's better to make it a rule to be broken rather than unstated and too prevalent. The rest I think are 99.9% wonderful. It's hard to argue with "try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip" and I love the rule of rules. Just curious what others thought or rules they'd add or anything they wanted to say.

(Note to mods: this could be moved to the writer's forum but I figure more writers will check the reader's forums than vice versa and was interested in it mostly from a reader's point of view, anyway, though it would probably be most useful to aspiring writers.)
 

Jackie Bee

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Thanks for sharing! Some of those rules appear in different shapes in different books on writing. But some of them sound more like personal taste to me rather than absolute truth. Like, never use 'suddenly'? Anyway, I guess it's usefull to know this but in the end you take what' right for you...
 

dask

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My problem with the avoid prologue rule is what if someone wrote a prologue and called it chapter one?
 

alchemist

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I've read them all before in various guises and tend to agree except for the prologue rule. As a reader, I quite like a focused prologue. I think it's become fasionable to dislike them because some have been irrelevant to the story and served little purpose, and the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater.
 

LittleStar

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Having read them a few times, and heard them many different ways before, I think I probably disagree with many of them, agreeing more and more as the list goes on as it happens. Or at least i find them as rules that should be acknowledged and broken.

As OP said above, I think as long as it isn't a 'dark and stormy night' (though i see no reason dark and stormy wouldnt work in different words) I think weather openings can be fine. Agreed that they are my preffered and can be a bit lazy, but 'never' is a bit firm.

Prologues have their places. I think I see to err in the other side when reading or starting writing, but after pondering on exactly why they are there, I think if done correctly and for the right reasons, then they certainly have a place.

I have a big problem with 'said bookisms', and think a book that is purely he said, she said, is probably going to read flat and boringly monotone for me. Often, maybe, but not every single time. I know everyone says that the writing or speech should convey the emotion behind the words, but sometimes it's not enough (especially with only 2-3 exclamation marks;) ) Regardless of how it's set up 'Dont tell me what to do,' he said. Has a very different feel to 'Dont tell me what to do,' he screamed, or whispered, or tittered, or mumbled. Or if it is scene in a library where everything has been whispered up until then, you've convey it week in the prose, but then someone get s angry end screams at someone else. How do you convey that with just an exclamition mark or a scraping of a chair.
It's just a pet hate of mine:)

I'd do mostly agree with the adverbs as speech modifiers though, for exactly the opposite reasons mentioned above. You should be able to tell how he whispered from the scene setting, and the fact that he is whispering. Anything else is unnecessary.

Agree with exclamation marks, but that's just because I don't use them anyway, ever. I never have. I've been told I should use them more so have started putting them in very occasionally. But it doesn't feel right. Probably for the same reasons as the adverbs.

Agre with suddenly and regional dialects. I find them difficult as a reader, even if I know the accent in my head, I still can't read the words (or they've just done it so badly on page that it makes no sense to me). I think Gaskell's North and South is a particular example of this for me, and anything really back then that tried to show the lower classes purely a though lack of pronounced English. They all failed for me.

Avoiding character detail descriptions is another I agree with for the most part, but not consciously. Ive realised I just happen to write without describing the characters, and no one has picked me up on it yet, so that can't be that bad. But I think avoiding the detailed description when first meeting, of everything they wear and do, and look like etc. is a must. Dripping in this information over the next 100k is how it should be done.

Just to contradict my self massively, I love description. I love the world building of scenes described in detail, I want to know the small intricacies of the work, but as long as it doesn't get in the way of the story. I don't mind a whole page of description if someone had just ventured onto a planet of floating bubble lizards for the first time. I don't mind it if while on a quest to the caves of the dragon, POV stops to described the distant mountains and jungles and the whales breaching on the sea. I love that stuff. But I also know that there is a time and place, pacing issues etc.

Hard to find fault with the last point though:notworthy:
 

Ray McCarthy

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Never open a book with weather
Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
Never is totally wrong. "said" should be the majority of dialogue tags and adverbs in dialogue tags should be sparingly used.
A maximum of two or three "!" per 100,000 words of prose is wrong. Of course they should be used sparingly unless you are Writing! Headlines! Mocking! Yahoo! or such like.

There are more useful sets of "rules". Those don't want to be followed slavishly. Brian's favourite, 38 mistakes writers make etc.
 

Hex

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As the sun rose over the boards, Hex could see that the rain was coming in from the ocean, casting diagonals over the distant hills. She cast her tangled hair back, revealing bloodshot eyes and skin as grey as the gathering stormclouds. She was hunched and snaggle-toothed. About four feet and three inches in her stocking feet. Not that she had stockings. Or feet. They were more in the way of claws. She was wearing a ragged pair of jeans that had probably been stolen from a charity shop. She looked like she wanted to go back to bed. And she did.

"It's the way he wrote, I think", she admonished gravely. "Not the way everyone else needs to."

"Though most of those seem to me worth considering," she added in a sibilant hiss. Because obviously one can hiss non-sibilantly.

Suddenly, it was time for Chapter One. All hell broke loose!!!!!!!!!!!
 

Susan Boulton

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Write what you feel is right for your story, then edit the hell out of it. It might match these rules, then again it might not.

If you focus too much on all these, "rules" out there you never get anything written.
 

Maieius

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Never open a book with weather.
Avoid prologues.
Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

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

A lot of nevers. I literally just began a book that opened with weather, but it was needed since the weather is what causes the story to get going! And it's odd how he says to never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" but only to avoid prologues, considering the amount of hate I've seen towards prologues.

I don't agree with never using "suddenly" but I do agree with "all hell broke loose."
I agree with the last four points too. I agreed with more than I expected I would. But I disagree with ever saying never because "rules" can be broken so easily in writing.

In the words of Captain Barbossa: the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules.

But I think avoiding the detailed description when first meeting, of everything they wear and do, and look like etc. is a must. Dripping in this information over the next 100k is how it should be done.

Agree, massively. I found it would get in the way of actually introducing the character. I think a lot depends if the character is already known to the POV character. If they already know them, then they wouldn't be noticing their features when they see them.
 
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Brian G Turner

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Never open a book with weather.
Avoid prologues.
Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

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

Sounds like a good guide to trying to make your writing stronger. :)
 
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Travis Woodward

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Never open a book with weather...

Except every book in The Wheel of Time does.

Don't remind me - I'm planning a read through of them soon (as I stopped reading them when RJ died and now want to finish them) and I am not looking forward to reading several pages at the start of each book about globe trotting gusts of wind!
 

dask

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"Toward the end of a stormy summer afternoon, with the sun finally breaking out under ragged black rain-clouds, Castle Janeil was overwhelmed and its population destroyed."

First sentence from:

 

Brian G Turner

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The Guardian has the original list with expanded reasons:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one

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 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 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.

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".

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.

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.

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.

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.

9 Don't 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 rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
 

Maieius

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I think it's ok to say other words than said. In some cases, it wouldn't make sense not to. Just as long and they're necessary and wouldn't make sense otherwise.
 

Phyrebrat

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My problem with the avoid prologue rule is what if someone wrote a prologue and called it chapter one?

I think the prologue is typically meant to revolve around a situation that is not the main thrust/characters of the story. A prologue therefore reads different than the main novel inasmuch as the scene(s) contained in it are obliquely related to the main story as opposed to directly. I think.

However I never have problems with any prologue. For me, it's nonsensical to have a position which equates to, I'm going to buy a book of a story which I know nothing about, but if there's a prologue I'm going to be cross and throw the book down. I think people don't like prologues the way people support a certain football team. It's writing by numbers; I'm loyal to this thought pattern because I follow it.

So yeah, prologues don't vex me :D


On the others:

Said is fine but sometimes the character will say something using dialogue that is unavoidably ambiguous. In this case it helps to use a specific tag. But, I think we've all seen the terror of overused tags! I think this one must be quite difficult to contravene as it is so glaringly obvious.

Adverbs we have to be careful with; whilst I'm not anti adverb for rules' sake, the logic is sound: If you're using a lot of modifiers and intensifiers, you can usually find a stronger root word which will improve your text flow and language. Again I think adverbs can be forgiven more regarding dialogue.

I don't actually like exclamation marks, but I do find myself deleting quite a lot of them. They have a sort of happy-clappy tone which I hate when I'm going for suspense or horror.

Regional dialects... sure. I hate reading something that doesn't float off the page in terms of dialogue. I had to delete about 1k of dialogue from the first third of Soot because it was written in West African Pidgin and Sierra Leonean Krio, street talk and Jamaican patois. I have to be more forgiving with my Geordie characters though. Growing up with Mackem and Geordie parents, it's hard to write it non-phonetically, but I'd chose, 'Divvent crash into us' over 'Divvent dunshus' ;)

Overall, it's important to have confidence in your writing and then assimilate the feedback you get from educated betas. We should all know how to be aware of the above potholes anyway, and have faith that if we're using one of the verboten practices, we're implementing it mindfully.

pH
 

psychotick

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Hi,

There are no rules. And I'm not even sure most of these should be called guidelines. Half of them at least feel more like personal preference. And while many of them are quoted and repeated all over the net, some of them are flat out wrong.

Never use a dialogue tag other than said? I personally hate using "said". It's one of my least used words. Why? Purely personal preference. There's nothing wrong with it. Just as there's nothing wrong with using - he whispered, growled, snorted,mocked etc etc.

The man doesn't like exclamation marks? Well bugger!!! I actually do like them and my editor may chop out a few but not many.

Avoid prologues? Only if the prologue doesn't add anything. If it does, use one by all means. It may be the best way to set a world / character.

Cheers, Greg.
 
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