Elmore Leonard's Rules of Writing: an historical perspective

It seems to be the season for losing great writers. I'm sorry to say Elmore Leonard has passed away. His most popular work was a book-turned-film by the name of Get Shorty, though crime readers know him for 40+ other fine books.

But Leonard's probably best known for his ten rules of writing. They've been copied across the internet about a trillion times, so let me add to the total. Here they are, from a master of crime writing:

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” … he admonished gravely.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 

words of prose.

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 part that readers tend to skip.

I know of some writers who follow these rules with religious zeal. Elmore Leonard himself noted that for every rule, there was a good writer who could break it with no problems. Leonard's rules describe his own rather sparse style very well, so it might be more accurate to say that if you want to be a super-successful writer of contemporary American crime fiction then here are some rules to live by.

I don't think Elmore Leonard's rules work quite as well for historical mysteries, and I'm not quite of the same style. So I thought I'd comment on which I think work and which are modifiable.

1. Never open a book with weather.

I'm totally with him on this one. Always open with action. Always! The weather can wait, unless it's raining frogs. I would definitely mention if it was raining frogs. Or bodies.

2. Avoid prologues.

Another big yes. Either the prologue's necessary, or it isn't. If it isn't, it should be cut. If it is, then you've just begun your book with an entire chapter of back story and exposition.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

I disagree with this. There's another important rule to always use the strongest, most descriptive verbs. A verb can work very hard for you when you pick the right one. Rather than go across the room, a character can walk, run, lope, crawl, stagger etc.

The logic for "said" is that any other verb distracts attention from the dialogue, which is true. But sometimes, if you're selective, it can add meaning. I'm happy for my characters to growl, mutter, shout and whisper. Because I write in first person, the choice of tag can tell us in a single word what Nico thinks of some other character's statement.
"How come I'm the one left holding the baby?" Socrates whined.
Or a non-said tag can tell us about Nico's hidden motives. My favourite for this is whenever Socrates upstages Nico with some brilliant deduction, Nico adds:

Socrates makes brilliant deduction.
"I was just about to say the same thing," I lied.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.

Yes, I tend to agree. But that's because I dislike Rule 3, hence I use more colourful tags. Rules 3+4 taken together creates more blandness than I like in dialogue. Leonard himself was not a dialogue sort of guy, whereas I use lots.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

My name is Gary and I have a dependency issue with exclamation points. Three per book is way too low, but there is indeed a rather low limit to these things. Where characters get excited, a nicely placed ! can avoid having to use the word "shout" too much. (Which would in turn break rule 3...I'm not scoring well here...)

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

The latter would be a terrible anachronism in my books. The former is an adverb, and a better choice of verb can help you avoid it.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Deliberately mis-spelled words to simulate a patois are a pain to read and a pest to type. So yes, avoid.

But this one's a tough problem for historical authors. I "translate" the speech of my characters from ancient languages such as Greek and Persian into modern English. Ancient people spoke with different accents, depending on where they came from and their social class, just like modern people, and somehow I have to reflect that in a way that's recognizable. The only alternative is for everyone from the fishwives to the statesmen to all sound like they went to Oxford, a subject on which I've previously written.

So generally I try to find speech patterns for various classes and locations that don't require mispelling and aren't too evocative of any particular modern population. (It clearly won't do for example for any of my characters to sound like a Frenchman.)

Yet you want a certain degree of consistency within a character group. My thugs and dockside low-lives do tend to sound Australian, since they'll say "mate", but otherwise they don't carry the nasal accent and even they are usually grammatically correct.

Yet you can't win on this. I noticed one reader review for Sacred Games in which the reader who otherwise liked the book was disappointed that a couple of dumb fighters had been given a southern drawl. Which came as news to me. I had to go back to my own book to work out who they meant. The reader had simply heard a different accent to the one I'd heard. So on this point, the historical author is pretty much doomed. Sigh.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Generally yes.

Though in classical historicals you need to take a brief moment to describe the clothing, because it's wildly different to modern wear. I did have such fun with Nico trying to put on a pair of trousers in The Ionia Sanction.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

And here's the big difference. People read historicals because they want to be in a different time and place. It has to be described! Though generally the best descriptions involve lots of verbs and not so many adjectives, so that the reader gets a feeling of a living, moving classical world, like us but different.

Best to avoid blocks of descriptive text though, but rather edge descriptions into the action. This is also a very common method in science fiction.  (In passing, SF and historical mysteries have a great deal of technique in common.)

The classical travel writer Pausanias by the way clearly had never heard of Leonard's rules, because he describes every building he sees right down to length, width and height measurements and even the colour of the curtains (I'm not kidding). I wish I could send Pausanias a thank you card.

10. Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

The best advice of all.


jonhanna said...

I think all of these rules tend to be more flags of "here are things people do when they're being lazy or putting the focus on the wrong thing, check if you are doing so", rather than rules.

I can think of a great opening that starts not only with weather, but with rather boring weather:

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

What makes Neuromancer's opening line so great isn't that it's a great description of weather (unlike the likes of Barry Lopez that Leonard explictly makes an exception to), but that it's an okay description of weather and minimal description of setting (the main reason writers are tempted to have a narrator viewpoint comment on the weather) that's a great introduction to the thought processes and mental metaphorical vocabuary of the protagonist.

I likewise agree with your defense of "I lied", but would take more convincing about "he whined"; in general (and the whole point here is that the specific cases can always be an exception) telling me a character lied is likely to show me more than telling me they whined.

DeadlyAccurate said...

Did you see The Onion's obituary of Leonard? http://www.theonion.com/articles/elmore-leonard-modern-prose-master-noted-for-his-t,33559/

Gary Corby said...

Hi Deadly. Yes, it was gorgeous! I laughed all the way through it!

Sorry about having to block links in comments, btw. It's an anti-spammer necessity.

Gary Corby said...

Jon, they're warnings about possible problems for sure, not hard and fast rules.

I like Neuromancer too. It's exceptional in many ways, unsurprisingly since it's the type model for cyberpunk. Have a look at how much stolen RAM Case is carrying in scene 1. It's less than you've got in your microwave oven. Yet where the book stays vague in details it works to this day.

jonhanna said...

Often Gibson manages to be stupid about technology in just the right way at just the right time.

Susanna Fraser said...

I have a sneaking fondness for prologues...at least when they're necessary. I have an as-yet-unpublished alternative history manuscript where the "alternative" piece is that I kill off a major historical figure a good 15 years before he was all that major and 25 years before he died in real life. So my prologue is a brief deathbed scene, and then we skip forward a few decades to a point where the world has gone noticeably askew.

Now, maybe the reason I still haven't found a publisher for this particular story is that it has a prologue...but I doubt it. I've had the pleasure of watching a few people read the prologue, and when they hit the last line and discover who the dying man is, their eyes go wide, they say, "Oh, SHIT," and they scramble to Chapter 1.

I'm also fond of a well-chosen adverb to modify "said," though I always make myself cut at least 75% of the ones in my first drafts.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, I'll have to read that Onion piece about Leonard again. I've read nothing but praise for it, but I thought it might be the first unfunny thing the Onion had ever published. Why? Because it was so obvious.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Gary Corby said...

Hi Peter! Maybe it's because by profession you're a top of the line proofreader? I'm guessing a lot of people didn't get the joke until they were halfway through, whereas you spot that sort of bad practice in a microsecond.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I think it's because the Onion sets high standards. I can't believe that anyone interested in reading such a piece would not already have been familiar with Leonard's word and, hence, found the piece wince-makingly obvious.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I did quite like your thoughts on Leonard's rules, though. You thought about them more carefully than most readers do.

Orange said...

It was on a dark and rainy night, that Elmore Leonard gave us advice on writing. First, there was the prologue, but soon, he exclaimed – just use ‘said’! With this, all hell broke loose, we were braying our britches, as they say in Yorkshire …