Elmore’s Ten Rules

I’ve always liked – and passed on – the American crime writer Elmore Leonard’s advice to ‘leave out the parts readers tend to skip’, because it’s my philosophy exactly. I’ve been flipping through a very good book called Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff, and in it he presents a list of ten rules that Leonard shared with readers of the New York Times. In the spirit of generosity and shameless plagiarism, I now share it with my readers:

1 Never open a book with the weather

2 Avoid prologues

3 Never use a verb  other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue

4 Never use an adverb to modify ‘said’

5 Keep your exclamation marks under control

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

7 Use regional dialect or 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 readers tend to skip

imagesTo me, points 1, 5, 7 and 10 are as good as cast in stone, but others are either debatable or maybe open to interpretation, even though I agree with the general principle.

May biggest argument is with Point 2. I like prologues! They don’t suit all types of story, but I think they can be really effective if they are well done and relevant. I’d say points 3 & 4 are generally good advice, but a bit too draconian. I like to think he was just trying to shock us into taking note, rather than meaning ‘never’ literally. I’m pretty much in agreement with Point 6, which is perhaps shorthand for “Avoid clichés”. And I’d say it’s all right to break rule 9 as long as it’s relevant description. If you’re simply getting a character from A to B, too much description slows things down unnecessarily. But there might be times – say if your character is revisiting his childhood home – where dwelling on the scenery and the emotions it invokes could be both necessary and effective.

Additionally, Leonard said:

My most important rule is one that sums up all ten. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.

And I bet he never went on a writing course!

About ramblesofawriter

Writer, thinker, tea drinker.
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5 Responses to Elmore’s Ten Rules

  1. chloefb says:

    I’m glad you don’t agree absolutely with all of them, because I’m the same – I get the principle but think it’s OK to break most of them at some points. What I’m getting here is that I probably shouldn’t be starting my novel-in-progress with “It was a dark and stormy night…”? Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

  2. You know, I never thought that opening was quite as bad as it was made out to be! It’s become a cliche now and we’re used to rolling our eyes at it, but I’m sure there must have been far worse than that!

    • chloefb says:

      Have you ever entered the Bulwer-Lytton Prize? So much fun reading the entries!

      • I did once enter and I enjoyed dreaming something up, but for some reason I keep forgetting to enter again.

        One of my earliest blog posts was in praise of an entry that came runner-up but which I thought was far funnier than the winning one:

        “As I stood among the ransacked ruins that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that he been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this…and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.”

        It still keeps coming back to be out of the blue, and when it does it always has me chuckling for the rest of the day!

      • chloefb says:

        That’s brilliant!

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