In Defense of Elmore Leonard’s Rules, Part 1

Examining Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Writing, 1 – 5

Elmore Leonard, great crime writer and (in my opinion), the best dialog writer of all time, once boiled all his writing advice into ten rules. Then I heard a popular podcaster/indie writer systematically disagree with each and every one of the rules. I’m here to explain why she was wrong.

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.

Elmore Leonard's Rules Indigo Skies Photography via Compfight

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.

This podcaster’s argument about #1 was “lots of great books have opened with weather”. Which is a valid point, if you were to take Leonard’s advice literally.

But Elmore Leonard’s Rules aren’t meant to be taken literally. Rules 1-5 examined below

“Never open a book with weather”

His point is not that weather is bad. It may help you set the mood to explain that it’s raining. But it’s better to set the mood through dialogue and action than anything else. If the fact that streets slick with rain cause your hero to crash her car, that’s relevant. She’s driving out of control along a curvy highway as sheets of rain pelt the road… that’s going to create tension. And tension in a story is everything.
But if your description of a thunderstorm is trying to tell us the story is spooky, you can do better.

“Avoid Prologues”

Prologues aren’t inherently bad. The problem is starting your story with something that isn’t story. I recently read Privileged Information by Stephen White, which is a first-person POV thriller, and he uses a prologue narrated by someone other than the protagonist to add some mystery to the story. Who’s voice was in the prologue? What did those mysterious statements mean? Used this way, it creates tension and furthers the story. But, just like the weather, if your intent is to “set the mood”, cut it. Start with your story.

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

He’s saying that your dialogue should be smart enough that we should be able to tell how a character said a line just by what we know of the character, the context of the situation, and the wording of the dialogue.

“You are a worthless piece of turtle poop,” she seethed.
“You are a worthless piece of turtle poop,” she said.

The seething seems pretty apparent to me in the second example. I’d assume if someone called me turtle poop, shit’s about to get real. The occasional variation from “said” is fine. Steer clear of words like retorted, argued, responded… and my personal pet peeve, “quipped.”

When you’re about to tell a joke, do you say, “here’s a funny joke,” or do you say, “here’s a joke”?

See the difference?

“Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.”

Essentially the same as the point about dialogue. It’s preferable to use an action to highlight, if necessary.

“You are a worthless piece of turtle poop,” she said sarcastically.
“You are a worthless piece of turtle poop,” she said with a wink.

(by the way, this woman sure seems obsessed with turtle fecal matter.)

Just like you would say he sprinted down the hall instead of he walked quickly down the hall. Tight prose means using as few words as possible.

“Keep your exclamation points under control.”

Leonard’s rules keep coming back to the theme, “don’t be fancy if you don’t have to be.” The occasional exclamation mark in dialogue is forgivable, especially if you want to highlight tone of voice without having to add “she yelled” as your dialogue attribution. But an exclamation mark in description or action is bad form. You’re basically telling us what we should think is exciting, instead of showing us.

Rules 6-10 examined in th next post!!!!!11!!!1!!

Source: “WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle” 
By ELMORE LEONARD, published in NY TIMES

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