Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing

elmore 2As an agent, I get a lot of fiction submissions. Usually I can tell if I don’t like them by the end of the first page. Sometimes by the end of the first paragraph. I’m a little embarrassed to make this admission. Some people might think that my method makes me a literary philistine. And sure, there are lots of examples of masterpieces that I probably would mistakenly throw out because I was bored on page one or even page 10. Most of the great novels of the nineteenth century might not pass muster. As an example, just look at Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. We all know the story, don’t we? Well, in the likely event that you loved the play or movie, as I did, you probably tried to read the book but gave up. The hero, Jean Valjean, doesn’t even show up until about page 50. And the stuff before his entrance is deadeningly, crushingly boring.

When I talk to inexperienced writers, I usually tell them to read Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing. And if you don’t treat the rules inflexibly, they are all very sensible. We’ll let Victor Hugo get by with a few peccadilloes. Well, actually Les Mis has about 800 pages of peccadilloes. So here is Leonard’s list with my modest annotations:

1. Never Open a book with a weather report. We all remember the most celebrated bad first line in literature: “It was a dark and stormy night.” from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford. The novel was considered a masterpiece when written. Now it has become a subject of ridicule and condescension by high culture snoots. There isn’t anything wrong with writing about the weather if you are building a scene. But for me this kind of beginning smacks of the equivalent of novelistic throat clearing, a sign that the author lacks the self-confidence to jump into the story.

2. Avoid prologues. Screenwriters love prologues. But then screenplays are usually about 20% as long as even the shortest novel. Movies have to get backstory information out quickly and concisely, and the prologue is an obvious vehicle for this. But novels are different. Again, prologues were ok in the nineteenth century. Probably the most influential artist of that time was Richard Wagner. His masterpiece, The Ring of the Niebelung, runs for 4 nights and is over 14 hours long. The entire 2 1/2 hour first opera, Das Rheingold, is a classic prologue written entirely to bring out the backstory of the epic myth. Wagner gets to break the rules; but you, gentle writer, do not. Editors in New York are pretty demanding about how authors should handle backstory. They expect it to be dribbled out on a “need to know basis”. Editors condescendingly refer to backstory prologues as “info dumps”. Another sign of an inexperienced author.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Ok. This is a little extreme. I’m sure Elmore wouldn’t have a problem with “asked” or “thought”. But it’s probably a good idea to avoid most other tags. Plain vanilla tags like “said” are transparent to the reader and keep the reader’s attention on the dialogue and the story. More complex and descriptive tags like “he wondered” or “he mused” or “he regurgitated” [unless, of course, the subject is actually tossing his cookie] are distracting. An exercise in “telling” rather than “showing.”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. Same as rule #3 above. Adverbs tend to be clumsy and lazy. That said, I just finished rereading The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald loved adverbs. And who am I to criticize Fitzgerald? So, like Wagner, we’ll give him a literary “get out of jail free” card.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. YOU HEAR THAT RULE, BUB?! You try using those exclamation points with me, and you’re outta here!!!

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” What Elmore is really saying here is that you should avoid clichés like the plague (ha, ha. joke). Another sign of lazy writing. And you might also take the advice of Strunk and White and not use “weak” adjectives like “nice”, “beautiful”, or even “weak”.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Dad gummit! I agree with Elmore on this. It’s another example of how good style should be invisible. A novel should draw the reader into a kind of trance-like state. When the style distracts the reader from the story, she falls out of the story. I see a lot of stuff by inexperienced writers who are smitten by the need to flaunt their style. Excessive alliteration and misplaced similes, for example. There are lots of examples of great writing where style trumps substance, but in general this is a good rule.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. I’m not sure I would agree with this as a general rule. But what I think Elmore means is that characters are best described by their actions and their words in dialogue. Another admonition of “show, don’t tell.” But go ahead, you can break this rule if it works.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. I’d really like to make a snarky remark about Henry James right now, but I will forgo that temptation. As above, sometimes this rule is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Sure, if you are writing like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, or even Elmore Leonard, rule #9 is sound advice. But there is room for other styles in good writing. Certainly you should avoid unnecessary detail. Actually you should avoid unnecessary anything.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. This rule speaks for itself –uh– Henry James? Are you listening?

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23 Responses to “Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing”

  1. tanya grove Says:

    All good advice worth remembering! Thanks, Andy. Although one wouldn’t think it happens as much, nonfiction writers are guilty of some of Leonard’s pet peeves as well. But being the discreet editor that I am, I wouldn’t dream of naming names…

  2. Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing | Creativity Untamed Says:

    […] Of course there aren’t actually ‘rules of writing’ but there are some good guidelines that most should listen to.  Now I support anyone throwing caution to the wind and finding his inner voice through a new craft/style.  But generally, I agree that we should adhere to an agent’s cries: Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing. […]

  3. J. M. Tompkins Says:

    I see that my repost has appeared above, but I wanted to say that I enjoyed this article and loved the rules of writing. I shared on my site for others to read as well (connected back to this article).

  4. Emily Anne Says:

    Interesting blog. I’ve heard a lot of that advice in different words. It seems pretty universal, especially the adverb business. But what would you say to books like Trainspotting or (most) Faulkners when it comes to dialect—only okay if you’re a writing guru (which most debut novelists aren’t)? Or go for gold?

  5. J. M. Tompkins Says:

    Emily,

    I have heard that if we couldn’t get the dialect down, to abandon it, or instead, describe the accent if we need to.

    I think the key is to focus what we are good at. 🙂

  6. Paula Cappa Says:

    I take Elmore’s RULES as suggestions to be aware of when editing and rewriting but not more than that. I don’t believe in RULES in the creative arts. In fact, it’s usually those very creative minds that have broken the rules that truly bring us to new places. Einstein broke the scientific rules all the time. ee cummings changed the rules for writing poetry. John Kennedy, Rosa Parks, Copernicus, Beethoven; the list goes on.

    I say pick a rule and challenge it.

    As for opening a story with the weather, take “a dark and stormy night” and recreate it … “I’m alone on a cliff with ravishing clouds, the cold darkness spreading across the autumn sky. The fragrant pines cannot draw me back from the edge. This dreary wind cuts a silver slit, a prompt to jump.”

    Okay, so that paragraph is not just weather but the idea is to experience the weather, let go creatively until it becomes something more.

    Forget the rules and go into the words as deeply as you can and really have fun. But edit, edit, edit!

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Paula, thanks. I agree with you. There are really no hard and fast rules for writing and the really great writers and artists are the ones who can break those rules. But Elmore Leonard’s “rules” here are still pretty good advice and worth thinking about as you are writing.

  7. Pat Says:

    Thank you for your post Andy. As an inexperienced writer, it’s interesting and find I have much to learn. In my nonfiction stories, I’ve probably broken all the rules.

  8. dcogswel Says:

    I am wondering if your “no prologues” would apply to narrative non-fiction as well as a fiction piece such as an novel?

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Good question. And as everyone has been saying, you can’t accept these observations as rules. Elmore Leonard was clearly talking about fiction. There are so many genres of non-fiction that it would be hard to make generalizations. But if you are talking about narrative genres, I think you probably want to start the story right away. Which means approach prologues with care.

      • Ed Young - Your Bantam rep last century Says:

        “All generalizations are wrong including this one.”

  9. Rick Barry Says:

    Good stuff, delivered with a spoonful (or more) of humor. Thanks!

  10. Madison Woods Says:

    Avoiding cliche is hard sometimes and it gives me smiles when I notice new inventions, really just translations of the cliche, into new word arrangements that mean the same thing. It makes me pause to compare the two versions.

  11. lydia Says:

    As a novice, this post was really helpful. I was recently advised by an editor to use a prologue or a flashback for my opening. I’m reluctant to do so because I keep seeing “NO Prologues.” Is there a difference between a prologue and a Chapter one flashback? I have a suspicion they are one in the same. Do you have an opinion, Andy?

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Lydia, as others have mentioned here, these aren’t hard and fast rules. There are lots of great contemporary novels that begin with prologues. The point I think is to be careful about them. The real problem with prologues is that it is usually a lazy way to frontload backstory into the novel. Publishers are pretty clear that they want back story to be unfolded on a need to know basis and to not get in the way of telling the story. They like the real story to begin on page one. And prologues tend to get in the way of this.

  12. Top Picks covering Writing Advice, Agent Hunts & Writing Contest | Creativity Untamed Says:

    […] Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writing […]

  13. Heather Villa (@HeatherVilla1) Says:

    Hello Andy,

    Thank you.

    Rule number six reminds about a chapter that I read in Spunk & Bite, titled How to Loot a Thesaurus. Yet, the chapter’s most compelling advice, challenges writers to simply “Search your own brain.”

    I appreciate your keen interpretation of Elmore Leonard’s rules.

    Best,
    Heather Villa

  14. schillingklaus Says:

    The rules are nothing but fascist taste dictatorship and tyrannism. I will never heed them, regardless of how often you criticists try to force them down our throats.

    I like prologues, stereotypical characters, and intrusive narration full of adverbs. There is absolutely no way whatsoever you will ever be able to change my preferences, period!

  15. andyrossagency Says:

    Well, we do agree with you that all literary rules exist to be broken. So bring on the adverbs and prologues!

  16. Pizzos3.com Says:

    Hey wouldn’t it be easy as agent to reject a submission with just a number. Then at least the writer could check the rule list and figure out what to improve on.

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