Tag Archives: authors

Elmore Leonard Rules

29 Oct

Elmore Leonard

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain  invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell  what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for  language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you,  invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules.

 Still, you might look them over.

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 to describe ice and snow  than an Eskimo, 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 nonfiction. 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 O.K. 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. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from  what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. .  . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of  hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a  little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set  aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to  get mixed up with the story.”

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 to get 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 flavor 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, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice,  with not one adverb in sight.

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

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with  language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But  even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring  the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

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

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip  reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too  many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing,  perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the  weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader  either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet  you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

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. It’s my attempt to remain  invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious  writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the  way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and  always from the point of view of a particular character — the  one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to
concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they  are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on,  and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his  chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover.  ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy  Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle  1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as  warnings to the  reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me  taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the  way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning  to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

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