Monday, August 15, 2016

Elmore Leonard's Ten Writing Rules

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.  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.)

4 comments:

  1. Great tips, Jean, thanks for sharing, she said gratefully. I've always heard about this, but never taken the time to look 'em up, and now you've generously put 'em right in my lap where I must look at 'em.

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  2. My pleasure, WG. Stop by whenever you have time. After 42 years in the writing industry, I've got lots more where this came from. :)

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  3. Too much character description is one of my pet peeves as a reader. In fact, some of the best stories I have read have had almost no character description...such as Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants.

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  4. I agree, P2c2u. Too much description, period, slows down the action and ruins the plot. Carefully adding bits and pieces of necessary description and backstory, and deleting everything else that doesn't further the plot, should be on every writer's second draft list.

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