Writers love to offer lists of rules for writing, especially if they’ve got a book to promote and a major newspaper offers them some free advertising. We’ve critiqued Vonnegut and Gaiman, and now it’s the late Elmore Leonard’s turn. Leonard mostly wrote westerns, crime fiction, and thrillers, which are a bit outside the traditional Mythcreants wheelhouse, but it’s important to branch out from time to time.*
1. The First Rule
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 than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
My first rule when writing a first rule about writing is that you shouldn’t include stereotypes about Indigenous people, to say nothing of the outdated nomenclature. Even if the rule’s substance is great, presentation like that will put people off.
So, how about this rule’s substance? It’s not great! Stories should open with conflict, as that’s what hooks readers. It’s true that a lot of conflict-free weather will make for a boring start, but weather isn’t unusually bad here. You can just as easily make a boring first chapter by focusing too much on terrain description or even on people who don’t have any meaningful conflict.
This rule also precludes using weather as your conflict. A storm or drought can make for excellent conflict, so long as you use better description than “a dark and stormy night.” Granted, there should also be people in this weather, as you want to introduce your protagonist as soon as possible, but that’s still starting the story with weather!
While we’re on the topic of conflict, any weather you start the story with should still have it, even if you’re really good at describing snow like this Lopez guy apparently is. On their own, skillful descriptions of weather can provide novelty, but adding conflict will also help you build tension, which is just as important.
Conclusion: Mostly useless.
2. The Second Rule
Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. 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 OK 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.”
Someone must have told Leonard about my crusade against prologues, because this is a rule after my own heart. At least, the first part is. He’s right that prologues are often little more than backstory, and if that backstory is important, it can be established within the story itself. No need to have a special backstory section that’s isolated from the main story. Although, to be clear, it’s usually not a good idea to condense all of a character’s backstory into a flashback scene later in the story either. Backstory needs to be trickled in where it’s important for readers to know; otherwise, it’s difficult to keep track of.
But that’s only one of the many mistakes writers make with prologues. Another common one is to prop up a slow beginning by stuffing the prologue full of meaningless action. Or the prologue might be spent establishing an unnecessary narrative framing device. The list goes on, but the foundational issue is always the same: a prologue takes place before the story starts, and if the story hasn’t started yet, there’s no reason for the reader to care.
The second half of this rule is very weird. I’m sorry, Elmore, but a prologue doesn’t suddenly become good if the author includes some writing advice you agree with. Maybe that’s supposed to be a joke, but the first rule’s aside about a specific author seemed serious, so it’s hard to tell. The writing advice in question is also very bad, but that discussion will have to wait until we get to the rule that focuses on it.
Conclusion: Useful, if confusing.
3. The Third Rule
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 and go to the dictionary.
This rule is on the right track, even if “never” is too strong a word to use here. Non-standard dialogue tags are usually a bad idea, largely because they’re intrusive. They interrupt the narrative’s flow and make you reinterpret a line you’ve already read. There are much better ways to get across how a character is speaking, in both the dialogue itself and the description around it. If you do that work, then an unusual dialogue tag is just repetitive.
New writers need to hear this because fancy dialogue tags are really tempting. It’s hard to properly communicate how a character is speaking, while fancy tags are easy to use. Why bother showing that a character is angry when you can just say they “raged”? Meanwhile, the costs are hidden: you need skill and experience to judge how badly a reader’s immersion will be broken or how the repetition of a fancy tag actually reduces the scene’s impact.
That said, there are situations where a tag other than “said” is called for, and new authors should be aware of those too. Those situations aren’t nearly as common as first draft manuscripts might lead you to believe, but they do happen. In particular, “asked” is often appropriate, or perhaps “shouted” to indicate volume. Thankfully, it’s much easier to learn the few exceptions than it is to make “said” the default in the first place.
Conclusion: Useful, with a caveat for absolutism.
4. The Fourth Rule
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”.
Whoa, ease up there, Elmore. No need to conflate a type of word you don’t like with sexual violence. Before that poor choice of words brought the mood crashing down, I was actually enjoying this rule, even if it is a bit repetitive with the previous one. What can I say? I love a good dialogue-tag joke like we’ve got in the first sentence here.
As for the adverbs, this is another situation where the advice is usually right, but it’s delivered in absolute terms that erase a lot of nuance. In the vast majority of cases, adding an -ly adverb to your dialogue tag is a bad idea for the same reason using fancy dialogue tags is a bad idea. There are much better ways to communicate how a character is speaking. Either adverbs won’t get the job done or they’ll be repetitive with other measures you take.
The parenthetical aside about using adverbs in other ways does make this advice more complicated. The term “adverb” applies to a huge swath of words in the English language, some of which are very useful and shouldn’t be discounted. New writers do tend to overuse them, but such a broad admonition isn’t helpful, even in the role of pushing back against bad tendencies.
Conclusion: Useful, but you have to pick out the bad bits.
5. The Fifth Rule
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.
With each rule, we slip further and further into the territory of good ideas that are stated badly. It’s true that, for writers, exclamation points are a sometimes food. In addition to indicating excitement, they emphasize a sentence as being of particular importance. Once you learn that, it’s tempting to emphasize everything, which of course only results in nothing being emphasized.
Even so, the numbers Leonard gives here are absurd. 100,000 words is a lot, even by the standards of epic fantasy doorstops. At this exchange rate, we’d have less than six exclamation points for all of The Fellowship of the Ring. I promise it’s okay to use more exclamation marks than that! How many more? I’m not sure, which is why I haven’t included exact numbers in any of my writing advice.
The numbers are what makes this rule worse than previous ones that also went too far in pursuit of a good idea. Absolute statements like “never use adverbs” aren’t very actionable, so it’s unlikely they’ll sabotage anyone too badly. But this rule gives you a rubric to judge how well you’re following it. A quick ctrl+f will tell you how many exclamation points are in the manuscript, making it more likely that Leonard’s fans might actually rob themselves of a useful tool.
Conclusion: Largely useless.
6. The Sixth Rule
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.
It increasingly feels like every rule starting with “never” could have been combined together to save us all some time – especially since this rule apparently doesn’t require explanation. Great. Unfortunately, critiquing it does require explanation, so here we go.
Inexperienced writers often deploy the word “suddenly” because they think it gives the impression of something happening quickly or without warning. They can be forgiven for thinking that, given the definition of “suddenly” in the dictionary, but the word doesn’t actually work that way. In fiction, if you want something to seem sudden, don’t add any warning that it’s about to happen. Adding the word “suddenly” doesn’t make something any more sudden than it already was. It can even have the opposite effect, as it adds another word the reader has to get past before something happens.
There’s a similar problem with “all hell broke loose.” On its own, the idiom isn’t very descriptive, so you’ll probably have to explain in what way hell broke loose. Once you’ve done that, the idiom is redundant. In most cases, cutting to the chase is better. Though, once in a while, idioms like this one can add some flair to your description, so eliminating them entirely is a reductive exercise.
Conclusion: Useful, if repetitive.
7. The Seventh Rule
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 flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.
I wonder why this rule merits the more reserved “sparingly” rather than simply telling us to never use dialect. More than halfway through the list is a little late to discover the concept of nuance, but I’ll take what I can get, especially since Leonard is right! Writers should indeed be very cautious about spelling out dialects and accents in dialogue. His explanation is a bit out there, though.
According to this rule, spelling out a character’s French accent is an act of ultimate temptation. Soon you’ll be wrapped up in the seductive arms of writing “f” whenever an East Londoner uses a “th” sound. I suppose there are some writers who find that kind of thing alluring, but for most of us, the real reason not to spell out accents is that it’s very difficult to do so authentically, and the risks for failure are high.
Accents and dialects are complex, often with their own rules of grammar that are invisible to outsiders. To portray them properly, you need a lot of expertise. Watching a few Youtube videos isn’t going to cut it. Any mistakes will sound very silly, and they might play into harmful stereotypes. Asian Americans and African Americans in particular are often mocked for the ways their accents or dialects differ from standard English. That’s not something any good writer wants to be a part of.
Conclusion: Useful, but not for the reason Leonard thinks.
8. The Eighth Rule
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.
We were doing really well, and now we’ve crossed over into a bizarro world where up is down, cats live in peace with dogs, and you’re not supposed to describe your characters. What is happening?
I should clarify that describing your characters is good, actually. How much should you describe them? That depends on a lot of factors, but if you’re avoiding any “detailed descriptions,” then you probably need more. In general, character description scales with how important the character is and the story’s length. Background characters can be described in broad strokes, but the protagonist needs more detail.
Leonard’s example, Hills Like White Elephants, is a short story of less than 1,500 words. When you’re barely past the level of flash fiction, it makes sense to skimp on physical description. But most stories are much longer than that, and writers will be badly served by reducing their main characters to one or two hat-related observations.
Conclusion: Completely useless.
9. The Ninth Rule
Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
Well, we’ve already been told not to describe characters, so it’s only fair that locations get the same treatment. But hey, this time we’re told specifically to avoid “great” detail. I guess that’s something? Apparently there’s an exception for if you’re really good at describing scenery, which is super helpful as writers are famously good judges of their own skill level.
This rule gives no indication of how much description is too much. You just need to figure that out for yourself. Leonard could simply have written “don’t use too much description” and it would be just as helpful. If I sound a little annoyed, it’s only because I’m tired of advice that is little more than an admonition to do a good job.
Yes, it’s definitely possible to have too much environmental description – looking at you, Tolkien. Overloading the reader with descriptions of trees can certainly bring the action to a standstill, and that’s something authors should avoid. But it’s easy to go the other way as well, not giving readers enough description to ground them in the story. At that point, it feels like the plot takes place in a blank white void, which isn’t any better than the reverse extreme.
Conclusion: Absolutely useless.
10. The Tenth Rule
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
You ever get to the end of an assignment and find you’ve run out of things to say, but there’s still half a page that needs to be filled out? That’s where we are in these rules. No one intentionally puts in sections they think the reader will skip, so telling them to remove such sections is a pointless exercise.
The only guidance this rule offers is to look for “thick” paragraphs. Double entendres aside, what exactly makes a paragraph count as thick? More than five lines? More than ten? Maybe there’s a definition in Leonard’s book, but here we get nothing.
A story can absolutely suffer from paragraphs that are too long or too many long paragraphs in a row. Variety is important in wordcraft as well as in plot, and too many sentences without a line break is just hard to read. But it takes skill and practice to figure out which paragraphs are too long. With this rule, confident writers will breeze past any problems in their manuscripts, while uncertain writers will second-guess themselves whenever a paragraph hits its second line.
Conclusion: Totally useless.
11. Secret Bonus Rule
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
This final rule doesn’t get a number, but it’s included at the end like a denouement, and it’s a real doozy. For the first time, I’m completely stumped. I have no idea what this means. Sure, dialogue can sometimes sound stilted and artificial, but how would written description sound like anything other than writing?
What’s it supposed to sound like, Elmore? An oral storytelling tradition? Should my writing sound like the horn section of a brass band? I can only imagine Leonard frantically rewriting every manuscript in a recursive loop as each fresh draft sounds more like writing than the one before.
Conclusion: Who even knows anymore? Reality is an illusion, the universe is a hologram, buy gold!
Five out of these eleven rules are at least somewhat useful. That’s better than Gaiman’s score, but Vonnegut is still the champion with a 50% usefulness rating. Perhaps one day we’ll find an author who can score as high as a C. At least Leonard’s rules are mostly craft focused, which gives us something to analyze instead of constantly repeating that process advice is highly subjective and depends on an individual author’s needs.
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