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Novelist Elmore Leonard often suggested that writers use words sparingly, especially adverbs and unneeded description. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Novelist Elmore Leonard often suggested that writers use words sparingly, especially adverbs and unneeded description. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Elmore Leonard and the 10 rules of writing Add to ...

People like me who have spent years teaching creative writing know that on the first day of class, they will be faced with shining-eyed students who, to paraphrase Elmore Leonard, have a facility for language and imagery, are pleased by the sound of their own voices and are fond of what Mr. Leonard termed “Hooptedoodle.”

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These emerging writers are dedicated people who want passionately to become revered and famous, but Hooptedoodle is the security blanket they have clung to since their first English teacher admired their use of adverbs, and it is not easily wrested from them.

During a lifetime in which he wrote prolifically, spoke sensibly and brought honour to his craft and himself, Elmore Leonard showed writers how it is possible to “show rather than tell what’s taking place in a story.” He prefaced the 10 rules that helped him remain invisible by giving writers who wish to be highly visible in their work permission to skip what he has written. However, he did suggest – gently – that even these writers might want to look the rules over.

Since I discovered Mr. Leonard’s Ten Rules, I have begun every creative writing class by reading them aloud. Hooptedoodle is a hydra-headed monster, and I have found it is wise to get the monster out in the open and size it up before students get down to the serious business of writing.

In writing, as in jazz, you must know the rules before you break them. Mr. Leonard’s rules are not for everyone, but everyone’s writing can be strengthened by giving them serious thought. Here they are:

1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not create a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long.

Notice how he immediately gets the focus where it belongs: on character. We read not to learn that it’s a glorious day but to understand how a character feels when the day of her lover’s funeral is the kind of sultry day they loved best.

2. Avoid prologues.

Here, Mr. Leonard immediately breaks his own rule, citing a prologue that serves a purpose:

“There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s okay because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about.”

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.

Amen!

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.

Amen again!

5. Keep your exclamation marks under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

Whoops!

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Mr. Leonard suggests writers notice the way Annie Proulx “captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.” Again, a very sensible recommendation. However, this particular rule is worth questioning. While it is difficult for writers to use regional dialect without appearing to condescend to their characters, there are exceptions. James Lee Burke’s use of Cajun dialect in his Dave Robicheaux novels both brings his characters to life and honours them. I expect Elmore Leonard would give him a pass on this rule.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. 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.

Again, note that Mr. Leonard always chose exactly the right piece to illustrate his point.

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

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

Mr. Leonard concluded his rules by citing his most important rule – the one that sums up all of the rules:

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

That particular sentence suggests how seriously he took his work. In 2011, Mr. Leonard was still turning out a book a year because, he said, “It’s fun.”

Elmore Leonard’s books are fun, but they are also skillful. In her tribute to him, Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times crime fiction critic, credited him with refining the crime thriller and “reinventing it for a new generation and elevating it to a higher literary shelf.”

An overview of the Ten Rules for Writing shows the pains Mr. Leonard took to create his characters, their world and their lives. He worked hard to create novels in which flawless timing and phrasing seemed effortless. He influenced a generation of writers like Spider Robinson, who saw the value in the lives of the marginalized and the lonely. He gave us a fresh vantage point from which to view the human comedy. For that and for all the rest, thank you, Elmore Leonard.

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