10 writing lessons from the late Elmore Leonard

Specific things to omit: exclamation points, folksy patois, the weather, ‘suddenly,’ and adverbs modifying ‘said.’

I wish I could say I learned a lot from Elmore Leonard when he was alive.

Unfortunately, I didn’t—until his 10 rules for writing went viral Tuesday after his death. He was 87.

The bestselling author wrote nearly 50 novels, including “Get Shorty” and “Freaky Deaky,” and solidified himself as a popular crime writer. Judging from Leonard’s list, he’d want me to skip the prologue about his life and get right to the writing advice.

So, here we go:

1. Never open a book with weather.

This is a good tip for conversations, too. I avoid conversations when I overhear people chit-chatting, “The weather’s great,” “Looks like rain,” and/or “It’s so hot out.” What makes a good story is that it takes you away from all that blah, blah, blah. Leonard says, “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.” Al Roker might disagree.

2. Avoid prologues.

All that intro stuff is going to bog down your reader (especially if you’re stuck on the weather). Get to the heart of the story—quickly. He’s OK with the prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” but that’s because the main character is making valid points about what makes a good story. Plus, Steinbeck coins the word, “hooptedoodle.” You can’t go wrong with hooptedoodle.

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

Dialogue should speak for itself. Leonard said, “said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.”

“Indeed!” she erupted.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said”…

He said this sincerely.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

Leonard said you’re “allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” A story riddled with exclamation marks makes you sound like a third-grader. Instead, use a semicolon; that will impress everyone.

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

“This rule doesn’t require an explanation,” Leonard said. I agree.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

I used to write for my hometown newspaper in southern Indiana. The best quote I ever got (and I can’t even remember what the story was about) was, “It feels like you’re watching NASCAR in the sky.” Ahh, that’s great. But if I started writing the way everybody talked to me, it would be a disaster. Leonard says, “Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.” Yee-haw. (I wanted to put a half-dozen exclamation points at the end of that, but I stopped myself—suddenly.)

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

One main reason why books that are made into movies turn out so badly is that as a reader you had all these ideas in your head as to who each character was supposed to be (well, except for Colin Firth in “Pride and Prejudice”—he did just fine.) In “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway, Leonard says the reader sees “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.

Same as the above. Keep it simple, and let the reader’s mind wander, “unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison,” Leonard said.

10. Leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

I love to read, but it’s true: I don’t read every word of a book. When you write, think like a reader. Think about what your eyes would gloss over. Leonard makes a pretty good wager: “I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.” True. Especially when they’re talking about NASCAR in the sky.

Get more insight about writing from Leonard in this video:

(Image via)

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