Writing Rules Number 3: 8 Elmore Leonard’s writing tips

The writing rules series is a journey through the wise words of our favourite writers. Why not learn from those we wish to mimic. I may miss some of their best quotes, or misinterpret them, so do please add them into the comments.

Elmore Leonard was an American novelist, short-story writer, and screenwriter. His earliest novels, published since the 1950s, were westerns, but he went on to specialise in crime and noir fiction along with thrillers, many of which have been adapted into films. He had some incredibly practical tips to help writers on their journey, and they’re outlined below. My personal favourite is ‘never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.’  As someone who has written his fair share of sentences where people sighed, sneered and snorted, I can tell you that said works equally well and doesn’t feel like a writer is showing off. Without much further ado, let’s dive in!

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.

Jonathan Franzen starts his novel, The Corrections, with the following passage which is evocative, and exciting. However what is written below is a long way from, ‘It was a rainy Wednesday in this small New England town!’

The Madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end. No children in the yards here. Shadows lengthened on yellowing zoysia. Red oaks and pin oaks and swamp white oaks rained acorns on houses with no mortgage. Storm windows shuddered in the empty bedrooms. And the drone and hiccup of a clothes dryer, the nasal contention of a leaf blower, the ripening of local apples in a paper bag, the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat.

“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.”

I don’t know what age it was, but there was a definite moment in my life where I stopped getting excited by florid prose, and instead wanted to engage with the characters. I felt that I didn’t care what the world looked like, only the broken dolls that lived in it. Maybe it was when I started getting into Hemingway , and his lack of needless word.

“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”.

I think the reason I agree with this rule so much is that ‘said’ allows the reader an element of interpretation. It is how you decide the character said something. Were they calm, angry, how does it relate to the other dialogue in the chapter? If characters are bellowing, sneering or snapping you give too much away and in a weird way, take from the reader.

“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.”

Enough said about said! Jeez!

“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.”

The way I try to use exclamation marks is that unless the character is either 5 or below or a mother admonishing said 5 year old, no one really exclaims that much, so why use them? There are better ways to imply impact and shock.

“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.”

Whenever I read something, and the word ‘suddenly’ appears, I think of a silent film score card flashing up. It might as well go “Dum Dum Dummmmmmmmmm!” It removes me from the process of reading, and being in a world, and instead takes me to a place where a writer is talking at me saying, ‘here’s the bit I’ve been withholding from you!’

“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.”

Every time I’ve tried to write in dialect or in a patois, it has 100% come out awful! Now this is a personal thing, in that I struggle with dialogue and hearing HOW people speak. To counter this, I sometimes go to coffee shops and on public transport, I remove my headphones, and sit quietly listening. It helps me remind myself of how people really speak. Over one another, umming and ahhing, it explosive bursts, with silence, and all the in between.

“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.”

I know some people who have trained themselves to speed read. They told me something similar. They look for long words, character’s names and dialogue. Huge chunks of text are often, according to their words, ‘the writer pleasuring themselves’ ( they obviously used more agricultural language to describe this) . Now you may be a beautiful wordsmith, who curates every word and syllable, but a piece of advice almost every writer agrees with is that if the ‘word’ doesn’t add anything to the sentence, the story or the comprehension of what is happening, it doesn’t need to be there. Less is more.

 

Elmore Leonard’s personal favourite rule however was very simple.

If it sounds like writing – rewrite it

Which I think is sound advice for all of us. Let me know what you think of these rules, either here on Twitter.

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