As an author, Leonard was renowned in particular for his authentic-sounding dialogue. He got his first break writing Western pulp fiction novels in the 1950s – a number of which were later turned into films, including Valdez Is Coming and 3.10 To Yuma.
But as well as breaking the rules he didn’t like, Leonard came up with a suitably succinct top ten of tips for other writers.
In a 2001 essay for the New York Times, he explained: “These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.”
His 10 rules were:
- Never open with the weather.
- Avoid prologues
- Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the said ‘said’.
- Keep your exclamation points under control.
- Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose’.
- Use regional dialect – patois – sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places or things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Now, obviously, reading is a very subjective affair. Elmore Leonard’s novels won’t be to everybody’s taste. I also freely admit to breaking quite a few of Leonard’s rules in my own books.
But there’s a lot of sense in what he says. I might come back to some of them in more detail in another post but there’s also a crucial ’11th’ rule that Leonard said summarised the other 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.)”
If you want to read Leonard’s piece for the NY Times in full then click here. I’ve also got an alternative take on his rules that I would summarise as:
- Don’t state the obvious – let readers work out emotions etc from what your characters do and say.
- Leave plenty to the imagination – just give readers a few pointers to guide them.
Any thoughts on Leonard’s rules? Any you’d strongly disagree with (as a reader or a writer) or any you’d like to add?
NB. ‘Hooptedoodle’ is what Leonard described as a writer breaking loose with a bunch of pretty words that, while nice, don’t add anything to the story.