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Oops – How I Broke Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

The Dean of Detroit Fiction Writers Lays Down the Law

Detroit author Elmore Leonard

Most serious fiction writers are familiar with Detroit author Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.  Here’s the nutshell version:

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

When I recently went back and reviewed the list, I realized I’d followed some of the rules in the course of writing my Motor City thriller, Scream Cruise, but broke others. Here’s how I fared.

Rules of Writing I Did or Didn’t Break

1. Never open a book with weather.

Okay on that one. Only a few mentions of weather throughout the book. I did use a line – “Outside of the bar’s A/C, the humid night air wraps itself around them like warm, sticky cellophane” – that I rather like. I mean, it’s August in Detroit, right?

2. Avoid prologues.

Uh-oh. Broke that one. Added a prologue to the final revision. But you know what? I’m perfectly comfortable with it, because it isn’t just arbitrary. It sets up a bunch of questions and expectations, all of which are answered or fulfilled later. It also foreshadows some of the manic action that later ensues.

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

Broke that one a few times, using “shrieked,” “cried,” “answered,” etc. I think a little variation from “said” is okay. It just felt right at times. When you’ve only got two characters speaking, you can simply drop some of the speaker identifiers. When you’ve got three or more in the conversation, however, you need to keep specifying who the speaker is, and the continuously repeated “saids” gives the reading a monotonous feel. Hence the variations.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

I was pretty good about not breaking that rule, overall. Lots of writing books are absolutely fanatical about avoiding adverbs completely. And perhaps just to be kind of contrarian, I included a fair number of them. In the cases where I did, however, I know that I looked at how it read with and without the adverb. If it read better and if what was being said didn’t communicate what the adverbial modifier did, it stayed.

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

Hmm. When someone is in mortal danger, are they more likely to say “oh shit,” or “oh shit!” ? I used plenty of exclamation points (sometimes with all caps) in characters’ dialogue when they were in extreme situations (which occurred fairly often in the story). And also with the “sound effects” that depicted explosions. For sure there were zero exclamation points when I was writing in my omniscient narrator’s voice. It’s an element that Tom Wolfe uses that keeps me from being much of a Tom Wolfe fan.

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

Broke that rule once or twice with a “suddenly” or “all at once” this or that. I do remember being conscious of the rule when I broke it. Once again, I looked carefully at the passage with and without the word. In the instance or two when I used it, it made what was going on clearer and would’ve sounded flat and robotic without it.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Pretty much followed this one, I think. I tried to give McCoy a speech patterns that would reflect a contemporary, educated, Midwestern black man, but with a bit of southern rural black heritage. In other words, speech patterns he might have picked up from his parents – for instance, when he uses the terms “dad-blamed” and “what in tarnation.” I very definitely avoided trying to use ghetto slang and argot. You may have noticed that McCoy often drops opening pronouns, both when he speaks aloud and when he’s telling the Scream Cruise story. The truncation may bother some people, but that’s how I hear his speech in my head.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Followed this rule pretty well. There were a few instances where I wanted the reader to get a specific picture of some of the secondary characters, but for the most part I let them fill that in on their own.

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

Overall I think I did well on this one. I know that I have a tendency to over-describe physical details, but I did my best to keep it in check. When revising, I also did a fair amount of detail-cutting, so that the action and dialogue would continue flowing.

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

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what Mr. Leonard means by this. Long chunks of exposition, perhaps? If so, I certainly avoided that. The vast majority of the paragraphs in Scream Cruise are no more than three sentences. In several cases I broke down longer paragraph blocks into shorter ones.

The “If it sounds like writing’ Rule

Along with then ten rules, there’s another that’s is supposedly the most important and ostensibly sums up the other 10: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” He goes on to talk about what he calls “hooptedoodle” – writing that is self-consciously “writerly.”

For the most part, I quite consciously avoided writerly writing. It wouldn’t have fit the story and, besides, I’m not very good at that kind of thing. I probably didn’t use more than a half dozen similes (where something is like something else) and the only metaphors I can recall were used in some character’s speech – and were promptly made fun of by some other character. I did try to choose “power” words that evoked vivid images and that carried higher levels of emotional weight.

detroit author elmore leonard

Detroit author Elmore Leonard


So Is Elmore Leonard Going to Have Me Whacked?

I don’t think so. Even though I broke a few of the rules at times, I did so consciously. Without having the rules as a general set of guideposts, though, I might have gone overboard using his no-nos, which could have seriously subverted the story.So thanks, Mr. Leonard. You’re an inspiration to all Detroit authors – not to mention writers everywhere.And may you live to be 120…


Detroit author Jim DeLorey 

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Writing Scenes For Your Novel

how to write novel scenesThe modern-day popular novel is composed of scenes – the depiction of imaginary characters doing, thinking and feeling things at some particular time and place.

When you’re writing a novel, it’s likely that a few of your scenes will “write themselves.” In other words, the action, dialogue and setting will all seem flow out your imagination and onto the page, with little or no effort on your part.

More often than not, however, what you’ll actually have is simply a general idea about what needs to happen in a scene in order to logically move the story forward. But you’ll have only the foggiest notion of how to create a scene that keeps the reader engaged and which sustains – and, ideally, heightens – the story’s momentum.

When I was drafting Scream Cruise: A Motor City Thriller, I developed the following scene-writing template, which I used to keep my mind focused on the component elements that would make the scene work. After each heading, I would briefly fill in what I could put into the scene that would fulfill that element.

My Scene-Writing Template

  • Scene Function:
  • Scene Setting:
  • What happens:
  • Emotional Drivers:
  • Tension Elements:
  • Character Interactions:
  • Key Images:
  • Opening Hook:
  • Ending Hook:

Now let’s look at the elements of the scene-writing template more closely.

Scene Function

What is the primary function of this particular scene? Is it to arouse curiosity? Is it to depict action? Is it to create suspense? Is it to create or heighten the reader’s empathy or antipathy toward the focal (POV) character? Is it exposition (i.e., information dump)? Although a scene can conceivably have multiple functions, it’s likely to work best if only one predominates. You should be clear about which one that is.

Scene Setting

A good way to heighten the effect of a scene is to place it in an interesting setting. One way to create compelling settings is to place your characters in locations that are at least a bit out of the ordinary, and are perhaps even unusual or extraordinary. Put the reader inside places that suit the action of the scene, but that are interesting in themselves as well. Examples: An expensive, speeding limousine. A billionaire’s luxurious bedroom. The boardroom of an multinational corporation. The hushed quiet of a museum. A private jet descending toward a white-beached Caribbean island. Note that the out-of-the-ordinary setting can be downscale as well as upscale. The passenger seat of a garbage truck. An old, abandoned warehouse full of rusting machinery and moldering trash. A ramshackle convenience store on a country highway. The out-of-the-ordinary setting helps keep the reader’s attention and, when chosen well, can also contribute to the emotional impact of the scene.

What Happens

Chances are, something needs to happen in the scene in order to simply move the story forward logically. This can be physical action or dialogue or a combination of both. (In popular fiction, most “action” actually consists of dialogue betwen characters.) But besides the necessary component, what else could happen in the course of depicting the story-forwarding events? And what could you incorporate that would make what happens more compelling? Could there be some small or even a major surprise that occurs as well? Could your focal character or one or more of the other characters say or do something that’s unexpected? Could the setting they’re in also play a role in what’s said or done? In sum: how can you make the “what happens?” in this scene as interesting and impactful as possible?

Emotional Drivers

People tend to like or dislike fictional stories – whether on film, television, or in books – because of the emotional experience the story arouses in them. If they’ve sufficently identified with the primary hero/heroine character, they vicariously experience the same feelings the character experiences. Laughter, love, erotic desire, affection, jealousy, anger, resentment, regret, guilt, suspicion, curiosity, outrage, suspense, fear, dread, danger: there’s a broad palate of feelings you can attempt to induce in the reader. Over the course of a novel, you may well seek to arouse a variety of feelings in them. But for a single scene, chances are you will generally want one key emotion to predominate. You should be clear about the particular feeling-experience you’re aiming to induce in the reader as you imagine and write the scene.

Tension Elements

Many books on fiction-writing make the claim that a good story must be driven by conflict between opposing forces. Conflict can be external (the traditional “good guy versus bad guy” story); or it can also be an internal conflict in the mind of the protagonist (should Peggy Sue choose the devoted millionaire or the wild, rebel pauper?). It’s my belief that conflict is overrated as a story driver. I think that what drives stories can best be characterized as narrative tension. In other words, situations that engage the reader both emotionally and cognitively.

For sure, narrative tension can be created by the conflict of opposing forces. But it can also be derived from situations such as romantic or erotic attraction, personal quandaries (how will she or he solve this?), personality judgments (is this person friend or foe, lover or betrayer?) and plain old curiosity (What’s going on here? Why is this happening?). In the course of writing a scene, characters may indeed be in direct (or even indirect) conflict with one another. But a scene in which the protagonist discovers they have a resourceful and empathetic ally can be just as powerful.

So if there are no directly opposing forces in the scene, ask yourself: what tensions is your focal character experiencing or undergoing in the scene? Who or what is causing them? How do they respond to the tensions? What do they do to resolve them? And perhaps most important of all: how can you heighten the tension for the focal character – and hence for the reader as well?

Character Interactions

Although it’s possible to depict a focal character interacting only with their physical environment for whole scenes (consider, for instance, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, surveilling the lair of some enemy he’ll later on annihilate), in most cases there’ll be interactions with other characters. Who will your focal character be interacting with in this scene? What will each be trying to get from the other? Do they have hidden as well as overt agendas? In what ways could their differing personalities skew the interaction? How will their differing views of the world or their immediate situation affect how they interact? What will be the end result of their interaction?

Key Images

Although most popular fiction attempts to depict believeable characters in a naturalistic setting, it is possible to heighten the dramatic effect of the scene by choosing and highlighting certain images that occur in the scene. Images from nature (a withering-hot sun; a gyring hawk or eagle; a dark, looming mountain; a crystal-clear, fast-running creek , a scuttling rodent) have an innate power, but images from human culture (a thundering locomotive, a softly-humming computer, a telephone that’s anxiously burbling) can also be invested with emotional resonance. Any image that resonates with emotional nuance can be a powerful reinforcement for the fraught interactions between your characters, or for a dramatic event that occurs for your focal character.

Opening Hook

A hook is anything that grabs the reader’s attention right at the outset. There are any number of ways to create hooks: a seemingly paradoxical statement; a statement that leaves out some important element, and thus creates curiosity; a person saying something dramatic or strange; a dramatic event, depicted at its outset or perhaps even in mid-action.

You may have noticed that, although I’m talking about hooks that open scenes, I’ve listed this as one of the latter elements. That’s because, in my experience, it’s easier to find an opening hook once you already know what the primary content of the scene is going to be. If you try to write the scene beginning with the hook, it may set you on a narrative path that doesn’t truly fit the main function of the scene. Once you’ve got the scene down, it’s easier to create an opening hook that suits the material that follows.

Ending Hook

Finally we come to the last element: the ending hook. As with openings, there are many ways to devise ending hooks. They can, for instance, be: a character asking themselves or someone else a leading question; the sudden appearance of a new character or new information; a statement that withholds some portion of information that makes it understandable. The possibilities are almost endless. The requirement is simply that it should portend something that’s going to happen. Possibly as soon as the next page is turned, or possibly down the line. Curiosity may have killed the cat – but it is catnip to virtually all readers.

How To Use The Scene-Writing Template

If, like me, you’re a planner and outliner, as opposed to a seat-of-the-pantser, you can add the template to your outline. I like to paste the list shown at the outset of this article (with the colons) underneath the scene summary I’ve sketched out for my outline. I then go through the elements one by one, and brainstorm my answers. I then go to my draft and write the scene, referring back to the template whenever I start losing track of where the scene is going. In some cases, I’ll paste the template into the draft document so that it stays right in front of me. That way, even my monkey mind can’t avoid it. If you’re a “pantser,” this might be a good way to make the template work for you.

And that’s it. The template is no be-all or end-all, and will by no means provide every answer to the problems you’ll encounter in your scene-writing. But it works for me, and hopefully will make the job at least a little bit easier for you as well.

Happy writing!

Detroit author Jim DeLorey

PS: if you want to check out my Detroit thriller, Scream Cruise, just click on any of the links you see on the sides of this page.

 Note: if you’d like to leave a comment, just click on”No Comments” in the shaded box below this post.

Detroit author Jim DeLorey’s Current Novel Projects


Detroit author Jim DeLorey’s novel projects


I’m currently working on three different novel projects.

One is a young adult fantasy.  One is an action thriller, set in Detroit, that climaxes at the Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise. And the third is a revision of a novel I wrote a dozen years or so back, an updating of the Grimms’ fairy tale, “Hansel and Gretel,” set in the 1950s American midwest.

For better or worse, right now I’m rotating between them.  Working on one until I run into mental roadblocks that halt my momentum, then switching over to another.  The advantage is that it keeps my writing forward-momentum going.  The disadvantage is that it MAY prolong the completion time for them.

When I run into problem areas, I have a tendency to zero in too closely and try to fix things by getting exactly the right wordings – when the real problem tends to be more on the level of plain, old, simple story-telling.

That’s why moving from one piece to another seems to be working for me.  I get some distance from them in the interim periods, and am better able to see them from the altitude I need to be able to fix them.

Note: writing well (or at least effectively) has a lot to do with “zooming” in and out.  More on that next time.  Or at some point…





Pieces of the Puzzle: Vicarious Experience

vi·car·i·ous / Adjective:

Experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person: “vicarious pleasure”. 

Felt or undergone as if one were taking part in the experience or feelings of another.

The essential ingredient of all successful stories is to create a series of intense, vivid vicarious experiences that culminate in a satisfying conclusion for the reader/audience.

Consider the almost insane popularity of professional sports, worldwide.  It is due to the fact that the spectator has the vicarious experience of competing in, excelling at, and winning the game – and especially the big game.

Do the efforts of the athletes on the playing field (outstanding as they may be) have any real and intrinsic relationship to the actual lives of the fans watching them?  To whether they’re winning or losing at life?  Objectively, the answer is no – none whatsoever.  The importance, the high-stakes drama, the frenzy even, are entirely a subjective inner projection by the emotionally-engaged audience.

Our job  as writers of popular fiction is to mentally transport people into word-spun realms where they can have powerful vicarious experiences of love and hate, good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, war and peace,  and – yes – winning and losing.

Do this job effectively – give people the illusion they are living a high-stakes drama, while they are in fact sitting somewhere reading and turning pages of text – and you are (or will be) a successful professional writer…



Purpose of This Blog

A quick intro:

I’m a 65-year-old midwestern white guy, recently retired (not exactly by choice) from a 25-year-long stint as a computer and network engineer, who’s looking to develop a new career as a fiction writer.

To date, I’ve written two full-length crappy novels.  The first one – “Ansel & Greta” – was written more than a decade ago.  I wrote the second – “Scream Cruise” – this summer.  I also have another three novel projects in various states of completion, from still-in-the- brainstorming phase to 400 pages of draft text.

After completing my first draft of “Scream Cruise,” I found myself in the position of not knowing how to edit and revise it.  I felt that a lot of the book worked pretty well, but could tell that other areas needed fixing.  However, I really had no idea how to go about doing the repair work.

Which bring us to…

The Purpose of This Blog

My intention is to use this blog for

  1. Chronicling my journey to becoming a successful fiction writer.
  2. Clarifying what I’m learning (or at least think I’m learning) about the fiction-writing and editing process.
  3. Building up my discipline at writing daily.
  4. Spilling my guts about how the whole process feels at any given time.
  5. Developing a more effective writerly voice.  (In case you haven’t noticed, my “style” is abysmally pedestrian.)
  6. Sharing whatever I learn with you.

Okay – that does it for today.  One thing I am NOT going to do is allow this blog to become a productivity-sucking time-sink.  We’ve all got FaceBook for that…