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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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