Elmore Leonard Got it Right
If you follow any social media pages about writing, chances are you have come across Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules for Good Writing, targeting those who write creative fiction. These rules are easy to understand, and more importantly, easy to implement. Let's take a look at them below.
1. Never open a book with weather.
Leonard's reasoning behind this is that readers are likely to start paging ahead to find the people or the action; this is true. While the "dark and stormy night" opening feels like a classic because it is something we all know, because it is something we all know, it is also overplayed.
To put this in perspective, when do you bring up the weather in conversation? Sure, you might sometimes be inspired to talk about it because something spectacular happened, but usually it is because you are bored or nervous and want to fill the silence. This is passable in casual conversation, but it isn't in creative fiction.
2. Avoid Prologues
What is the purpose of a prologue? It is to set the reader up with background information to help them better understand the story. But background does not need to be given all at once, and it is okay to leave your readers in the dark for a while, allowing them to discover things as time goes on. In essence, the prologue is just a way to take some of the mystery out of the story, and who wants that?
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
We have all seen those "said is dead" lists of alternatives to the word "said." Well, while those lists may be great for student writers who need to expand their vocabulary and creativity, they are not suited to those looking to write professionally. With the right approach, your characters should be able to express the dialogue on their own, making "said" a perfectly suitable choice.
Now, you might be asking yourself if it is actually better to use the word "said" in every line of dialogue. No, it isn't, but the way around that is not to use other words; it is to skip the dialogue tag unless there is a reason to have it. The primary reasons for a dialogue tag are to illustrate the dialogue with action or clarify which character is speaking. If there is no action and no ambiguity as to which character is speaking, there is no need for a dialogue tag.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"...he admonished gravely.
Leonard reasoned that this interrupts the rhythm of the exchange, calling it a mortal sin. The principle behind this is much the same as the rule above: the characters should be able to express the dialogue on their own. Based on the flow of the exchange, we should be able to infer how it was said. It is also very leading, forcing your audience to interpret situations in specific ways. While it means giving up control, and that is difficult, it results in better writing. After all, there is a reason why great novels are dissected in literature classes--they leave room for the reader to filter the work through their own lens and interpret it accordingly.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
"You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose." As an editor, this one speaks to me. I feel that our approach to writing is evolving with the use of text and instant messaging. While it is fine to pepper your messages with exclamation points, ellipses, and combined punctuation marks (?!), it isn't suited to creative writing. When the author goes heavy on exclamation points, I feel like the characters are doing nothing but screaming. It is almost as bad as typing in all caps.
6. Never use "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
Leonard doesn't even bother explaining this one, feeling that it should be obvious. As an editor, I can assure you it is not. So, why should you avoid these phrases and others similar to them? Because they just are not needed. If something happens suddenly in the book, it happens suddenly in the book; you do not need to explain that to the reader. As for all hell broke loose and similar phrases, this falls under telling instead of showing; if all hell is breaking loose, I as the reader should be able to figure that out all on my own.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
You might be wondering why this is an important rule to follow. After all, if this is how your character speaks, should you not reflect that in your writing? My answer, and Leonard's too, is no--or at least not very often.
Why is this? First of all, it is not easy to read. Second of all, it is hard to keep it up unless you always write in that manner. Third of all, it is easy to slip into its use in the narration in third person rather than keeping it to the dialogue. Finally, it bleeds over into other characters even if they do not speak in the same manner, unless you are incredibly careful. As such, it is better to avoid it as much as possible.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Here is where your writing instructors have likely done you a great disservice. "Paint a picture with your words," they told you. "I want to be able to see what you see." But this isn't want readers want. Readers want the outline of a character--at most--and then they want to be able to fill that outline in. I cannot tell you how often I get books where the writer introduces characters by outlining every little thing about the way they look, gesture, and speak. Another common problem is every outfit change being document in greater detail than you would find in a fashion magazine. State the bare minimum and build from there only if needed.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
The idea behind this is much the same as with number eight. Description does not advance the story; it stills the flow. Description should be worked in as needed, woven into action and dialogue, which drive the story.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
What are the parts you tend to skip when reading? For most of us, this is lengthy prose and anything else that is boring. Dialogue and action grip us as readers; flowery prose does not. Your story must march to a beat, always forward and steady. If you write something you would be tempted to skip as a reader, revise that part and keep it interesting.
So, if you were writing your own rules for good writing, what would you include?
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Freelance writer and editor with an education background, working from home and living abroad.