Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

elmoreleonard10rulesWith the recent passing of Elmore Leonard, the literary world lost one of the greats. His book. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is a simple, but valuable little guide for any writer.

While his book expands on each topic (slightly), here are the ten rules, along with my humble commentary:


1. Never open a book with weather.

This obviously cautions against the cliché of the “dark and stormy night,”and similar openings that describe the weather — wise advice indeed. Of course, weather can be used on occasion to set the mood, but it’s best if the author describes how the character feels about the weather or how the weather is impacting the plot.

Certainly if the opening involves a child lost in a snowdrift who feels like her face and hands are about to fall off; or a drunk driver who’s trying to see through a rain splattered windshield when he hits a homeless man; or an elderly man working at an amusement park who’s trying to wipe the stinging  sweat from his eyes as he witnesses what he thinks may be a murder — then at least the weather is relevant. But I think what Leonard is saying here is to be careful about using weather unless it’s vital to the plot or the character, as it’s been done so often and in so many ways.

2. Avoid prologues.

This should probably say “mostly avoid prologues.” Prologues can work quite well if they introduce a vital incident in the past that influences the present. Of course, this can also be done later via backstory, but sometimes it’s more effective as a prologue. What you don’t want to do is have a prologue that doesn’t relate to the main plot, just for the sake of “hooking” the reader.

For more on prologue DO’s and DON’Ts, see Kristen Lamb’s recent blog post on the Seven Deadly Sins of Prologues.

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

This is mostly good advice. Occasionally, “whispered” or “shouted” can help clarify volume, but even then, there are other ways to convey that. Sometimes, no verb is needed at all and the dialogue can stand alone or follow a sentence of narrative that implies volume.  For example:

She leaned in close to him. “Don’t forget what I told you.” 

“Never mind me, worry about yourself.”

“You’ll get yourself killed,” she said.

“Something tells me you’d love that.”

And so on.  Still, the general consensus from most experts is to stick with “said” or nothing at all, except for perhaps some narrative or action description.


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

This is excellent advice. There’s rarely any need to modify the verb said. Instead, uses a narrative action sentence beforehand to convey how the character is feeling. For instance:

“I think we should go in there,” he said.

She crinkled her eyebrows. “Are you sure?” (this conveys slight apprehension better than saying “she said, apprehensively.”)


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

Absolutely!  (just kidding)  Exclamation points are best reserved for true exclamations, such as Good heavens!” or “Look out, there’s a rhino about to charge you!”   It just wouldn’t quite have the punch to say, “There’s a rhino about to charge you.”

Still, exclamation points tend to be overused, especially for surprises, and it’s a good practice to find other ways to convey surprise. A chapter full of exclamation points generally takes away from the impact.

For instance, if a kidnapper of a young child is about to be revealed as Jim, the protagonist’s dear uncle, think of the following example:

As she opened the drawer, she saw a name scribbled on the envelope. She prayed it wasn’t the name she suspected, that all her fears and suspicions were misguided — the silly paranoia of an overprotective mother. But as she examined the letters on the page and her eyes focused,  the answer was there in black and white, though she still didn’t want to believe it.   

It was Uncle Jim.

Never mind the leading paragraph, which needs some work to better convey feeling. But for the reveal itself, isn’t it more dramatic and chilling than if it said, “It was Uncle Jim!”   Indeed, sometimes less is more.


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

Or “Suddenly, all hell broke loose!”  These phrases are widely overused.  Substitutes for “suddenly” can be, “in an instant.” “just then.”  or even a leading sentence, such as: “As she turned around, she jumped with a start. Right behind her, staring her in the face was Mr Mxyzptlk.” And so on.


7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Often, just a hint of a regional dialect can imply a heavy accent, without making the words difficult to comprehend.  A master of this is J.K. Rowling. especially with the Hagrid character, as shown in this line of dialogue:

“Never wondered how you got that mark on yer forehead? That was no ordinary cut. That’s what yeh get when a powerful, evil curse touches yeh — took care of yer mum an’ dad an’ yer house, even — but it didn’t work on you, an’ that’s why yer famous, Harry.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

OR detailed descriptions of anything for that matter. The problem is, unless the descriptions are told from the Point of View character’s perspective, with specific “opinions’ about what he or she is observing, descriptions tend to be the parts people skip over.

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

See above. Again, it’s the character’s feelings and observations about the person, place or thing that matter.

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

Such as long descriptions without a character’s subjective opinion about it … or other long passages that don’t move the story forward. It’s often a good idea to get test readers to read your story with specific instructions to note any point in the book that they felt compelled to skim over. This is especially true in the opening chapters, and in the middle of the book.


Lastly, Elmore Leonard states that his most important rule is one that sums up the 10.


“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

That’s not so say that colorful descriptions or snappy and clever dialogue are bad, only that the writing should feel authentic from the character’s viewpoint.  Older books, told from the narrator’s perspective, didn’t need to follow this rule, but today people want stories from either the first person POV (e.g. “I entered the room.”) or extreme subjective third person POV (third person, but told from “inside the head” of the POV character) – e.g. “He entered the room.”

So there it is, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.  What are your thoughts about these rules? Do you agree with them?





What Makes a Great Villain?

hannibal-lecterAt Comic Con in Chicago last weekend, I attended an intriguing workshop on the psychology of supervillains, conducted by a panel of writers and psychologists.

One of the discussions in the room was about who our favorite villains are and why.

It occurred to me that there are two general flavors of villains that seem to really stand out:

1) The Admirable Villain.  These are the ones that you either root for, feel sorry for, or admire in some way for their strength or cleverness. Memorable examples are:

  • Kahn in the new Star Trek Into Darkness movie (justified, clever, and formidable)
  • Hannibal Lector (clever, wittty, formidable, with a soft spot for Clarice and a desire for a room with a view)
  • Magneto, especially as portrayed by Michael Fassbender in X-Men First Class (justified and powerful)
  • Loki in The Avengers (witty and formidable)
  • Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds (deliciously evil, clever, formidable, and witty)
  • Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones (clever, witty, justified, though he’s more of an anti-hero – one of the most well rounded characters I’ve ever seen)
  • Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (clever, formidable)
  • Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars films (witty – and quite formidable)
  • General Zod in Man of Steel (justified in his own mind, passionate)
  • Norman Bates in Psycho (warm, vulnerable)

Why do these particular villains stand out? They have a justifiable cause (at least in their own minds). They have a passion about something. They’re charming in their own distorted way. They’re extremely clever. They’re formidable. And they’re often witty, sometimes dryly so. They often have the best lines.

Then there’s the second kind of villain, the kind you absolutely hate and can’t wait to see die. This takes us to:

2) The Despicable Villain. As the panel pointed out, these types of villains are selfish, lack empathy, are narcissistic, often sadistic, and frequently are psychopaths. They also tend to be an unpredictable force of chaos that disrupts everyone around them. Examples might be:

  • Goffrey in Game of Thrones
  • Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon’s character in X-Men First Class)
  • Commodus in Gladiator (played by Joaquin Phoenix)
  • Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption
  • The Joker in Batman
  • Voldemort in Harry Potter
  • Caligula in The Robe (or any other film Caligula is portrayed in)
  • Eleanor Iselin (Raymond Shaw’s mother in The Manchurian Candidate, played by Angela Lansbury)

Why do we hate these villains so much?  I’d venture to say that it’s because of the things they do to people we like. They are memorable to the extent of the damage they cause to people we like and the degree of selfishness they portray. That’s important, because otherwise they could come across as a flat, “mustache-twirler” who’s more a caricature than a memorable villain. It’s very hard to pull off a memorable, hate-worthy villain who’s pure evil, without the character being flat. The above are notable exceptions.

The bottom line is that, for either type of villain — the Admirable Villain or the Despicable Villain, they’ll be more memorable if they are extremely clever (or devious) and formidable, either due to a special skill or the chaos they inflict,

What are your thoughts? Who are your favorite villains and why? Which ones do you admire? Which ones do you hate?