Elmore Leonard’s 10 Writing Rules You Can’t Ignore Any Longer

Tape these to your wall if you want to write a page-turner

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing

Famous crime and western writer, Elmore Leonard developed 10 rules for fiction. This list is both funny and valuable. They’ve stood the test of time. Although you may not agree with every item, if you want to write page-turning commercial fiction, you’d be hard-pressed to ignore his advice.

I swear by these rules in my writing. I’ve got them printed on nice paper and hung in my office for a constant reminder.

Although all rules were made to be broken, and Leonard himself broke his own rules frequently, these 10 rules are a must-have for anyone learning the craft of writing.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules:

  1. Never open a book with weather — Writers love to set scenes at night in the rain. We go-on about how everything was soaked, or the sun was too hot. Leonard encourages us to get to the story. We’ve got to grab the reader immediately. She doesn’t care about the weather. She wants to know why she picked up the book.
  2. Avoid prologues — People skip prologues, so all your hard work will be missed by a chunk of your readers. If you’ve got a lot of backstory, make it chapter one, or pepper the backstory throughout the book.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue — Describe the characters actions instead of using ‘said hurriedly,’ or ‘he mumbled.’ After reading Leonard’s rules I only use ‘said,’ or ‘asked.’ This way the verbs hide in the background. The dialogue tags should stay unobtrusive while the actual dialogue and behaviors do all the work.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely — Adverbs make for weak writing. Use them sparingly (ha!). Instead, as with dialogue tags, make the character’s behavior describe what’s happening versus using an adverb to do the work for you.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose — This one’s funny, but import to ensure your characters aren’t constantly yelling at each other. Most people have mellow responses. We’re not in a constant state of panic. Writers have a tendency to make everything an emergency. Number five is a good reminder to take it easy on the excitement.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” Here, we’re reminded to avoid cliches and common speech. I like to use similar phrases, but tweak them to make the story unique.
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly — Dialects are very hard to read and quickly become patronizing if not done appropriately. It’s best to use conversational talk in a way the dialogue is authentic, but without all the accents written-in.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters — Let the reader’s mind do the work. It doesn’t matter if the villain has brown eyes and a red shirt. Unless the character description moves the story in some way, leave it out. Let the reader paint her own picture of your characters. Reading is a mental movie. Don’t take that away.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things — We can get very carried away with exposition. I like to use a five-word exposition in my work. Where some writers go on for pages, world-building and self-indulging, I like to cut my descriptions to the bone. Here’s an example of a five-word gas station scene:

The two men arrived at the gas station — thick with fuel smell. Cold and dirty with a green buzz of florescent lights. A small glass window to pass money through.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip — This may be the most-valuable lesson of the list. If you write a boring chapter take it out. Your reader will skip it and the slow parts will weaken your novel.

If you’d like more writing rules I have a few other stories I wrote on the topic:

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