Blogging A to Z Day 6: Elmore Leonard

Even if you’ve never heard of Elmore Leonard, you’ve probably seen a movie or TV show inspired by his work. His short story “Fire in the Hole” inspired the tv show with the best theme music ever. (One of the reasons I picked Elmore for E was so I could work this video into one more post before Justified ends.)

Also written by Leonard and adapted for the screen: 3:10 to Yuma, Last Stand at Saber River, Valdez is Coming, Jackie Brown, and Get Shorty, to name but few. He was born in New Orleans in 1925 and his family moved to Detroit in 1934. He started writing pulp westerns in the 1950s and moved into crime fiction in the late 60s.

His writing is distinctive for its minimalist style, realism laced with dark humor, and sparkling dialogue. He’s one of the few writers I’ve ever encountered who could give me 160 pages and convince me by the end that I’d just read a novel. He died in 2013, having written 47 novels.

I find him inspiring because he started his career in the 50s and didn’t really break out until 1985. That’s a lot of persistence right there, though he did have some early successes to keep him going. Also inspiring: he believed in helping other writers along. Here are his ten rules of writing, from a book with the same title he published in 2007.

Leonard originally published these rules July 16, 2001, in the Arts section of the New York Times. You can read the original article, with his discussion of each of the rules, here.

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue
  4. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  5. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  6. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  7. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  8. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  9. Try and leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

The most important rule, that sums them up: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”

For more book blogging, see our Books and Lists categories. Or you could take your chances with a random post from our extremely diverse archives. For an awesome writing blog, try Write On! Sisters. They are also doing the A to Z thing.

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54 thoughts on “Blogging A to Z Day 6: Elmore Leonard

  1. Justified is probably in my top 5 favorite TV shows ever. The humor is so sharp and the characters are such flawed individuals that you have to find out what happens next. I’ll be sorry to see it go but am also glad they’re not dragging it out to make more money.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mine too. I LOVE the humor, and that’s typical of Leonard’s work. They’ve done a good job capturing the feel of his writing with that series.

      Like

  2. The only one of these titles I recognize is 3:10 to Yuma… But I LOVE that movie. Haven’t been able to see the first version, but am on the hunt. One of the, what… three westerns I’ve ever cared about. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I thought the name sounded familiar. He was an excellent writer, but I know many, many writers who cringe when they see his list, because it uses a lot of absolutes. Of course, rules must be learned before they can be broken. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • They are definitely a unique way to look at writing, though. The absolutes make you think harder about each point, I feel like. Not sure the extent to which I agree with them – but they’re making me think really hard. Also, I think Shawn has a good point about following rules in his comment below 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree, it’s a very good comment. I have seen/read about these rules a lot, so I know the reasons behind each. The rules are solid. But not always applicable.

        1. Don’t open with the weather because it’s not a good hook. “It was a dark and stormy night” has been done to death, and no one really cares anyway.

        2. Prologues fall under the same problem as the above. Beyond being an info dump, they stall the hook of the story — and you may lose readers before they’ve even gotten to the “real beginning” of the story.

        3. “Said” is said to be invisible on the page. Readers, over time, look at it more like a piece of punctuation, rather than another word. If you fill up your page with every type of dialogue tag, the reader will notice and generally, it’s awkward. However, you can’t really use “said” when you mean “asked,” or “scream.” This is one of the rules that gets debated a LOT in writer circles.

        4. Yes. Exclamations should really only be in dialogue. I think the extension of this rule is you’re allowed one every three pages, but don’t quote me on it.

        5. Agree here. “Suddenly” and “all hell broke loose” and words that general “reveal” the man behind the curtain. It can draw a reader out of the story, and that is rarely a good idea.

        6. Yes, again. You run the risk of stereotyping, or worse, profiling a character when you give them written accents. Rather, you should use local idioms and regional expressions to get the message across.

        7. Yes, especially in 1st person. It is one of the most common “errors” made in first drafts or with emerging writers. They’ll describe the character in detail, or have the character describe themselves. The latter is generally red penned by an editor, but the first can be appropriate depending on the genre (romance, erotica, for example.)

        8. This becomes another exposition problem. The reader should care more about the story than the setting, and leads to #9, as generally readers gloss over details deemed “unessential” to understanding the story. (Aside: I once read a book that had six pages describing a feast. The first page was cool. By the sixth, I was skimming for any sign of a quote mark.)

        Woo, sorry! Long comment!

        Liked by 2 people

        • As a word-for-word reader, I think one I would have the hardest part with is cutting those things that readers skip! Because it’s not something I tend to ever do. But that also means it might be the most useful rule for me, as it gets me thinking some of the most 🙂

          And when I said they make you think, they clearly do and you clearly have… thanks for the long reply 😀

          Liked by 2 people

          • If I really love a story, I’m a word-for-word reader. It’s why it takes me so long to get through the classics. But if a novel is barely holding my interest, rather than put it down, I will speed read the remainder. The Sword of Truth series got to that point with me. (Incidentally, that’s where the feast scene came from.)

            Liked by 1 person

        • All right: Doing my own version.

          1 and 2. Yes. What you said about the weather. Opening with weather, or with an eagle looking at the world (Hello! The late Robert Jordan read some Louis LAmour!) Also what you said about prologues. Delays the hook. If you can find a way to work the hook into the first sentence, do that, and let that be the first sentence your reader finds when they open the book.

          3. You obviously have to give yourself the freedom to use a verb other than said when it is important. But verbs other than said should be used about as often in fiction as you use profanity on public social media. So, obviously, lots of differences in frequency based on writing style and genre. Purple prose dialog tags really bug me. They will convince me to close a book if they get too out of hand. One of the things I look for in the first chapter when I am deciding whether or not to pay money to read the rest. The value of “said” reading as a punctuation mark is that if you know your audience and choose your moments, you can use more vivid verbs to carry dialogue and they can become emotional punctuation.

          4. and 5. We are on the same page with the exclamations. “Suddenly” and “All Hell Broke Loose” are also cliche. I believe cliches can kill an otherwise serviceable story, and also agree with your #5. Never breach that fourth wall unless you really, really know what you are doing. Revealing the man behind the curtain encourages people to unsuspend their disbelief.

          6. You covered this one admirably.

          7. The reason you try not to do this is that what you want is for the reader’s brain to paint in the details themselves. I agree that the first can be appropriate, but if I see it there best be a romantic relationship, a lifelong friendship or a duel in the offing. I agree about the variations depending on genre.

          8. Everything I said about 7 applies here.

          Also sorry about the long comment, but hey, we’re friends, and I am getting my nerd on!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hey, bring it on! 😀 I love discourse.

            I’m personally a writer who likes using as little dialogue tags as possible. If I can get away with sparse moments of action to remind the reader who is in which paragraph, then that’s what I go for. Even as an invisible tag, you still notice it if it’s used repeatedly in a short amount of time, like:

            “They really like talking about dialogue tags,” Ben said.
            “I know, right? It’s just a couple words,” Jill said.
            “They can’t be the noticeable! After all,” Ben said, “it helps the reader follow along.”
            “Yeah, I agree. But aren’t we talking about them too, now?” Jill said.
            “Oh… Yeah. I guess so,” Ben said.

            ….All of which could have been accomplished without tags at all.

            Bill squinted at his screen. “They really like talking about dialogue tags, don’t they Jill?”
            “I know, right? It’s just a couple words.”
            “They can’t be the noticeable! After all, it helps the reader follow along.”
            “Yeah, I agree. But aren’t we talking about them too, now?”
            “Oh… Yeah. I guess so.”

            Just to touch on one point. 😉 But I agree about descriptions. The key word in Leonard’s rule was “great” detail, which is what I was addressing.

            Liked by 1 person

            • The way to make the said invisible is to establish a rhythm, so your reader can follow when someone else is talking, and then use no tags at all as often as possible, is what I think.

              And the technique is captured as perfectly as it can be on a blog thread in your second example.

              If you understand the rhythm of speech, and your characters have distinctive voices, dialog tags should never be a thing to agonize over, nor a thing to take exception to when a successful writer who is talking to beginners lays down rules about it.

              Is easy. #WriterProblems.

              Liked by 1 person

    • I’m liking the comments this one generated. I wrote this on my phone way earlier but lost it when I tried to post it:

      The only real rule, for me, is the writing must be good if you expect people to read it. I’m no friend of absolute thinking, but . . . getting better requires a writer to sort what’s working from what isn’t. Applying absolute “dont’s” to one’s writing in a disciplined way for a period of time and seeing how that changes the quality is a good strategy.

      Kinda what you said — gotta learn ’em before you can break ’em.

      Most of these I learned in undergraduate fiction workshops, but they weren’t delivered to me this clearly or succinctly, and I hated the strictness of the workshop rules. I wish they’d just given me this list. (Except it had not been published yet).

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was having problems with my commenting yesterday, too. I wonder if the combination of all of the blog hops was overwhelming WordPress (unlikely, but it’s a fun image… I KNOW it overwhelmed Bloglovin’ last year. Glad they have better servers now.)

        And I agree with you. Being in the writer’s group I’m in, slush reading for a magazine, and writing short stories has really helped me refine my writing even more. I look back on what I wrote even a year ago and can see how much I’ve improved.

        Like

  4. Great post! That’s a really good list. I think I’ll have to copy that to my writer’s notebook 🙂 Robert A. Heinlein said about rules “I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yeah. How I feel about rules.

      These rules are good ones, though. At least for a while, and if you are in a certain stage of writing fiction where you haven’t really emerged yet.

      Writing rules in the sense I am offering here aren’t about moral responsibility so much as “this helps your writing get read.”

      But I do take the point, and it is a point I like.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Elmore Leonard had some good writing advice. I’m definitely guilty of overusing exclamation marks! 😉 Not familiar with “Justified”, but I have seen most of those movies.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m gonna cry when Justified ends… Love Elmore Leonard and have for a long time, probably because of Get Shorty but I remember loving the book Cuba Libre. I have a bunch of his books floating around the house. I tried to find the one containing ‘Fire In the Hole’ for ages and then happened upon it in a second hand bookstore for $3! ^_^

    Like

    • yes. And No. 9 creates all kinds of mischief, as well. Write FICTION like people actually talk. Work emails?? College papers?? I think not. Well those can be a little conversational, but formality is getting to be more and more problematic to maintain as people use the Internet for genuine communication more and more.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I will look for it, Gene’O. I’m sure my son has it. He has quite the video collection from even before his college days. He’s always been a film buff and I’ve benefited from it in all the stories and plots and summaries he has shared with me. I’ll look for the movie.

        Like

  7. The movie Get Shorty is so much fun, but I haven’t gotten around to reading his books. Obviously I need to fix that! Anyone who can make 160 pages feel like a full novel is a true talent. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am going to miss it, for sure!

      No problem breaking them as long you know why you are doing it, and especially not if your readers like the breaking of the rules.

      If breaking them is getting you read less, or you are breaking them out of habit . . . well. He put them all on that list for a reason 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am already dreading the end of the series – I watch every episode wondering who won’t make it out!

        As for the rules, I do love them – it’s only some that I have trouble with (like the use of ‘said’).

        Liked by 1 person

        • I trained myself to mostly stay away from anything but “said,” and only use that one in the first or second line of a conversation, then whenever it is needed to remind the reader which person is talking. (I do make exceptions, but not without reason). It improved the flow of my dialogue once I got the hang of it.

          I’m dreading it, too. I’m kinda hoping Raylan and Boyd kill one another in a Shakespearean duel. It would be SUCH a fitting end to the series.

          That, or things work out so we get another series that’s just about Boyd, lol. If he escaped to a country without an extradition treaty and stuff kept happening, that could be interesting.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I don’t think I would ever get tired of Boyd – I would definitely watch his own series. And interestingly enough, he was only supposed to be in the first episode, but it only took that long to realize he needed to be in the rest of the series.

            Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know that he made them taboo. The decline of the prologue is more about the minimalist aesthetic that came into vogue about the time he got popular, I think. Possibly, the reason he got successful when he did is because he was writing what people were looking for: Short and cinematic, but with sparse description in the setting and characterization, heavy on action and dialogue.

      Like

  8. But! I love the words…All hell broke loose! That’s when I know things are just about to get really good!
    🙂
    Heather M. Gardner
    Co-host: Blogging from A to Z April Challenge
    Blog: The Waiting is the Hardest Part [http://hmgardner.blogspot.com/]

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! I use the phrase “hijinx ensued” in exactly the same way I am not supposed to use “All hell broke loose.” Your mileage may definitely vary with that one.

      Like

  9. Pingback: Ten Bloggers. 26 Blogging A to Z Posts. All on One Blog. | Sourcerer

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