Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of good fiction writing

The first rule of good writing is that there are no rules. If Elmore Leonard had written Ulysses, or Metamorphosis, or Remembrance of Things Past, or Death on the Installment Plan, or other of the modernist classics I don’t know if college freshmen would be studying them today.

They’d probably be pretty good reading though. Leonard knows how to stay out of his story’s way, and I think writers should at least be aware of his techniques before deciding on their own paths. In case you haven’t seen them before, here are his commandments:

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.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Celine would have found no. 5 difficult. He would go for chapters with ellipses and exclamation points as his only punctuation. And where would Zola be without no. 8? And what about Perec or Robbe-Grillet and no. 9?

But that doesn’t make it bad advice, especially in today’s conservative marketplace.


LINK: The official Elmore Leonard website.


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  1. Never open a book with weather? What – no “It was a dark and stormy night?”

  2. That’s the one that comes to mind, isn’t it? Are there really a lot of others that open with weather? Probably, but I’m drawing a blank.

  3. I knew that if anybody would make an opening with weather work, it would be one of the Brontes. From Jane Eyre – opening paragraph:

    There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been
    wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a
    rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of
    the question.

    I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly
    afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw
    twilight with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened …..