Elmore Leonard’s Greatest Rule

The greatest writing rule Elmore Leonard knew was the one he followed, not listed: write well—your gut knows.

Elmore Leonard's Swag (Cover)I’ve not read every Leonard novel, but, of the ones I have read, Swag is my favourite. I read it once. I remember it. More than once, I’ve looked up writing advice online. Leonard has some of his own, distilled into ten famous rules. I keep looking these things up because I can’t remember them. I can’t remember them because they’re platitudes. And, because I’m an idiot, I keep searching platitudes for lessons that I’ve already learned—embodied in the answers to questions like why do I like Swag?

In the meantime, here are  Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing:

  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.

So:

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

‘Frank,’ Stick said quietly, ‘the guy wants to kill me.’

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

The red-and-blue flashing squad car with its awful who-who wail almost lost it taking the corner, got itself straightened out passing the bank and the Chinese place, and swerved into the Food Lanes parking lot as Stick eased the Nova around the far corner of the restaurant, cut through the open blacktop area behind the Michigan National Bank, and hit Southfield already doing thirty, not fast enough to attract attention but enough to get them out of there. Stick could picture the guy running over to the squad car, waving the magazine at them and pointing. A green car! Or if he knew anything—A green ’72 Nova! Went that way! Shit.

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

In the car Stick put the gear into Drive and waited, looking at the rearview mirror, until he saw the big guy with the gray curly hair appear suddenly in the doorway and stop dead. Stick got out of there then, tires squealing as he peeled away from the curb.

As for Leonard’s general warning against using too many adverbs:

Frank was shaking his head, a little sadly, patiently. ‘Sometimes, you know what?You sound like a broad. A wife. Poor fucking martyr’s got to sit home while the guy’s out having a good time.’

So, why do I like Swag? It’s not because there’s only one “suddenly” in the whole novel and not one “all hell broke loose”. I also don’t like the novel less for its “said quietly” or “a little sadly, patiently”. Hell, I like those adverbs. Sure, an exclamation point after second sentence or an adverb after every “said” would start to get on my nerves, but I doubt anyone needs a rule against that. It’s common sense. Plus, if you’re good enough, what’s bad becomes style, and José Saramago can keep using his commas and Graham Greene can construct sentences where one colon leads to another, which leads to another, which leads…

They walked raggedly with rifles slung anyhow: ends of cotton where buttons should have been: a puttee slipping down over the ankle: small men with black secret Indian eyes.

That’s from Greene’s The Power and the Glory, another one of my favourites.

I’ve read novels that follow Elmore Leonard’s rules to a tee, and didn’t like them. I imagined their writers furiously using Ctrl-F to track down every last adverb, exclamation point and “suddenly” to make their writing great, as if a novel was a stain whose perfection was the arrival at zero after tracking down every little negative. I wish I could remember those novels better. I’m glad I remember Swag so well.

I think I’ll stop searching for “writing rules” in Google.

I think I’ll spend my extra time writing and figuring out why I like the novels I like, because I don’t like Leonard for the same reason I like Greene, and I like Haruki Murakami for different reasons altogether.

I wonder how many writers know and want to follow Leonard’s ten rules without having read anything by Leonard. I wonder how many writers, like me, know Leonard’s ten rules but haven’t read everything by him.

The first group is interesting because: why would you follow the advice of a writer whose writing you might dislike?

The second group is interesting because we’re wasting time on bullet points when we could be reading the best advice Elmore Leonard gave:

His work.

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3 thoughts on “Elmore Leonard’s Greatest Rule

  1. Beautiful–the best encapsulation I’ve yet read of why there are two and only two things that are *necessary* to become a good writer:
    1) Reading good books.
    2) Writing.

    Don’t get me wrong…I’m all for education (I’m overeducated and vastly underpaid), but for the field of literature education consists largely of the above two items…and then more reading to give the above two items context.

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