If you are unsure about the astounding career of Elmore Leonard, let me fill you in a few of his noted writing accomplishments. Leonard’s early works include westerns that were later turned into movies – 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre, Valdez is Coming, and Joe Kidd. 26 of his published novels and stories have been adapted for the screen, including his 1985 novel Glitz, which has sold tens of millions of copies. More recent movies include Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, and Killshot. I for one have made time to listen to the 10 Rules of Writing by this man affectionately called Dutch after baseball’s famed Dutch Leonard.
- Never open a book with weather. This is not to state that weather is unimportant to your scene structure, but readers want to care about a character before you prattle about humidity and barometric pressure. You have less than one paragraph to hook a reader in the bookstore or in an online sample of your e-book. Don’t deliver a dissertation on the spooky weather. Build weather into your opening scene like a recipe; sprinkle in bits and pieces and let the flavors marry slowly.
- Avoid prologues. You may believe that your reader must know pertinent background information before they can understand the remainder of your masterpiece. Most genre readers prefer to begin with in medias res “in the midst of.” Readers are smart creatures, of which I am certain you are one. Readers want to learn backstory or world building with you as the story rolls out. This creates an organic feel. If you must write a prologue, shy away from the Genesis 5:1-32 method of backstory. Begin your story right in the middle of action.
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. We’ve all been guilty of getting crafty in our dialogue. Instead of heaping on action verb tags – he spat, she scoffed, I cried out, he bellowed – relay these emotions through showing, not lazy telling.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.” You know the type I’m talking about – he spat disgustedly, she scoffed amusingly, I cried out emotionally, he bellowed angrily. But what about J.K. Rowling, you ask. Unless you are the successful multi-published heiress of Hogwarts, you would be wise to heed this rule. Try the Stephen King method instead, avoid verb modification at all cost even unless you plan to visit hell.
- Keep your exclamation points under control. Leonard suggests no more than two or three per 100,000 words. Again, exclamation points fall into that grey area of showing not telling. If your story contains enough emotionally charged action, dialogue, or introspection in any scene, you will have imparted the excited feeling without the need for an exclamation point. Make the reader believe through your storytelling abilities, not by slapping your scene’s entire emotional quotient on the end of the sentence!
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” In the event that all hell does break loose suddenly in your prose, again your descriptive powers will save the day. Instead of taking the shortcut of telling – show “hordes of people scurried for cover from the giant asteroid that broke through the earth’s atmosphere destined to obliterate our planet.” Or if you’re a stubborn one, you can say “suddenly, all hell broke loose.”
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Here’s a passage by Riddley Walker for you to decipher.
Peapl din no if they wud be alyv 1 day tu the nex. Din even no if thayd be alyv 1 min tu the nex. Sum stuk to gether sum din. Sum tymes thay dru lots. Sum got et so uthers cud liv. Cudn be sure uv nuthin din no wut wus sayf tu et or drink & tryin tu keap wyd of uther forajers & dogs it wuz nuthin onle luck if enne 1 stayd alyv.
First, your editor will have smoke pouring out of her ears if you try to write with this type of heavy dialect. Second, in order to decipher the above passage, it will pull your reader outside the world you are trying to create by breaking that precious suspension of disbelief.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. One of the most common complaints is that the character was so well fleshed out through description that the reader had nothing left to imagine. Your main goal is to keep the reader engaged. They want to tap the creative, imaginative side of their reading brain. Let them.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. There are many literary writers that may disagree with this rule. However, even the classic Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte describes places and things with acute clarity and necessary brevity. There is a time and place for descriptors, but unless you are giving your readers a first glimpse of the local Stagometer Square on planet Pythagoreanagous, allow readers to utilize their own built-in familiarity with places and objects.
- Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. I admit that this is a tough one for me, simply due to the fact that I read everything. And by everything, I mean every word on every page, food label, rolling movie credits, contractual small print, closed captioning – you get the picture. But I am aware of things that I found unnecessary to read in books after I’ve already read them. If this pattern repeats itself too many times, I am unlikely to read that author again. That is a strong statement folks. If it’s not absolutely necessary to character arc or plot, it should be left out.
I’ll leave you with my favorite Elmore Leonard quote of all time:
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