by Yves Fey
(or Breaking All Elmore Leonard’s Rules)
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.
Long before I learned these were best-seller Elmore Leonard’s rules, I heard them touted in the mystery community, and some in romance as well. Elmore Leonard was definitely a master, tightly plotted, great dialogue, sharp action. When he died recently, his rules were suddenly everywhere. I was reminded how I loathe just about every single one of them.
For one thing, it’s that they are called RULES. Anything called a rule is likely to make me bristle. As rules, they are okay for writing an Elmore Leonard style thriller, but even then I’d break a few. For writing anything else, it’s crossed swords at dawn in the Bois de Boulogne.
Rule #1. Never open a book with weather. Why not, if there’s a hurricane coming? Why not, if your setting is an important character? There are a lot of masterpieces out there that open with the weather. This includes that masterpiece of detective fiction, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep—the weather followed by what Phillip Marlowe is wearing, so a double rule breaker. It also includes, very briefly, the opening of Leonard’s Get Shorty.
Rule #2. Avoid prologues. I heard this one touted as gospel. Readers think prologues aren’t important and skip them. Despite my scorn for any reader who thinks a writer would open a book with something unimportant, I have tended to follow this “rule.” I do not cut the prologue—I call it Chapter 1. See how unimportant it was? I would rather call it a prologue if it’s set several months in advance of the main action, but I don’t want readers skipping it. How many actually do? Is this apocryphal? There was an excellent blog post out there recently about all the recent bestsellers that opened with prologues, Like Water for Elephants and Life of Pi among them. In my next book, I think I will be defiant and call my prologue a prologue…
Rule #3. “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue,” he said. “Years before I heard this rule,” she said, “I read a page and a half of a different bestselling author’s short terse dialogue, with “he said” after every sentence,” she said. “I mean ghastly,” she said. “Chinese water torture,” she said. “No, too subtle,” she said. “Sledge hammer!” she said – using a forbidden exclamation point. “Have I made my point?” she said.
Rule #4. Never use an adverb to modify the word “said,” he admonished gravely. This one gets blown up to never use an adverb. I mean, throw out a whole part of speech? Yes, look for strong verbs. But sometimes the strong verb isn’t there, and what you need to convey exactly what you want is a, gasp, adverb,” she said mockingly, tartly, nastily, uncertainly, snottily, icily, viciously, pompously. Guess what, adverbs can change the meaning of “said”.
Rule #5. Keep your exclamation points under control—you are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. Okay. You can use that guideline, not rule, guideline, to check on your bangs. But if you need a few more, use them. You’ll especially want them if you can’t use exclaimed. “Don’t ever (my rule) use them with said!” she said.
Rule #6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” Suddenly actually means something. I have tried many times just to have what’s happening happen without it, and not have the action itself able to convey suddenness or abruptness. I do use it sparingly because of this “rule.” I wouldn’t ever use “all hell broke loose” except in the dialogue of someone who’d use the cliché.
Rule #7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Sparingly. Yep. I actually mostly agree, but some writers are very skilled at doing it.
Rule #8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Some readers really don’t like to have characters described. Okay. Guess what? Other readers love to have characters described. So, write for the camp you’re in. Meanwhile, let me ask you a few questions. What does Scarlett O’Hara look like? And darling Rhett? What does Sherlock look like? What does Gandalf look like? Gollum?
Rule #9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Ditto the above for whether you want to do this or not. I love Tolkien. I love Thomas Hardy. I love writers who tell me what the world I’m wandering in looks like. I also appreciate writers who can make me feel as if they have when they haven’t. I don’t much like writers who make me feel like the people and places don’t exist except as flat squiggly letters on a page.
Rule #10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Okay. I’ll try to do that, as long as they’re skipping the parts I want to skip, because I try to write what I like to read.
Floats the Dark Shadow is Yves Fey’s first historical mystery, set in the dynamic and decadent world of Belle Époque Paris. It won several 2013 Indie awards–a Silver IPPY in the Best Mystery category, a Finalist Award in the ForeWord Book of the Year Awards in mystery, and it was one of four Finalists in both History and Mystery in the Next Generation Indie Awards. It’s available in hardback, paperback, Kindle, and now as an audio book.
Previously Yves wrote four historical romances set in the Italian Renaissance, Medieval England, and Elizabethan England. She will soon be republishing these under her own name of Gayle Feyrer.
Yves has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon, and a BA in Pictorial Arts from UCLA. She has read, written, and created art from childhood. A chocolate connoisseur, she’s won prizes for her desserts. Her current fascination is creating perfumes. She’s traveled to many countries in Europe and lived for two years in Indonesia. She currently lives in the San Francisco area with her husband Richard Anderson, also a writer, and three cats, Marlowe the Investigator, and the Flying Bronte Sisters.
Yvonne Hertzberger says
“It was a dark and stormy night.” (Snoopy)
My personal rule is, “Understand the rules so you can break them with awareness and intent.”
Great rule, Yvonne!
Sally Carpenter says
I have a character in my cozy series who breaks rule five constantly. She’s so glad to be around her fave rave (a former teen idol) that gosh! she gets excited and talks like this! All bubbly and happy! None of my readers have complained. I like some character description (how else can I imagine the person?) but I don’t think an author needs to go into detail for every minor characters. I think writers would do well to focus on other “rules” such as avoiding plot holes, unrealistic plot twists, abrupt or unsatisfying endings and poorly developed characters.
I like your rules better, Sally. Shall we call them guidelines?
Yes, Yvonne. Don’t you love the lovely snap of a rule breaking?