When Elmore Leonard died in August at the age of 87, it was hard to avoid one version or another of his Ten Rules for Writing. But in case you missed them, they are worth a look, especially in this longer form, published in the New York Times in 2001.
Although Leonard’s rules may lean more toward writers of fiction, they apply to nonfiction writers as well. His main point in all these rules, as he says, is to “remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.” Now, we’ve all heard the “show, don’t tell” advice a million times. And yet, many writers remain in the forefront of the story and can’t get away from telling all.
Just for fun, I’d like to go through a few of these rules and add my two cents.
1. Never open a book with weather. Why? Well, here’s a rather famous example of where that gets you:
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
If Edgar Bullwer-Lytton hadn’t written these immortal words, we wouldn’t have the most recognizable cliché in the history of writing. And there wouldn’t be this contest every year. Enough said. Which brings me to the next rule.
2. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. As Leonard avers, “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.” (See what he means? I just stuck my nose in there when “said” would have been the better choice.)
3. And the follow-up to this rule is: Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” (she repeated sagely). If you are using dialogue in nonfiction, this is an essential rule to remember. There are better ways to let the reader know how a character says something that shows the way that character feels or reacts: an accompanying gesture, a physical tic, a universally understood movement like a shake of the head, a shrug, a wink. As stated above: show, do not tell.
4. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” There isn’t a Cliché Check to go along with Spell Check, but there should be. Leonard claims this rule doesn’t require an explanation. I think we can all agree on this.
5. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Leonard adds, “Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.” Ask yourself how you might create the local flavor of regional speech without using phonetic spelling. Writing dialogue the way people actually speak is an art. If you read Richard Price, or Richard Russo, or Elmore Leonard, the voices on the page sound the way real people do—leaving out words, speaking in half sentences, contractions, and so forth. Allow your characters’ speech to slip into the reader’s consciousness as smoothly as possible.
6. Leonard says: avoid detailed descriptions of characters, and don’t go into detail describing places and things. But…doesn’t the reader want to know what everyone looks like, what kind of shoes they’re wearing, how faded the living room sofa is, how cold the water was in the lake, how hard the rain fell that day, what food is on the table, whether the dog is a doberman or a beagle, if the little girl’s ringlets are red or blonde, the type of cigarette or whiskey your uncle liked, what kind of hat your grandmother wore to church, the color of the jacket that guy put over the girl’s shoulders when she got cold, what shade of lipstick that brunette was wearing when she drove by in her convertible—or was it a coupe? We need these details, don’t we?
Well, Leonard says, there are exceptions. “Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.” And this is the main thing to remember when you feel the need to write those detailed descriptions of characters, people, and things: they should not interfere with the action. Every detail you include needs to have a reason for being there.
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it….It’s my attempt to remain invisible…”
His final rule, and the one that most of us can truly appreciate: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” As Leonard says, “Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them….I bet you don’t skip dialogue.”
And isn’t this the case? Doesn’t our interest pique when we hear characters speak their thoughts, or when we see the world through the eyes of the narrator? Aren’t these the parts we don’t skip? As for lengthy descriptions of weather and so forth, they do interrupt the forward motion of the story, and should be avoided in most cases.
I would say that this rule, summing up all the rest is the one to take to heart: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it….It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)”
We all fall in love with our own words; if we’re being honest, we have to realize this. And falling in love with our words is what makes it hard to get rid of what “sounds like writing” sometimes.
We can’t all write like Elmore Leonard, of course. Maybe that isn’t the point. Maybe we don’t want to. But we should be aware of how, despite our best efforts, sometimes our words do get in the way of what we want to say—and when that happens, we need to take a good, hard look at those words and let ’em go. Better to leave out the parts people tend to skip and let them enjoy our carefully chosen words instead, right?
*What Would Elmore Leonard Do?
Risa Nye is a San Francisco Bay Area native. Her essays, stories, and articles have appeared in a variety of publications. She continues to mine her vast experience for more things to write about. She has an MFA in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College in California. She co-edited the anthology Writin' on Empty.She writes about food, drink and films at EatDrinkFilms.com. Her memoir, There Was a Fire Here, was published by She Writes Press in 2016. Find her writing, including her forays into the world of mixology as Ms.Barstool (published on www.berkeleyside.com), and her blog at www.risanye.com.
On staff since 2011
Risa has also written for our craft column.