Thursday, October 19, 2023

Defending the Leonard Ten

 Of all the writing “rules” I have seen, Elmore Leonard’s are probably the best known and most often vilified, generally because they are misunderstood. The late Mr. Leonard (I want so bad to call him “Dutch” but, even ten years after his death, I can’t bring myself to even imply that level of familiarity) does not need me to defend him, but what else are blog posts for but to say things that could be left unsaid except that the blogger wants to say them. So there.


As Leonard himself said in the original New York Times piece in which the rules appeared, they are not rules at all, but suggestions. That said, I have seen few suggestions that make more sense, or that apply to more cases, than his. I don’t consciously think of them very often, largely because they are now so well ingrained into my writing process I don’t have to, but they are always at the back of my mind when I write.


Here they are, with my interpretations. I use none – well, maybe one -  of his explanations, even though ignoring those is what gets most of his detractors to look foolish.


Never open a book with weather.

“But Get Shorty opens with the weather” is a favorite refrain of those who take issue these rules.


Let’s look at the offending passage:


When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South College and had his leather jacket ripped off.


It’s a single sentence and less than half of it directly addresses the weather. The inciting incident for the book is the loss of Chili’s coat. This being Miami Beach, the reader would have to wonder why Chili even had a coat with him unless we know it’s unseasonably cold.


Plus, it’s one sentence. Not a page or more describing clouds or rain or how being uncomfortably cold/hot/wet made Susan feel about the weather/her life/ John’s failure to call. It’s a sentence to kick off the story.


Experience has taught me that anyone so willing to ignore context to criticize something isn’t writing anything I’d care to read.


Avoid prologues.

If possible. Sometimes it can’t be helped. My current work in progress is presented as the memoir of a man who lived on the Western frontier, taken from notes that were lost and only recently discovered. I present the prologue as an editor’s note to describe how the book supposedly came to be. (Or a foreword. I haven’t decided yet.)


It's also true, as Leonard himself acknowledges, that you can ignore any of these rules if you’re good enough to get away with it. I’ve read novellas shorter than the prologue to Empire Falls, yet Richard Russo makes his so fascinating I would have been satisfied is that had been the whole story, except that he so masterfully sets up what is to come.


Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"…he admonished gravely.

These two go together. “Said” is an invisible word in dialog, used to avoid confusion about who is speaking. If you feel the need to use a different verb, or to modify “said,” then the dialog itself isn’t strong enough to convey what you feel is missing. Change it, and maybe throw in something to describe how the line is spoken.


Shane said, “I hear you’re a low-down Yankee liar.”

Wilson’s voice barely crossed the room: “Prove it.”


(Note: “He admonished gravely” is Leonard’s tongue-in-cheek way of telling those who are paying attention that not even he is taking this too seriously.)


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

This goes with the “said” comment above. Exclamation points too often are used instead of well-chosen dialog to make sure the reader gets it. They’re explanations, and explanations mean what came before wasn’t clear enough. As Renni Browne and Dave King say in Self-Editing for Writers, “resist the urge to explain.”


Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."

This is a fundamental “show, don’t tell” thing. Don’t tell us something happened suddenly, show us. And “all hell broke loose” is lazy writing, plain and simple. Unless used as dialog from the mouth of a conversationally bland character.


Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Notice he doesn’t say not to use it. Such language can help to define a character. (Think of Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell in James Lee Burke’s novels.) To use too much, or to work too hard to spell the spoken words phonetically, forces the reader to translate what this character is saying when they should be immersed in the story.


I typically don’t care for writers who take examples from their own work unless the are superstars, but this example from my novel The Man in the Window comes to mind.


“Mr. Forte, I want to start by telling you what a fine job you’re doing of fucking up my investigation.” At least that’s what I thought he said. He wasn’t from around here. Farther south, Alabama or Mississippi maybe. … What came out sounded like, “Mistuh Foe-tay, ah wunna staht by tellin yew whut uh fine job y’all’re dewin uh fuckin up mah vestigashun.”


And that’s the last I mentioned it, except for the occasional uniquely Southern idiom, such as how he might be “fixing to do” something.


Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

You want readers to be absorbed in your story, which means you don’t want them to have to stop so they can assemble these people and places in their heads. Give only as much description as the reader needs to create the movie in their imaginations. If a detail is important to the story later on – say a unique tattoo or strikingly-colored eyes – then by all means mention it, but don’t bury it in a shopping list of other stuff.


Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Yeah, well, duh. How many times have you had to go back in a book because a detail provided on Page 123 allows what you just read on Page 136 to make sense, but you skimmed past it because your eyes glazed over from the minutiae that enveloped said key detail? Well, leave that shit out.


And finally, Rule 11, which he described as “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.”


If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Remember, you’re telling a story, not gratifying your ego by impressing anyone with all the cool words you know or constructions you can pull off. Cool words and literary constructions are not bad things unless they get in the way of the story, and, as much as possible, you want your audience to forget they are reading. They should have the feeling they’re sitting back with their eyes closed while a movie plays out in their heads.


That’s what his rules mean to me.


Austin S. Camacho said...

I always read, bug never comment on this blog. However, Dana's point today is SO on point I have to say something. Taking pot shots at one of the masters is so easy. You know who DOESN'T criticize Leonard? Stephen King. Jeffrey Deaver. Reed Farrel Coleman. Know why? Because the people who know how to do this know he had distilled what it took them years to learn. These guidelinesa are gold so instead of criticizing just be like Dana: Shut up and write!

Dana King said...

Thank you, sir. You should comment more often, even when you disagree. It's always fun to chat with you, regardless of the forum.