Breaking Elmore’s Rules

There’s a blog-meme going around about Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. The Leonard Rules are pithy and fun, but I’ve found the meme oddly boring.

Why? Because everyone’s commentary about writing rules is pretty much the same: “Yes, that’s true, except when it’s not.” Or more detailed (and even more boring): “Following this rule would prevent beginning writers from making common mistakes, but many fine writers have eaten this rule for breakfast and shat gold before lunch.”

(Pardon my French on that last bit, but I spent last week in New Orleans. Mmmm . . . gumbo.)

So I thought I’d move beyond these generic comments and look specifically at how I break the Leonard Rules in my books. With examples!

Let’s start with Leonard’s opening caveat:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

Of course, most writers who set down rules start with something like, “These may work for you or not.” Well, duh.

But Leonard is saying something much more interesting, that every set of rules has an agenda. That’s the whole point of rules, actually: to ingrain some sort of aesthetic into the style of your prose. Leonard’s rules are designed to allow him to “remain invisible.” That is, he doesn’t want you thinking about the writing or the sound of his voice, just the characters and their situation. This makes sense, given that he’s writing hard-boiled crime fiction, where flights of literary fancy clog up the works.

So one of things I’ll be looking at below is how much I want to remain invisible as a writer. Short answer: I’m not writing tough-talking gumshoe fiction, so I don’t want to be as invisible as Elmore Leonard. But I don’t want to be slathered across every page, either.

Another nice feature of Leonard’s rules is their explanatory notes. These tend to get left out (sort of like that “well ordered militia” bit in the Second Amendment), so I’ve included his clarifications where I think they’re important.

Okay, here we go. Note that bold is Elmore Leonard, italics are quotations from my books, and normal text is me jabbering.

Rule 1. Never open a book with weather.

Hmm . . .

The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit. Uglies

Yeah, baby! I not only start with the weather; I start quarter-million-word trilogies with the weather. That’s how I roll.

But at least it’s weird weather: cat-vomit clouds! So you can already tell something funny is going on . . . probably in the point-of-view. Or as Elmore goes on to say in a well-armed-militia moment:

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.

Aha. And as Uglies continues in paragraph two:

Of course, Tally thought, you’d have to feed your cat only salmon-flavored cat food for a while, to get the pinks right. The scudding clouds did look a bit fishy, rippled into scales by a high-altitude wind. As the light faded, deep blue gaps of night peered through like an upside-down ocean, bottomless and cold.

Any other summer, a sunset like this would have been beautiful. But nothing had been beautiful since Peris turned pretty. Losing your best friend sucks, even if it’s only for three months and two days.

See? I’m not even breaking Rule 1. This cat-vomit sky is in someone’s head; the sky is actually quite beautiful, but Tally’s depression turns it ugly (so to speak).

And to return to Leonard’s overall agenda, starting with this glimpse of the weather through Tally’s eyes is probably more invisible that saying, “Tally was so depressed that the sky looked like cat-spew.”

Although that would have been funny too.

Rule 2. Avoid prologues. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

Yep, that’s me. I never start my YA books with prologues. I generally start with a big action scene of some kind (crashing a party, fighting a vampire, having time freeze) and then drop back to explain what’s going on during a lull in the action.

Of course, I don’t mind info-dumps, as we call them in science fiction. In fact, the even-numbered chapters in Peeps are all info-dumps. And unless fanmail lies, readers totally love that stuff.

As Leonard goes on to quote John Steinbeck, “Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

Aha. That’s pretty much what Peeps does: it has special chapters where the parasite-related hooptedoodle lives. You can skip ahead and read all the parasite-hooptedoodle first, as some readers have told me they did, or skip past the parasite-hooptedoodle and sweep through the story first, as others prefered to do.

But here’s an interesting factoid: When I first turned in Peeps to my editors, the parasite-hooptedoodle chapters and story chapters were reversed from how they are now. That is, the first chapter (and all subsequent odd-numbered chapters) were hooptedoodle-icious. Which meant that the book started with that long description of a snail-eating parasite’s life-cycle: pure hooptedoodle prologue!

Without refrence to Elmore, my wise editors suggested that I swap them around, so that the book started with Cal fighting Sarah, his vampire-afflicted ex-girlfriend. And thus Rule 2 was followed.

It is with these small (but huge) changes that books are made better.

Okay, I’ve gone on a while here, and I’ve certainly typed the word “hooptedoddle” more times than I’d ever hoped to. So I’ll stop for today.

Next time, I’ll do Elmore’s Rules 3 and 4, those old stalwarts: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue and Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

“Oh, crap,” Scott asseverated wolfishly. “I’m in big trouble now . . . ”

But look over there! It’s the freaky yet colorful eye-stalk of a parasitized snail!

See you next week.

40 thoughts on “Breaking Elmore’s Rules

  1. Puke, uck, puke-puke-puke.

    Well, mabye the sky will someday look like human puke. And until that glorious day comes, I shall wait in the shadows, err, waiting.

    *and vanishes in a (politically crorrect color) puff of smoke*

  2. I’d love to be a writer some day, so this helps. I have to say, how ever, I like it when a book starts with something like your ‘So yesterday’.

  3. That snail actually really grosses me out. His one little eye-stalk all green and bulbous like that. I am sure birds find him extra delicious.
    I always like reading your writing advice. You are a treasure trove of knoweledge.

  4. I like the quote from some famous novelist (forget who) that “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.”

  5. Surely it should read:

    “Oh, crap,” Scott asservated wolfishly. [Ooh, I like that. Done.]


    Scott asservated polysyllabically, as he transformed squidgily into a creepy-looking snail.

  6. Ok, invisibility depends entirely on your writing style. Me, I like to have a serious plot, realistic, complex characters and topics that make people think (moral conflicts are always good). But I’m physically incapable of staying serious for more than a page without something funny. Even just something like your now-famous “Hypochondriac killed the cat” line. I tend to prefer to be visible and loud, but not as me, as one of my characters. I just don’t find much life in books that are told from a totally anonymous point of view. if you can come up with an exiting, original character (by the way, Dess and Cal are perfect examples of that kind of character) you can get away with being loud, even use it to make things more interesting (or maybe I just don’t like rules. Totally possible). And yeah, I’ve broken rules three and four in just about everything I’ve written, too. It makes things kind of boring if you don’t lol.

  7. i found this both informative and amusing about writing…

    but what i really want to say is “i was in new orleans last week too!” on the 1st-3rd. i went with my mom, aunt, and the little-sister-who-is-three-inches-taller-and-three-years-younger-and-everyone-thinks-we’re-twins-grr and we got a great deal on a hotel in the french quarter because we stopped at a louisiana tourist center and they gave us flyers…anyways.

    the devastation from katrina really impacted me, though. i dont know where you were in n’awlins, but we ventured out of the french quarter for about half a day and virtually everythings is just…devastated. in a weird way i wish everyone could see it and be inspired or motivated or whatever to help out… the sheer magnitude is almost unfathomable…i’m sorry, its just really been on my mind. its the kinda thing you want out of your mind and yet you dont ever want to forget it either.

  8. Ah, in my many fan-fics about everything from “Uglies” to “Harry Potter,” and in most of the stories I’ve started and never finished, I’ve broken every one of those rules…

    I guess that just proves that I’m out there and individual as a writer, right? ^.^

  9. Ewww. Ewewewewew!! I’m afraid of snails. I wrote an essay on them. I got lots of positive feedback. I included the freaky-outy-ness of parasites. When my teacher read it out loud to the class, other people got freaked out. It was kinda cool.

  10. oh snaps, the snails frighten me, but i think its cool. Agreeing with Anna, I love the info dumps, they were so interesting, especially that one fish or paracite that swims up your…when you pee in a river or something. :]

  11. I think your voice is one of the best things about your books, because it is both unique and amusing. I thought your voice was strongest in So Yesterday, because that’s where I really recognized it… it was easy to see from there where your voice was present in your other books.

    Prologues are annoying.

    You break the rules the right way, Scott. Cat-vomit sky really caught my attention, because it’s such a strange yet understandable description.

  12. The quote above (“There are three rules to writing a novel…unfortunately, no one knows what they are”) is by Somerset Maugham.

  13. *looks forward to the second part*

    It should be interesting, as I was taught never to use the word ‘said.’ I’ve been avoiding it for years! Aie me.

  14. Aye. Well, I could certainly use the weather thing for myself, as I see why that would be dull/annoying/old. Now I get to re-write the first paragraph of my story.

    But I don’t know what I’d do without my ‘answered’s, ‘shouted’s, ‘whispered’s, ‘muttered’s, etc.

  15. You don’t actually use ‘he shouted dejectedly’ and such much, do you, Scott? That tends to freak me out (yes, I blame Stephen King for the indoctrination), and I don’t remember being freaked out by your books in that way. Mmm. I may have time for Specials this week, and I’ll keep an eye open for the non-saids.

  16. Hahaha very informative indeed although for rules 3 and 4 i thought it was useful to use other words to carry dialogue so that the reader doesn’t get caught up reading said every few sentences? Ah, look forward to learning more.

  17. The snail is awesome. The cat-puke sky… rather graphic.

    There are no rules to writing. Except, you know, don’t plagerize.

  18. As far as rule number 3 and 4 go, all my favorite authors are pretty much screwed. Constantly saying ‘said’ in dialogue is quite boring.
    Example(that will hopefully prove opinion):

    ‘Your turning into a road sign!” said (exclaimed) Molly.
    ‘Oh, dear! What kind? Is it a stop sign? I hope not.” said (asked) Ursa (indifferently).
    ‘No, I think it’s a ‘Slow Children’ sign’ said (replied) Molly
    ‘Children? Slow? Refered mentally?’ Ursa said (asked sceptically).

    The text in parentheses are the verbs and adjectives that I would have interjected.

    Well, I admit that wasn’t the best example but, my point is that only using ‘said’ in context is dull. Asked, replied, responded, growled, sqeaked, ect, much more interesting. Sorry, I confuzzled you, eh?

    Those tips are whack. Info dumps rock.

    P.s. Nice snail, green and slimy. Sounds like breakfast.

  19. Wow. I’m a rebel of the writing rules, then aren’t I? lol. I like to replace ‘said’ as frequently as possible. It gets a little dry. But good ol’ said gets the job done sometimes! Hahaha.

    Thanks for posting, Scott.

  20. hey!

    yes i hate rules! they stink!! we should all throw rocks at rules! well some rules any ways! i still like the rules that are keeping me safe XD! but anywhoo keep up the awesome writing and stuff! lol thank u for the books..amazing

  21. Ooooh ~ I’ve just finished Specials and am in the middle of Midnighters 2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. =)

    I *heart* the snail. Little slimy creatures rock my world.

  22. Howdy, I HAD to find your site! Your fan-fest started with my usual raid of the book store. The first of the Midnighters series caught my attention, mainly because I felt special that my name was not only in the book, but in the blurb. So, I bought and read the book. You can tell how good a book is from my point of veiw by how fast it takes me to read it and how much I brag about it in the times that I am not allowed to read it (eg. washing up, school time etc) It took me under a week, and I went on so much about it, that my friends, who were also avid book readers promised to give it a go so long as I shut up, and when we went on holiday I asked every book store we passed if the next book of yours was in. Anyhow, not only do I love to read, but I love to write, the only thing that lets me down is my punctuation, so I appologise for any mistakes. Anyhow, my love for reading helped me decide to do work experience at Dymocks. This is where I spotted the book ‘Uglies’. I kept coming back to it the whole week I was there, reading the blurb and putting it back. Eventually I gave into my curiosity and bought the book. I completly enjoyed the book, and returned the following week to the book store to get the next book. This took me less than 4 days, which persuaded me to look up your site. It wasn’t until I finished the first book, that I realised you had written both the midnighter series and the uglies series. I HAD to know when your next books came out. So, thankyou for writing these stories, and I will be sure to check out the other books you have written, as I rarely like 2 differernt series from the same author. Have a peacful weekend, you deserve it!

    P.s. sorry about the randomness and spelling errors in the comment above

  23. Psst. Time to update again, dear Scott! And gives us some Last Days spoilers…c’mon…I dare ya.

    i think that you should cast fresh faces. I think it will prevent the movie from becoming too hollywood and plus the actors will stay true to their character and not just think of it as just a gig or just some sort of moneymaker.
    Also as a true fan, I think only one tally should be used throughout the 3 movies. You want the viewers and the fans to create this connection with Tally. You might just lose it if you have more than one Tally. For an example, if they used a different actor to play Harry for the harry potter movies than the viewers would be upset and there wouldn’t be a connection between the actors and the fans.There are always computers that you can use to make tally look different throughout the movies.
    Make sure that you take part duringthe production of the movie!

  25. ew
    i stepped on a snail once with my bare foot
    i cried.
    cause it was gross
    i was like 12 at the time,
    which is not a good excuse to be crying…
    i’m 17 but i’d probably still cry.
    snails are gross
    and so are worms
    acctutally bugs are just gross.

    ok thats enough talk about bugs,
    i’m all grossed out!

  26. *phew!* It’s a nice to hear people talking about BREAKING the rules for once! I’ve read one too many books and met one too many teachers who expound on rules, rules, and more rules. The best writers really are the ones who break them, and know HOW to break them. You are so Alexander, cutting gordian’s knot! Rock on!

  27. I don’t agree with the no-using-said thing. At school teachers who have obviously never read a book try to hammer this imaginative little rhyme into my classmate’s sheep-like brains: Said is DEAD! I always feel like screaming, WHAT are you talking about?! I mean,if you just use screamed or asked or mumbled, it’ll come off like you’re trying too hard. Once I pointed this out and my teacher went,*blink…blink* and went off on this New Age, pop psychobabble-icious tangent on the subject. I regained conciousness just as he was pointing at the Narnia book on my desk and said in old books they tended to use ‘said’ more, and that was all well and good, but this was the FUTURE! I swear. These people are preparing me for the real world?

  28. Wait, that didn’t make sense. Basically, I don’t agree with no-said initially, but I’m not anti-said like my teachers.

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