Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of good writing

As news reaches us of the great crime writer’s death, we post his very wise rules for fiction writers.

Tue, Aug 20, 2013, 15:47


The author of such excellent hard-boiled stories as Glitz, Cuba Libre and Get Shorty has died at the age of 87. It is a measure of the length of his career that, when he started, he specialised in westerns. It seems a long time since that class of novel had its own space in bookshops. But, yes, The Tall T and 3:10 to Yuma were both based on Leonard novels. In later years, he dealt in crime stories that often took place in and around his native Detroit. Those books didn’t always generate brilliant film adaptations. Leonard’s crime stories were — and this is often forgotten — usually driven more by character and dialogue than by plot. But we did get Jackie Brown, Out of Sight and Mr. Majestyk.

He is also known for a series of rules on writing that, like those by George Orwell, stress clarity over ornateness. Here they are. Go gently, Elmore:

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.