elmore leonard

Ten Rules For Writing Fiction from Elmore Leonard*

Elmore Leonard: Using adverbs is a mortal sin

1 Never open a book with weather. 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. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

*Note from thewordriven: This is advice - not hard and fast rules

Get Shorty - Top Notch Elmore Leonard Adaptation

Caught this one in the theater. One of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations I’ve seen. A great cast, and manages to be both hilarious, suspenseful and at times oddly touching. The scene with Chili Palmer at the film ‘Touch of Evil’ was a highlight of the movie for me, and best illustrates my own personal love for film. (unfortunately, my own visit to ‘hollywood’ elicited a different reaction from me, I found it a major disappointment, and was amazed at how cheap and sleazy the whole business looked up close – but I can see how a gangster would feel right at home). A big hit for Travolta, on the heels of his comeback in 'Pulp Fiction’, and assured us that we’d be treated to much more of his face on the big screen in the ensuing years (to the point where we eventually got sick of him)

4 stars out of 5

Released 1995, First Viewing September 1995


An extended version of Jacob Pitts reading Freaky Deaky, from the special feature In Elmore’s Words, from the bonus disc of the Justified Collector’s boxset.


“You read that a bunch, or you buy it used?”
“If I say I’ve read it 10 times, I’m low.”

In an episode where I lost count of the tributes to Elmore, this was one of the best. That’s one of Elmore’s favorite books, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, written by George V. Higgins, whom Elmore often credited as one of his own biggest influences. Without Higgins, we might not have Elmore, and without Elmore, well. We’d never have Raylan or any of this. In fact, they’ve even referenced it before, back in Ghosts, when the Tonin henchman is holding Winona hostage in the nursery and he asks Raylan if he’s seen the movie. “The stickup crew in that movie, the guys that Mitchum buys the guns for…” and Raylan goes, “Moe Greene and one of the fellas from Rockford Files.”

Here, though, it’s even better when Raylan flips through it fondly and then bequeaths the book to Tim. The gift that keeps on giving, especially when Tim and Nelson get the last words as Raylan leaves the office behind.

Nelson: You gonna read that book, Tim?
Tim: No, Nelson, I’m gonna eat it.
Nelson: I read fast. Have it back to you tomorrow.
Tim: Keep talking, I’m gonna throw this stapler at you.

I never see my bad guys as simply bad. They want pretty much the same thing that you and I want: they want to be happy. Elmore Leonard



Timothy Olyphant Reads Elmore Leonard‘s Riding the Rap