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


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


(…) that was something Elmore Leonard said about Boyd when he came into the writers’ office and we took him into the editing bay and we showed him some scenes back in the first season. That’s what he said: “I don’t believe a word coming out of his mouth, but I sure do enjoy hearing him say them.” And so that was a nod to him.

Graham Yost about the writing process for the last scene (x)


“Raylan said in his quiet voice ‘Boyd and I dug coal together.’ ” - Elmore Leonard’s Fire in the Hole

“We dug coal together.” - Boyd, Justified Finale 2015

Since I’m still crying like a baby (I’m very sad because it’s over but these are tears of joy, believe me) I’m just going to say THANK YOU. I owe this show/this story so much, 5 years of pure quality and laughs, emotions, tears. I will never feel like this for any story or tv show, ever. I’m sure of that. Elmore would be proud - of that HAT mostly - but seriously, this was the finale we all deserved. Now let me go cry some more, I will miss the shit out of this show.

In prose, we use “said” because the word becomes transparent. Elmore Leonard’s rules are interesting. I can argue with a couple of them, but, hell, I’m no Elmore Leonard, in gift or style. Anything other than “said” is author’s intrusion, and you need to have a good reason to make the line reading less transparent to the reader. (Sometimes I think I have a good reason. I’m probably wrong. But I digress (a lot).)

Comics allow us to amplify the experience of moments by changing panel size and style. Comics, never forget, is a hybrid form, that borrows from all the others that preceded it. Eisner lifted as much from theatre as he did from film. If you’ve ever read his books about comics, you know how much Shakespeare and its staging informed his work. (Theatre, particularly the evolution of acting and staging, is worth some study if you’re interested in writing comics. Someone – and I can’t remember who, a British actor – is actually credited with inventing the pause. Also, seriously, read Samuel Beckett.)

But that is not necessarily transparent. We are aware of the creators’ presence. In looking for transparence in comics storytelling, I come back to the grid structure, because, once we’re immersed in it, we no longer notice it until the creators bring it to our attention. DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, WATCHMEN and MAUS all have a degree of this, and it is perhaps no accident that these are the roughly contemporaneous works that most associate with the 80s comics renaissance that brought the adult form to wider notice. FROM HELL, on WATCHMEN’s nine-panel grid but largely shorn of WATCHMEN’s showy match-cuts, is even more transparent.

All of which brought me back to FREAKANGELS, oddly. The four-panel grid was a weird duck, but it allowed me to write without thinking about panelling or crowding the artist out (although Paul probably loathed me for making him draw a couple of thousand vertical compositions). I find nine-panel-grid excruciating for several reasons, not the least of which is that I’m constantly worried about crushing the artist.

Because what I’m thinking is, once the storytelling is transparent, once you’re no longer having to sell the reader on the visual equivalent of adverbs, you’re actually in a more novelistic, and more painterly, space. The reader accepts the frame and immerses in what’s in it.

—  Some interesting thoughts from warrenellis in his latest newsletter, about author transparency, “said-bookisms,” and comic book panels.
  •  Never open a book with weather.
  •  Avoid prologues.
  •  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  •  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
  •  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 
  •  Never use the words "suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  •  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  •  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  •  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  •  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

 My most important rule is one that sums up the 10:

 If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

- Elmore Leonard (10 Rules of Writing)

Photo credit: John Nowak/CNN

On the Passing of Elmore Leonard:

As you have probably heard, Elmore Leonard passed away at 7:15 this morning due to complications from a stroke. He was at home surrounded by his loving family.

It feels not in keeping with Elmore’s “no fuss” persona to try to pay tribute to this great man. But Elmore was a true legend—unpretentious, unbelievably talented, and the coolest dude in the room.

William Morrow has published 47 titles with Elmore since 1980 with more than 8 million books in print in the US, including e-books. He has won more than a dozen literary awards, including a medallion from The National Book Foundation saluting lifetime achievement.

All of us at HarperCollins will miss working with this national treasure and one of our favorite authors of all time.

—Michael Morrison, President & Publisher, HarperCollins

My summer reading: Elmore Leonard’s Glitz. Raylan and Tim should just start a book club already, because I give you Givens and Gutterson in Alive Day

Raylan: Wonderful things can happen when you sow seeds of distrust in a garden of assholes.
Tim: You just come up with that?
Raylan: I read it somewhere.
Tim: Well, do me a favor and say it again slow so I can write it down.