Thursday, August 22, 2013

Leonard's Laws

Legendary novelist Elmore Leonard recently passed away at age 87. He left behind not only an impressive body of work but a philosophy of writing, exemplified in his oft-cited Ten Rules.

Leonard's Rules strike me as being remarkably fresh and relevant, overlapping, as they do, not only common sense but modern reading (and publishing) preferences. No one these days wants to read (or publish) Henry James. Today's readers, editors, and agents look for a more streamlined, get-straight-to-the-point approach to writing that eschews descriptive dead weight.

Let's go through Leonard's ten rules one by one.
Elmore Leonard, 1925-2013.

1. Never open a book with weather. Already, Leonard is communicating subtext to the reader: Don't bore me with useless particulars, on any topic, but especially not on the most useless of topics, meteorology. Presumably we'll know soon enough, by the characters' actions or words, whether it was a dark, stormy night.

2. Avoid prologues. I take this to mean narrative setup of any kind, at any point in the story. The story is its own setup. The old screenwriter's axiom "enter the scene late, leave early" comes to mind. Backstory is still story. Present it as such.

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. As with any rule containing the word "never," this rule can certainly be broken, but as with all truly important rules, it takes an expert to know when to break it, so be forewarned. Try this simple test: Go through a piece of dialog you've written and replace every dialog specifier (remarked, mumbled, exclaimed, gasped, etc.) with "said" and/or with nothing. Does it read better? Flow better?

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" (he said menacingly). Why? It's overreach. Plus it's editorializing; you're telling the reader how he or she should feel/interpret what's being said. Let the reader interpret as she wishes. Let timing (adroit placement of beats) determine gravity. Give cues, not directorial advice.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. This rule could well have been given an exclamation point, of course, but Leonard demonstrates his own advice by not doing that. An exclamation point is directorial advice. Use sparingly.

6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose." If you're still using trite phrases like "all hell broke loose" in your writing, you're in more trouble than you think. If you've heard of a phrase before, it's trite. Get rid of it. (Except in dialog, and even then, don't overdo it.) Adverbs signal missed opportunities to show rather than tell.

7. Use regional dialect (patois) sparingly. If a character is speaking in a thick accent, give one explicit cue in the narrative, then move on. (Let the reader imagine/construct the patois on his/her own.) You're not Faulkner, you're not Twain.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. A moviegoer will make up a scarier monster in his head than you can show on the screen. But guess what? The Imagined Monster Principle applies to all characters, not just movie monsters. One or two vivid details about a character (preferably shown rather than told) will usually be enough to start the snowball. Add a speck of detail now and then to keep it going. More is not better.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things. Description, in general, is out of fashion these days, so if you grew up reading the classics and you're trying to emulate some of your favorite 19th and 20th Century writers, please reconsider. Write the screenplay version first. Later on, when you're rich and famous, you can pretend you're Margaret Atwood.

10. Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip. What parts are those? Try this: Take something you wrote and read it aloud, pretending (as you read) that Stephen King is sitting right behind you, arms crossed, saying "Okay, so what?"

And then there's Leonard's Eleventh Rule: "If it sounds like writing, rewrite it."

Best, rule, ever.