Un-writing the rules

You are probably already aware of novelist Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing. As a reminder, and very much in summary, these are:

1 Never open a book with weather (where it’s used to create atmosphere).
Avoid prologues.
Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’.
5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control.
Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose’.
7 Use regional dialect and patois sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things (unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood).
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip (basing this on your experience as a reader).

It’s worth mentioning that fashions in fiction change. Take Thomas Hardy’s famous opening chapter in The Return of the Native, the pages-long description of Egdon Heath that takes in not only the moorland’s physical features and climate, but also its history. Later, John Steinbeck produced a lot of scene setting. In The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, the well-known opening line ‘To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth’ proceeds to a number of paragraphs on landscape and weather that would break Leonard’s rules 1 and 9. These are from a time before the industry of ‘creative writing’ launched.  

Nowadays, however, readers are less likely to tolerate the slow pace of the Victorian and pre-war novel. It’s a case of ‘just get on with it’. True, Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel The Hours, say, opens with: ‘She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather’, but this is a conscious echo of Viriginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, published in 1925 – plus it’s brief.

As for prologues, yes they are sometimes used by today’s successful authors – Michael Cunningham’s The Hours again, Donna Tartt uses them, and crime novels often do, too, e.g. Henning Mankell in his Wallander books. Crime novels aside, though, the overriding sense is that  readers will simply skip a prologue (see also rule 10 above). So if you must, keep it short.

And it’s not that all contemporary authors avoid detailed description. Philip Pullman, for instance, Mankell again, Hilary Mantel in her historical fiction… Speaking of historical fiction, it does, in general, appear to employ ornate detail more than books with modern settings. As above, this is presumably to summon a sense of the earlier novel form, as well as to evoke a sense of period. Jessie Burton’s best-selling The Miniaturist (2014), for instance, opens with much lush detail on notepaper quality, architectural features, the October’s day warmth, and light breeze upon our heroine’s hair (weather alert!). Science fiction and fantasy, too, seem to be heavier on description as they portray other worlds. Still, even in such examples, detail is used with mindful caution; it is not indulgent, and rhythm, action, and plot are not sacrificed for the sake of descriptive passages.

So I humbly agree with many of Leonard’s rules, for what it’s worth. It is evident that when rules are broken, it is about being – or becoming – a good enough writer to breach them.

When can you tear up ‘the rules’?

Along those lines, author Matt Haig wrote Ten Writing Rules to Break. Haig reminds us of some commonly-stated decrees, only to point out when these can be broken – and to give examples of famous writers who’ve done just that. Using cliché is realistic in dialogue, for example, and the fact that a neat happy ending may be as authentic as an unhappy or open-ended one – it’s all a snapshot in time.

A few years ago, The Guardian asked known and published authors for their writing rules. Many focus on the writing process, some on the text. Several of my own selected favourites are below, and you can read the rest here.

  • Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called The Partitions. Then I decided to call them The Commitments. – Roddy Doyle
  • Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue. – Helen Dunmore
  • Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire. – Geoffrey Dyer
  • The way to write a book is to actually write a book…  Keep putting words on the page. – Anne Enright
  • Don’t wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key. – Esther Freud
  • Don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceding day. – Will Self
  • Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly. – Jonathan Franzen
  • Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other ­people. – PD James
  • Forget the boring old dictum ‘write about what you know’. Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that. – Rose Tremain
  • Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and ­irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes. – AL Kennedy
  • Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. – Hilary Mantel
  • Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. – Jeanette Winterson

The best, I think, was from Margaret Atwood, who appears to be another ‘rules’ refusenik. From archly fundamental advice on the usefulness of pencils and paper, she added: ‘Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B’. Though, she concluded, ‘Prayer might work.’

Finally, this from Neil Gaiman: ‘Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken.’

Whether as a reader or as a writer, which of Leonard’s rules do you agree or disagree with?
What would your own rules be?

Image thanks
Main image by Evelyn Clement on Unsplash
Smaller photo by Mark Duffel on Unsplash

23 thoughts on “Un-writing the rules

  1. Good piece. I like his rules and I understand why he chose them. I don’t entirely agree or disagree with any of them, because I think a good writer can make anything work. Like the use, or non use of “said”. I think some books can get away with said being the only word used, while I think others need a variety. It all depends on the style of the writer and the genre of the book

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree on both counts. To me, the rules are helpful to set a baseline, so we make an informed, conscious decision as to when we deviate from them. So if using a dialogue verb other than ‘said’, we’re aware that we’re doing this and why – and probably won’t overuse other verbs.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reading this was just lovely 🙂


  3. There Are Two
    Kinds Of Writers

    Those Who




    And Those

    Who Come


    Other Books
    And Sure There
    Are Unlimited



    And not…

    True… There Is
    Walking… There is

    Dancing Free

    Or By




    Is Talking

    That Evolves into Soul💫

    So Free It

    All… How Will



    And Pull
    Away From

    Ocean Water Same…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent. Rules here are a decent starting place or reference point, but can constrain creativity and writing from the heart. Employ as a servant not as a master, I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Writing Makes
        Life When It
        Does Words
        Breathe And Bleed😊

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I have opened a novel with weather and written prologues, short ones, used suddenly I’m sure, but hell has never broken loose.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. At some point, I am certain a writer is going to produce an opening chapter of detailed description to gasps of how brave and clever and original it is 🙂 B The trick is probably to be so retro, you’re in the avant-garde! (yes, I used an exclamation mark!)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Michael Graeme Jan 26, 2021 — 3:49 pm

    I think I agree with all of those rules, though I may be guilty of breaking the one about the weather. I recall Hardy did over-egg the opening of the Native, the heath becoming almost a character in its own right. We wouldn’t go on as much as that these days, but I remember it made a big impression on me at the time. You’re right though, times and tastes have changed and it’s probably best not to write what you’d skip reading yourself.

    Love reading rules other writers have come up with. My favourite is there are no rules, but it’s a brave writer who thinks they can get away with that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. In the end, we must write what and how we want to write, or it will not happen at all. Any rules in a creative pursuit are a useful reference, not a blue print.


  6. Good article. I do agree–times have changed for readers. I am currently reading a book (though written a decade ago) with both a Forward and a Prologue–I read both. I like the rule–“Follow rules unless you consciously break them”. That always works for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. The rules set a good baseline. As in so many things, you can experiment after you know the basics.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. When I first read the rule, ‘write about what you know’, my first thought was I don’t know anything worth writing about. However, my second thought was this: Everything is knowable. All I have to do is dive into research mode.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point. That rule perhaps has been taken the wrong way and can refer to inner knowledge and experience, and also, as you say, to having done your research.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Like you, I agree with some of the rules but not all. I find myself writing “suddenly” (or using another synonym) quite a bit. Honestly, I don’t see what’s so wrong with that (providing you don’t use it on every page). I don’t think I actually ever heard of rule no. 3. I thought we were supposed to do everything NOT TO use “said.”

    While some rules are really helpful, I believe that they should not all be applied to every piece of writing. We are all different and we like different things. Naturally, our writing is based on how we like to read. For example, I don’t mind short sentences (I see them everywhere, written by successful authors), but my partner does not and insists that my short sentences need to be combined.

    Writing should be improved upon for sure. However, I don’t think there’s a single rulebook for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree – the post by Matt Haig makes sense. Essentially, a lot of it comes down to context – and to genre, too. I think short sentences are the same. They can be dramatic and create mood, such as tension or urgency. A speaker using them in dialogue may be communicating impatience or indifference, and so on.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I would agree with most of Leonard’s rules.
    I have personally used 3 rules developed by Clemenceau (French statesman and newspaper man) when he hired a young journalist:
    1) I want simple complete sentences with a subject, a verb, and possibly a “complément d’objet” (Not sure how you say that in English. I eat cake: ‘Cake’ is a “complément d’objet”
    2) Use adjectives sparingly.
    3) If you want to put an adverb, call me…
    I always specified those rules on day 1 of my new executives’ induction…


    1. Ah! I must look up Clemenceau; it’s a new one for me. ‘Cake’ in that sentence would be the object, simply, so subject+verb(+object). Those look like sound rules for journalism. I would be a good discipline for today, when it seems journalism has drifted from objective reporting into opinion, the British tabloids probably the worst example.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Clemenceau was our PM at the end of WWI. He basically won the war. By taking the right decisions and promoting the right people in the military…
        Object. Of course. It’s probably age, or too many languages, but I get mixed up increasingly.
        Yes your tabloids are… embarassing? 😉 But there are similar things across the world. Appeal to the worst instincts will sell a lot of copies.
        Ah! The paper was l’Aurore, which published Zola’s “J’accuse” in defence of Captain Dreyfus…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. UK – word-leading in scurrilous tabloids! So proud 🙂 Thank you for filling me in on Clemenceau – a shameful gap in my knowledge of history. I am aware of Zola’s “J’accuse” letter to the President, though not the newspaper , only that it was a liberal publication – the title makes sense.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Clemenceau was a Doctor originally. Then a politician. A learned and brave man. We sort of lost the manufacturing process on those. Then came Chamberlain and Daladier.
            I just read that it may have been Clémenceau who coined the title “J’accuse”.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. What happened to the leaders who understand ‘servant leadership’? Having been a doctor sounds like good training for that.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Possibly. Education was also different. With pros and cons (When was caning banned in English schools?). But he most certainly learnt Latin and Greek. Read many books forgotten now. No doubt he was a politician, but… he most certainly had vision. The same vision some of his predecessors had. e.g. Jules Ferry who was PM late 19th. Before that he was Minister of Education. He implemented obligatory education – and free – for all. At a time 30-40% of French population couldn’t read or write.
                Churchill spoke perfect French. And certainly had read the Classics.
                Well. Other times will come.


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