You can’t tell me what to do!

I came across this photo/list of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing on Pinterest.  It’s an excerpt from his essay of the same title.  I thought it would be interesting to see if you all agree or disagree with these rules.




Here’s my opinion:

1. Personally, I love a story that starts with “It was a dark and stormy night…” (just kidding, unless the author is trying to be ironic).

2. How about the prologue?  Is there a bit of the story that just needs to be set off by itself?  I’m pretty sure I’ve never had a problem with a prologue.

3. “Said” seems to have no grey area.  Writers either demand that “said” be used exclusively or they hate having to stick to “said.”  Some say it’s the mark of an inexperienced writer to use words other than “said.”  Whatever.  Sometimes, words like “whispered,” “murmured,”or “shouted” just need to be used, I think.  For example, take these three versions of the same sentence:

“That is a stupid idea,” he said.

“That is a stupid idea,” he whispered.

“That is a stupid idea!”  he shouted.

Totally different feeling is conveyed, right?  On the other hand, you could get carried away with it.  “That is a stupid idea,” he blustered, bemoaned, bellowed, whined, sneered, snapped, ranted, ejaculated….  (yeah, let’s use that one! *snicker*)

4. Here’s another reason to use a word other than “said.”  If Elmore doesn’t think you should use an adverb to modify “said” then you can’t say “said quietly.”  Which is a perfect argument for using “whisper” instead.

5.  Exclamations points?!?  Are you kidding me?!? I love exclamation points!!!!  And only 2 or 3 in 100,000 words of prose?!?!?!?!?!?  Come on!!!!! That’s crazy talk!!!!!!!!! (Obvious sarcasm)

6. I pretty much agree with 6.

7. And 7.

8.  Yes, to this too.  I think this is a case of “show don’t tell.”  You can accurately convey your character’s traits through dialogue and through another character’s thoughts and observations.

9.  Hmmm.  Maybe not always.  One of my favorite books is “My Antonia”  by Willa Cather.  There is a multitude of descriptive language in this book and quite frankly, it’s beautiful.  I think this rule depends on the type of story you’re writing.

10.  Yeah, I know what I like to read and what I skim through.  For example, Tom Clancy can describe the entire process of a bullet being fired from an assassin’s rifle.  While I’m totally impressed that he went to all that research… Yawn.  Scan.  Next.

Which of these rules do you agree or disagree with? 

Header image courtesy: Peanuts; by Charles Schultz 

63 thoughts on “You can’t tell me what to do!

  1. Struggling through the various strategies. Wrote a short story. Rough was 1,500. Then I removed almost everything non-essential. Final was <600. But I liked the first better when I revisited it. Maybe rules, like life, shouldn't be viewed as "black and white".

    (He said laconically, just before all hell broke loose.)

    Liked by 6 people

      1. Ah, but that’s where the tension between conscious competence and unconscious competence happens. Here is an example of my “natural writing style…

        He read the comment by Dr. Meg and was suddenly struck by his incompetence to form a lucid reply. His words failed him. He strove to be funny. He wanted her to like him. To praise him. To know he had made her smile and possibly even stifle a laugh in her ill-dressed torso.

        Most of all he just craved attention anywhere he could find it to mask his inner shame.

        And he was OK with that.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I think there is just a point where you have to sit down and write it the way you need to write it. I can get so bogged down in advice and rules that I can’t move forward.

    On the subject of exclamation marks. I recently had a fellow blogger ask me why I was always shouting at him? I love the exclamation mark and had no idea that in web-speak it meant shouting. I had thought I was expressing how much I enjoyed his essays.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s funny! I do that too! (Obviously) I always thought using all capitals was shouting. Oh boy…

      I totally agree with getting bogged down in rules. I think you write the way you would enjoy reading. Find your style and roll with it. (!)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really don’t understand why anyone should form rules for writing. I think you must write in your own style and write from your heart. I agree that you must not repeat some words again and again but I have no problem with weather, exclamation marks or prologue. Details about characters and places can raise your imagination levels and allow you to visualize the story from the writer’s viewpoint. I agree with the last, though, if you can discover it! If you follow rules like these, you won’t have a style of your own, don’t you think?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Precisely! We’d all sound like Elmore Leonard! I think you could even make an argument for using bad grammar in certain situations. For example in conversation people don’t always use correct grammar, your dialogue should reflect that. I totally agree about having your own style!

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Of course, that’s the wonderful thing about reading – using one’s own imagination to fill in the gaps. And I believe the type of story you’re writing will determine the amount of information you provide.


      1. Two examples come to mind: JG Ballard’s High-rise and Willa Cather’s My Antonia. In High-rise, Ballard spends a great deal of time describing the architecture of the building, it’s layout, the type of apartments and as the story unfolds, the deterioration, the garbage blocking the hallways and elevators, the destruction of the building’s pool and classrooms… You can almost smell the filth.

        In My Antonia, Cather paints a vivid picture of the Nebraska plains with the changing colors and textures with the change of the seasons. Its all so beautiful and sets the mood for the scenes playing out against the backdrop of the landscape. None of that would be necessary in let’s say, a detective story, for example.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh yeah of course. I never read genre stuff anyway. Well, I have tried, just to make sure I wasn’t being a snob, and yeah, not too interested.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Just anything that exposes me to new ideas or perspectives or psychological insight basically! Variations on archetypal characters in plot driven books is probably a thing that is good and necessary and worthwhile and part of a tradition and all that, but it’s not for me at this point. Thanks for asking!

        Liked by 2 people

      4. My taste is all over the place: I write romantic suspense (no judging!) but I like to read historical fiction, science fiction, thriller, classic literature… I will give any genre a chance. Except horror. I don’t like horror.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I believe it depends from writer to writer and also from reader to reader….some readers prefer descriptive writing whereas others prefer it when it’s not too descriptive. some stories demand description to portray their full meaning, wouldn’t you agree?
    I don’t agree with number 3…and 5!
    I am guilty of number 6 – suddenly is a word I tend to use quite often! 😛

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I totally agree. The amount of description is completely dependent on the type of tale being told. I disagree with the exclusive use of “said” too. I have to admit, I’m paying more attention to the words I use as alternates to it, though. I think you can go too far in the other direction and then the verb distracts from the actual dialogue.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I agree with you on all of them. Who does Elmore Leonard think he is? If my tall, muscular character with pale skin and shaggy hair wants to shout something instead of simply saying it he will do so even if it is a dark and stormy night. I’m fed up with other people’s rules for writing. If we all stuck to the rules in life not much interesting would happen or be written about, I said with a whisper.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Number five is definitely a problem for me!!!!!!! In fact, the grammar police frequently visit me because I overuse it it! But I love exclamation points! They’re my favorite!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’ve read A LOT of Elmore Leonard. The stories and the characters are so entertaining, even engrossing (for us crime fiction junkies) that it would not matter if he broke all of his own rules. The strength of his work would overcome any, if not all, of his don’ts. As it would for any good bit of fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. ohkay! so, i had a host of questions and opinions after i read the article, but reading the comments answered them all. Except for the why’s. why not use suddenly or all hell broke loose? also, instead of said, can the others words like replied, asked, wondered aloud, questioned be used instead?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think because “all hell broke loose” is an example of a cliche. Writers should avoid cliches in the narrative part of the story, however your characters might use cliches in their speech. You can probably use “suddenly” sparingly, but you don’t want to have all the action happening “suddenly” or else it will sound over dramatic. There are better ways to show action.


  9. I am an avid reader, and I don’t really agree with all that he said. I think it all depends on the piece and the writer’s style. The blue cardigan you look drop dead gorgeous in, wouldn’t necessarily work for me. So it is with writers (I believe). As a writer, it’s important to form your own rules, and play with them. And it’s that individuality which makes every piece so different.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Reblogged this on Stuart Aken and commented:
    I agree with almost everything Dr Meg Stock says here. Great piece that new writers in particular might want to read. Mind you, there are a few experienced writers who would benefit from this advice too!


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