Ive taken this ruthless but fair summary, and drawing, from the fine blog Northern Light by Seán Dodson, but Leonards rules themselves were published in his book 10 Rules of Writing, published in 2010 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (in the UK). Sensible rules, but ones that great books, and successful books, have often ignored.

Rule 1: Charles Dickens Bleak House famously opens with an inspired description of Londons implacable November weather". The first chapter of John Steinbecks The Grapes of Wrath is itself implacably about the weather, serving notice that it will be a main character in the novel.

Rule 2: William Boyds no.1 bestseller (and James Tait Black Memorial Prize winner) Brazzaville Beach has a Prologue. So does Sarah Gruens Water For Elephants, Audrey Niffeneggers The Time Traveler's Wife and Henry JamesThe Turn of the Screw.

Rules 3 & 4: These are so sensible as to be ignored at your peril. To bring in a whole barrage of verbs like remarked", opined" and elucidated" suggests brainless falsity. But theres nothing wrong with a sparing use of asked", whispered", shouted" and so on: it can be helpful. And naturally any number of successful, popular novelists go their own way in the matter. Ive been reading John Wyndhams The Day Of The Triffids (1951), for the first time since 1967. Its very good - and fascinatingly of-its-time but not datedly stiff - yet within a typical dialogue-spiced page we have speech without any narrative add-on, some uses of he said", but also he admitted", he smiled", agreed Umberto", observed", explained", suggested" (twice) and remarked". I didnt find this intrusive or awkward. And then theres the novel with which Hilary Mantel finally won a Booker Prize, the magnificent Wolf Hall - which doesnt tell you who speaks any line of dialogue. You have to work it out for yourself. There isnt even the hand-holding of a said Thomas". No said" anybody. No said".

Rule 5: Indisputable truth. It applies too for every written sentence of non-fiction, of a letter, an e-mail, a tweet or a text message. It can only justify itself at the end of a one-word message - say, No!" - for a more seemly form of emphasis than capital letters. In my opinion.

Rule 6: If he means as in Suddenly, a man burst into the room and shot everyone", fair enough. When asked to serve a less clunky purpose, it can work. With All hell broke loose", hes wrong. As Bob Dylan, for one, has been repeatedly skilled in showing, cliché can be used in many witty, sly and beguiling ways.

Rule 7: Er... Mark Twain, D.H.Lawrence, Arnold Bennett, Thomas Hardy, Mary Webb (ie in her Precious Bane, now a Virago Modern Classic) and any number of Southern US novelists, old and new (including Kathryn Stockett in her flawed but fine book The Help).

Rules 8-10: So pleasantly unmeasurable as to be hardly rules at all.

Good list, though: as long as you dont take it any more seriously than Elmore Leonard did.


  1. Mantel's stubborn refusal to inform the reader kindly who is speaking made the novel almost unreadable for me. The experience of ploughing through an already long novel having to go back over page after page trying to work out who was saying what meant that I had to dedicate almost twice the amount of time that I would have chosen to read it.

  2. I didn't find it so testiness-inducing: it seemed such a tiny and intermittent inconvenience in a book so bulging with riches. Like an occasional hoverfly visiting the birthday lunch table...