display | more...

Elmore Leonard is a crime fiction genre writer. View the node about him if you want more information (though admittedly the writeups there aren't very substantial). He came up with these ten rules he uses for his own crime stories. Make of them what you will, and note that a few of them seem foolish but do make quite a bit of sense if you're writing a crime novel.

1. Never open with weather
Never. Never. If you write about the weather at the very start of a piece of mystery fiction, then it'll either contrast too badly ("it was a beautiful happy shiny sunny day" when John Smith was shot dead on his doorstep) or it'll seem clichéd (on a dark stormy night...). This rule almost always holds, unless you deliberately use the contrast to add a veneer of menace and suspense just before some climactic event. But this can actually come across laughably predictably if you do it wrongly ("it was a quiet day...too quiet...").

2. Avoid prologues.
Prologues just add to the amount of time before the reader gets to the action in the story. Generally, readers don't purchase the book to read a lot of waffle; they purchased it so you could surprise, interest and possibly even frighten them. Either trim the prologue a lot, make the whole thing simple so you don't need an explanatory prologue or just make it the first chapter. Whatever fits best.

3. Never use a verb other than said to carry a dialogue.
What this means is that when having two people in your story having a conversation longer than a couple of lines, you shouldn't use a verb other than "said" to say how they speak if they are just talking normally (other than at the start of the conversation). This is intended to stop you using "replied", "responded" and "answered" over and over again:

"What are you doing here?" John asked.
"I could ask you the same question," Jane replied.
"I just came to return this suspicious hammer. What are you doing here?" he answered.
"I just came to put back this dagger." she responded.

You get the idea.
And yes, I do realise that it's stupid to say 'said' after each line. Just use paragraphs, in that case; use a new paragraph each time there's a new speaker and don't stick a verb in each time.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said'.
This can be a bit difficult at first, but you can get used to it quickly. What Leonard does is change the verb to a more descriptive verb which implies a certain manner of speaking, rather than use a modifier with a vague word like 'said'. Compare:

"Go away," he said quietly.
"Go away," he murmured to himself.

I suspect that this doesn't matter that much sometimes, but then again I'm not a crime author, so maybe you should take my judgement with a pinch of salt.

5. Keep your exclamation marks under control.
This rule is so obvious, and applies to so much writing, that I think it needs no explanation.

6. Never use the word 'suddenly'.
Not in murder mysteries, anyway. The word is considered by some to be too blatant, blunt, and/or simple. IMHO, I think it's OK to use it, but don't overuse it. Also avoid using it to denote a climax; if something is that dramatic, it should be dramatic on its own merit.

7. Use regional dialects and patois sparingly.
Because other people may not understand them. Especially those that are logically disconnected from their true meaning, like Cockney Rhyming Slang. And don't start sentences with because.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
You should avoid doing this because it diverts the reader from the narrative, means it takes longer to get to the exciting parts of the book, and can bore them to death. Preferably, what a character's like should just come through from the narrative and their behaviour.

9. Ditto, places and things.
For the same reason as that given in number eight.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Sometimes you'll just know that there's one page or one chapter that just sucks. Sometimes you won't notice. So get other people to read your drafts, and consider rewriting those that everyone agrees are the bad bits.

Now go and write the Great American Whodunnit!

Chiisuta notes: "It's notable that those ten rules hold up pretty well when writing just about any novel."

Editors note: - Elmore Leonard died at his home in Bloomfield Village, Mich on August 20, 2013. He was 87 years old.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.