Friday, October 9, 2015

How Well Do Famous Novels Follow Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing?

As an author, Elmore Leonard was unforgivably competent: spare and direct, a master of dialogue and plotting. He composed a famous list of ten rules for writing. Entertaining, tongue in- and out-of-cheek, these rules, along with a brief elaboration, filled a 1000-word article in The New York Times. One reason this list remains popular is because the advice is, for the most part, specific. It doesn't tell you to "write like you are dancing at hell's barbecue:" it presents practical bits of wisdom.

First, the list:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"…he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

So, how often is this advice followed? Some measures are easy to tally, others are subjective. It is difficult to evaluate whether an author left out the part that readers tend to skip without arguing out an opinionated commentary. In contrast, how often the word "suddenly" appears is easy to track.

Making objective measurements.

  • Never open a book with weather. [This can be noted.]
  • Avoid prologues. [Prologues are often labeled. Even when they are not, their presence can be readily determined.]
  • Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. [I employed a "he said/she said" test. I searched for the words "he" and "she" as dialogue tags noting the accompanying verb.]
  • Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"…he admonished gravely. [I searched out each of the first fifty uses of "said" to see how many were modified by an adverb.]
  • Keep your exclamation points under control. [counted]
  • Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose." [counted, although the specific "all hell broke loose" is rare]
  • Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. [looked for dialect, but I'm not certain how to evaluate "sparingly" except in cases where the rule was clearly violated.] 
  • The final three rules ask for judgment calls as to what is detailed and what readers will tend to skip. These will not be analyzed.

The 19th Century

Perhaps another way of stating Leonard's rules are: Do not write like a 19th century author whose fainting couch overfloweth.

Let's begin with Edward Bulwer-Lytton. His 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, set the gold standard for the melodramatic openings with the sentence: 

    It was a dark and stormy night. . .

That excerpt represents no more than the beginning of the beginning. The opening sentence has 58 words with a semi-colon, a pair of parentheses and an emdash. 

 It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

If these sins weren't enough, the novel finishes with an exclamation point. The cryptic final sentence reads:

How many nothings swelled their author into a sage, ay, a saint, because they were strung together by the old hypocrite nun,—Gravity!

Or, maybe not cryptic if I bothered to read the 179,100 words in-between.

But then great writers break the rules, right?

Edward Bulwer-Lytton: Paul Clifford (1830) 179,200 words.

The list of sins.

45 suddenly's (2.5 per 10,000 words)
2200 exclamation marks!! (122.8 per 10,000 words)
Opens the book with weather.
Includes patois in the opening paragraph.
There were only 6 instances in the book of "he said" or "she said" marking dialogue in the book. In contrast there were 29 other he/she dialogue tags including: muttered four times, added three times, growled once, faltered twice, began twice, along with a myriad of other urgings and sobbings. (score: 17.1% said)
14 out of the first 50 incidents of "said" were modified by an adverb or adverbial phrase. (28% said/adverb)

Sometimes the modification of the "said" was long-winded.

"I will do my best, sir!" said Paul, with that modest yet noble simplicity which becomes the virtuously ambitious...

Sometimes it was concise:

said Dummie, approvingly
said she, good-humouredly
said the dame, fretfully

And then there was:

"I shall recover him yet!" he broke out suddenly and aloud.

which manages to break three rules all on its own. And it's an awful sentence.

Verdict: Edward Bulwer-Lytton broke six out of seven rules measured (no prologue) and did so with a rapturous gusto. He set the standard for all to not follow.

(In Paul Clifford's defense, this novel was of noble intent. It advocated against the indiscriminate hanging that was going in early 19th century England and relishes in its melodrama.)

Charles Dickens

Maybe this frothy writing style is not the fault of Bulwer-Lytton. Maybe the blame rests on the 19th century, a time when London was darker and stormier.

The period of the Industrial Revolution was inherently melodramatic. Consumptive waifs sold their dinners to scrape together enough money to buy dinner. Pickpockets raided poorhouses. Chimney sweeps were often mistaken for charred logs and were set on fire to warm houses made cold by Queen Victoria's frigid decrees. All hell broke loose and had to be replaced by a better, more well-anchored hell.

Let's look at Charles Dickens. Since this blog is primarily directed toward mysteries, I'll examine Bleak House.

Charles Dickens: Bleak House (1853). 353,400 words (nearly exactly double the length of Paul Clifford).

The list of sins.

36 suddenly's. (1.0 per 10,000 words)
2605 exclamation marks!! (73.7 per 10,000 words)
Begins with weather.
Preface in the author's voice (more of a note to the reader than a prologue).
Includes patois with first dialogue.
316 dialogue tags that begin with "he" or "she." "Said" represented only 80 instances. Dickens seemed to think that dialogue is a tennis game. He or she "returned," "replied," or "answered " 109 times and "resumed," "went on," or "continued" 17 times. (score: 25.3% said)
Of the first fifty instances where said appears as a dialogue tag, only five had adverb modifiers. (10% said/adverb)

Worst example:

"But since then," he gravely interposed. . .

Verdict: Dickens improved on Bulwer-Lytton's score in every department but still there was a long way to go.

Robert Louis Stevenson

To compare to the previous two and to represent the end of the 19th century, I chose another mystery set in Victorian London, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) 25,600 words.

The list of sins.

12 suddenly's. (4.7 per 10,000 words)
51 exclamation marks! (20 per 10,000 words)
46 dialogue tags that begin with "he" or "she." "Said" represented 22 entries while other verbs made up the remaining 24, a near parity. (score: 45.8%)
Of the first fifty instances where "said" appears as a dialogue tag, only one had an adverb modifier. (2% said/adverb)—said the doctor, a trifle sharply.

Verdict: A sudden explosion of suddenly's, but otherwise better on every other marker and remarkable for his use of the unadorned "said." Exclamation marks were coming under control. No prologue, beginning with weather, or patois. 

Conclusion: Stevenson's sofa was not used for fainting maidens.

To keep values on a similar scale, the rate of suddenly is per 100,000 words and the rate of exclamation marks is per 1,000 words. 
"said" represents the percentage of time the word "said" was used to denote dialogue (he said/she said, below) as compared to other words (he muttered/she muttered).
"said/adverb" refers to the percentage in the first fifty occurrences the word "said" had an adverb modifier.

Additional notes: For dialogue tags comparing said versus other terms, I undertook only a sampling. I searched using the restrictive string: "_he_ and "_she_. "he said in a whisper" was fine. "he whispered" was not. I did not examine "said he" or any character name or other pronoun.
For the modification of "said" I was strict in looking for an adverb or adverbial clause. "he said in a whisper" was fine. "he said softly" was not.

Continued in part two, The 20th Century.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. His latest mystery, Never Kill A Friend, is available from Ransom Note Press. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, recently won second place in the Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at


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