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(from introduction to Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life)

I once named a character Frank Matisse, but he acted older than his age; and for some reason he wouldn’t talk as much as I wanted him to. I changed his name to Jack Delany and couldn’t shut him up.

Because I use a lot of dialogue in my stories, the characters must be able to talk in interesting ways. So I audition them in opening scenes to see which ones will have important roles in the plot. If a character doesn’t speak the way I want him to, and changing his name doesn’t work, he could be demoted to a less important role.

The best kind of character is one who starts out in a minor role – sometimes without even having a name – and talks his way into the plot. He says a few words, and I see this guy has an interesting personality and I look for more ways to use him in the story.

I write my stories in scenes and always from a particular character’s point of view. Then I may rewrite the same scene from a different character’s point of view and find that it works better. After I finish a book, I continue to think about my characters and wonder what they’re up to.

ELMORE LEONARD (1925-2013) was the bestselling author of nearly forty books, including Get Shorty, La Brava, Cuba Libre, and Stick, many of which have been made into films.

SNOOPY’S GUIDE TO THE WRITING LIFE is available at books is out of print, but used copies are available for around $7.50 plus shipping.)

Photo: Elmore Leonard at his home in Michigan, photo by Carlos Osorio/AP, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


In honor of the great Elmore Leonard, who passed away on August 20, 2013, a few months from his 88th birthday, we feature his famous rules for good writing.


  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 — no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose
  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

Leonard’s most important rule that sums up the 10 — If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”

Illustration: B. Menace, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED