Elmore Leonard

  1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
  2. Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’sSweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.
  5. Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.


Popular books and video games, especially franchises, are commonly adapted into movie versions. Books include Harry Potter, Twilight, and the new Jack Reacher film. Video games include Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, and Resident Evil. There are many, many more.

Sometimes the movies are considered good but more often the adaptations are not as popular as the book or game the movie is based on. Here’s why:

In the movie-making industry, there is a general belief that movies are the highest form of art. This belief is rarely stated out loud but many surely hold this view and that’s where I believe most movie adaptations fall flat.

Because this is no longer true. It probably was once, but this is no longer the case.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When consumers are given a choice of mediums only one will be considered canon.  

Video games that provide the player with only 10 or 20 hours of entertainment are considered short. Role-playing games (RPGs) are expected to contain 40 to 60 hours of gameplay. Other genres vary, but all contain enough content for many hours of entertainment. In comparison, most movies come in at a paltry 2 hours of running time and thus simply can’t compete with other forms of a given story for dominance. 

One of the reason popular books and movies get adapted in the first place is that they have a built-in fanbase. The fans become the first set of movie-goers but they always expect to see their beloved story dramatized on the big screen. In the case of video games, which are already in a visual format, there is simply so much more content, so much more depth, that any movie will always feel small or rushed in comparison. Additionally in the case of books, the reader’s imagination is employed to visualize the story which is inherently personal and subjective. More often than not, the high expectations of the fanbase (which grew up around the original format for the story) are not met and sometimes they are virtually dashed to pieces.

Unfortunately for Hollywood, the highest form of art is a preference chosen by the consumer. Thus fans of the franchise, having spent much more time with the original version, of any given material will, when faced with the choice of two competing interpretations of the same story, usually choose the original.

Lastly, while books are almost always linear (the Choose Your Own Adventure series is a notable exception), video games excel at creating custom stories tailored to the choices of the player which usually result in very non-linear stories. Movies are purely linear (with notable exceptions like Clue (1985) which included 3 different endings). Thus movies simply can’t compete with the detailed, multi-dimensionally-rich stories available to players of a video game.

Avoiding these traps is simple. Make sure your movie isn’t trying to compete with the source material for dominance. Shape this dynamic as a both-and scenario rather than letting it devolve into an either-or competition. This means the screenplay must either tell the exact same story (exactly matching the source material or be very, very close) or tell a side story (something that can stand alone but adds to the mythos or the world of the franchise but is not required knowledge for engagement with the source material). Fans are usually not lenient of excessive creative license. And since a movie rises or falls based on the perceptions of its fanbase, it’s first viewers, it’s best to keep them happy. If they don’t like a movie, they will tell their friends to stay home.

Let’s apply this dynamic to two well-known franchises: Harry Potter and Twilight.

Which Harry Potter Movies get this Right?

The 1st through 4th Harry Potter movies get this dynamic right along with 7A. Watching these movies is essentially reading the books although book 4 is notable for being so long that a lot of details had to be left out and the plot simplified.

Movie 7B gets this dynamic wrong. Book 7 ends quite differently with all the loose ends nicely tied up. Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, decided to make changes to Rowling’s great ending in an attempt to give us something different when what the fans wanted to see was the book’s ending. My viewing of 7B was … disappointing.

By the way, Harry Potter 5 is a special case (and the primary exception to this dynamic) in that the source material wasn’t conducive to the big screen. Book 5 contains a lot of introspection by Harry which is difficult to visualize so the movie strays a lot from the book. The beginning and ending are essentially the same but everything in between had to be completely restructured to be suitable for a movie. (This movie also breaks continuity when the walls to the Room of Requirement are destroyed, an event that does not happen in the books and is depicted as being impossible. That room remaining intact is required for book 7’s plot so lots of problems here.)

Harry Potter 6 was, in my opinion, another exception to this dynamic. I think the movie was an improvement over the book version which I felt wandered a bit. In the movie version of book 6, the sides and stakes are made much clearer than in the book.

Which Twilight Movies get this Right?

Twilight 1 is like Harry Potter 6. The existing content from the book was restructured to make a stronger story. Except for a few scenes in the book that didn’t make it into the movie, I prefer the movie version.

Twilight movies 2, 3, and 4A get the dynamic right. They essentially provide fans the movie versions of the same stories from the books without much creative license.

Twilight movie 4B, however, pulls a fast one. The movie breaks continuity by putting us into the mind of the villain as he watches the future unfold from touching Alice. This is a neat visual trick but like Harry Potter 7B it is played for the shock value of offering something different. The chapters in the book corresponding to the final battle are highly introspective on the part of Bella (like Harry Potter 5) making this perhaps the best choice. I think they get away with it even though it breaks continuity regarding Alice’s gift.


Screenwriters, Directors, and Producers: Meet the expectations of the fans by telling them the story they already love, the story that was strong enough to convince you to make the movie in the first place. If this isn’t possible, craft a completely new story to supplement the source material. The fans will love you for expanding the story universe and your movie will be popular because it will be the only place they can get this new content.

FoxTrot Comic Strip for June 9th, 2013

FoxTrot is my favorite comic strip. It covers all the topics I enjoy–education, technology, writing, and family living.

On a recent podcast of Writing Excuses, specifically Season 8 Episode 17: Microcasting, Mary Kowal explained her process for using Alpha and Beta readers. There are many, many ways to do this but I found her method very instructive. Here are my notes:

  • Alpha readers receive chapters one at a time, and stay about two chapters behind where Mary is currently writing her work-in-progress (WIP).
  • Beta readers receive her WIP all in one chunk. They focus on the work as a whole. Mary asks them to essentially flag problems by identifying:
    • areas that Bore them,
    • areas that Confuse them,
    • things they don’t Understand,
    • things they don’t Believe, and
    • things that are Cool (so she doesn’t change them and remove the coolness factor).
  • Editors, Agents, and other Industry Professionals see Mary’s WIPs only after going through this process so they can be in as final a state as possible.

In the podcast Mary promised to share a link to an external source and she did: Alpha-Reading by Laura A. Christensen. This excellent post details the things a writer needs to know from their readers:

  1. Clarity.  Do you understand what is going on? Can you picture the setting and the characters in your head? Can you see where everyone is in relationship to each other?  Was the fight scene confusing? Is my word choice obscure?
  2. Impact.  Was this part funny or did it fall flat?  Do you like these characters at this moment? Are you frustrated with them? Do you love them? Are you afraid? Is this intense? Are you bored? Do you wish you could stop reading? Do you feel like you’re there with the characters?  Was this part a tear-jerker or were you annoyed?  Was the ending satisfying or did I drop the ball?
  3. Believability.  How are my characters’ reactions? Does this feel plausible to you?  Is this the way you handle a gun in your experience?  Do I need to do further research about xyz?  Does my fight scene feel real? Does this fit together and make sense?
  4. Interest.  Does this fascinate you the way it fascinates me?  Are you hooked?  Is this too much detail or not enough?

All in all, this seems like sage advice. Thanks to both for sharing.

Groundhog Day

I just finished listening to an excellent podcast about one of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day. It was part of The 20/20 Awards, a show on Kiro Radio in Seattle, WA that re-evaluates the Oscar nominees from twenty years ago. A neat concept to be sure.

Listen here: Episode 9 – GROUNDHOG DAY

I was struck by one of the commenters’ statements about target audiences and his point is worth repeating: Writers should NOT define the target audience for their work until it is complete. 

This sounds radical given today’s market-driven society but put into historical context makes perfect sense. Only recently has Hollywood sold out to the marketing bean counters. In years past (think Hitchcock or anything before the early ’80s), writers, directors, producers, and actors simply tried to make the best movie they could. Pixar does this now but everyone else tries to define their story in terms of target audience near the beginning of their creative process. On a side note, I suspect this has something to do with the change Brian McDonald noticed in movies released after about 1984. That was probably when Hollywood integrated marketing ideas into key positions in the movie creation process.

This is a mistake for several crucial reasons:

First, it takes the focus away from trying to craft the best story possible. Instead the creative process is restricted and pigeonholed by whatever the writer “thinks” their target audience wants.

  • Teen boys are only interested in muscular heroes, scantily clad girls, and exploding helicopters.
  • Older women only want romances set at the turn-of-the-century, during the civil war, or in Amish country.
  • The only Science Fiction stories that people watch involve zombies or vampires.

Secondly, can you see the stereotypes developing here? Everyone knows that stereotypes are to be avoided yet identifying a work’s target audience at the beginning of a project seems to encourage their use.

Thirdly and worse yet, if every writer is doing this then every story from every writer will start to sound the same. Isn’t a lack of originality already a problem in stories these days? You bet and defining the target audience too early encourages this practice too.

Fourthly, it seems to lead to bad idea generation. I’ve heard several different story ideas over the past several years about crossing Vampires with Zombies (but that’s usually as far as the ideas get):

Bob: Hey Joe! I’ve got a great idea! Since teenage girls love vampires and zombie movies are hot right now too, why not mix the two? We could make a fortune writing the next Twilight about Vambies! Or Zompires! Or both!!!
Joe: Awesome idea! We’ll get an Oscar for sure! And let’s add in werewolves! We can call them Werepires and maybe Werebies. Err… What would you call a werewolf half-breed?
Bob: It doesn’t matter. We’ll make a fortune!!!

Please note that these are roundly considered “bad” ideas but note where they originate. They come from thinking about the target audience at the beginning.

Finally, related to the problems of originality and stereotyping there is a sort of lowest-common-denominator dynamic at work. Instead of writers trying to best one another with better and better stories, the focus has shifted to who can wring the most money out of the public with the least amount of effort. It’s a race to the bottom. Such systems are unstable and short-lived. They tend to favor the worst in quality and always encourage the use of base motivators like fear, sex, and greed. We can do better.

Again, defining your target audience early is a flat-out bad idea. The great directors of the past were always trying to make the best movies they could. We should emulate them and not fall into the trap of trying to market a product that doesn’t yet exist. From now on, focus on writing the best story you can. If anyone asks, your Target Audience is Everyone. You can always redefine it later. Better yet, since most writers don’t possess marketing degrees, leave that decision for the marketing department to figure out.

Neil Gaiman and his dog, Cabal. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Neil Gaiman and his dog, Cabal. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

I need to correct something. The quote at the top of this webpage–the source of the name for this blog–has been misattributed.

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

The above is not a quote by G. K. Chesterton but Neil Gaiman. It is from his 2002 novel, Coraline. This quote is apparently often misattributed to Mr. Chesterton because the sentiment is his. Here is Mr. Chesterton’s real quote on the topic:

Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.

Mr. Gaiman was a fan of Mr. Chesterton’s works in his youth and rephrased the sentiment in his 2002 novel. But the actual quote used for this blog is Gaiman’s.

I suppose it’s one of those quotes that’s simply easy to misattribute like the famous “Play it again, Sam” from the movie Casablanca. That exact wording doesn’t appear in the movie though many people who’ve seen the film will swear it is. If you watch the film, you’ll see that it is in fact not phrased that way.

So, what do I mean by The Golden Rule of Apologetics? It’s a phrase I heard from a podcast I subscribe to called I Didn’t Know That! Perhaps you’ve heard of the Golden Rule often stated as:

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

The apologetics version is:

Treat other people’s arguments as you would have them treat your own.

In this instance, they both mean attributing the quote to the right person. So to Mr. Gaiman I would like to say the following:

I’m sorry for any trouble this has caused. I really love the quote and wish I’d had it correct from the beginning. I hope you can forgive my error.

I was alerted to the problem while searching online when I came upon a quote page at Goodreads. It had the quote but a different attribution. I was confused until I noticed the tag, misattributed-to-g-k-chesterton. So I researched the matter, discovered the truth, and wrote this post.

Personally, I know what it feels like to be misunderstood and I hate that feeling. I imagine being misquoted or misattributed is similar. And as an aspiring writer, I would hate for something I wrote to be misattributed so I must correct this error. Again, my apologies.

One more thing. Apologetics, unlike many might think, has nothing to do with making an apology. Lest I unintentionally reinforce this common misunderstanding while trying to right a different wrong, I feel I must explain it too.

Apologetics is “the discipline of defending a position (often religious) through the systematic use of information [and logical argumentation]. Early Christian writers (c. 120–220) who defended their faith against critics and recommended their faith to outsiders were called apologists.” (Source: Wikipedia) It is an irony that this post is about an apology. Nothing more. But the podcast I recently listened to was about the Golden Rule of Apologetics, not merely the Golden Rule, so my source for the title of the post is the apologetic version of the rule. I hope that’s clear.

This post is a corollary to my previous post on character admissions. I’ve seen the following issue many times but most recently in DreamWorks’ Puss in Boots. It is a minor complaint in this particular film so if you haven’t seen it yet, do so before reading on. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of an excellent film because there are spoilers below.

Puss-in-Boots with Humpty

Humpty and Puss’ grew up together as friends. They were both mischievous in their younger years (pictured above) but Puss had an opportunity to turn his life around. Humpty later tricks Puss into helping him with one last job – robbing the local bank. When Puss discovers the deception, he whispers in his friend’s hearing:

‘You tricked me.’

True to life, if you were tricked into committing a crime, the first thing out of your mouth would probably also be, ‘You tricked me!’ The problem is, that is the last time Puss ever utters those words.

Any normal person wrongly accused of a crime would repeat this truth to everyone they met – especially the authorities – until they listened. Characters should speak the truth. 

Yet Puss says this only once and only in the hearing of the one who betrayed him who already knew it. He never mentions it again. Not when confronted with the local authorities and not in front of his mother. Both of which happen multiple times.

Worse yet, at the end of the film Puss admits to being guilty for a crime he didn’t commit rather than utter those three simple words. Puss didn’t rob the bank. Humpty did and it was Humpty who got Puss to help under false pretenses.

Speaking precisely, the flaw being identified is a form of misunderstanding that occurs when a character fails to express their proper motivation. Puss being misunderstood is required for the plot of the film. Puss in Boots is fabulous otherwise. It is well-written and Humpty’s dialogue is some of the best I’ve ever experienced. DreamWorks really shines with their dialogue and especially their voicework.

The flaw is actually much more prominent in another genre of film: Romantic Comedies. I can’t remember a recent romcom that didn’t include this flaw and I confess I’ve quit watching them like so many movie goers. Misunderstandings are fine premises as stories go. They are certainly common enough and can be done correctly, but misunderstandings in real life are almost never based on one character in jeopardy failing to state the obvious truth when given the opportunity. Yet this limp-dish-rag variety of misunderstanding has become a staple of the romcom.

Bottom Line: Don’t write characters this way. Don’t even use such a motivation as a placeholder in your development process. This problem – the natural expression of a character’s motivation – is avoidable simply by removing the ability for the character to express it. So, suppress the truth. Put a gag in that character’s mouth for that scene, either physically or metaphorically. Write in a boisterous character that won’t let the truth be heard. Better yet, tie this boisterous character into the plot by giving them something to lose if the truth got out. Give them the motivation to prevent the truth coming out even if it is as simple as the guard in Puss in Boots swearing to bring him in if it’s the last thing he ever does.

Puss has no gag and nothing to lose by speaking the truth. In fact he has everything to gain and since Humpty has presumable already paid for his crime, nothing he says will harm his former friend. All of which is why this bit of Puss’ character falls flat. Admittedly, DreamWorks attempted to plug this hole in the final scene with a plea by Puss’ mother to not fight the guards before he had an opportunity to speak. But in all honesty he’d already had that opportunity multiple times and didn’t take any of them.

Remember, speak the truth or suppress it. Those are the only two acceptable options.

If you want to know more of the ills applicable to the romcom, as well as where they shine, I invite you to visit the Living the Romantic Comedy blog by Billy Mernit. If you haven’t seen Puss in Boots and are reading this, then do yourself a favor and cue up the movie on Netflix. Despite this flaw, it’s a very fun family-friendly movie with lessons about friendship, loyalty, and redemption.


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