Writing Tip: Advice on Finding the Start of Your Story from Elmore Leonard

by Matilda Butler on June 28, 2010

catnav-alchemy-activePost #15 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Writing TipsIt’s Monday morning and Writing in Five time. Today’s video comes in at a record 2 minutes and 33 seconds. If you’d like to know the story behind my record breaking briefness, here’s the link to a post on Story Circle Network’s blog, Telling HerStory.

My topic for the video is taken from Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. In his final rule, Leonard tells us how to find the start of our story. As someone who never met a word she didn’t like, I value Leonard’s advice. Let’s get straight to the video and then I’ll share with you one of my favorite authors who had a hard time finding the start of his stories, at least for some of us.

Music: Enigma by Kevin MacLeod

My own penchant for lengthly writing just might have been influenced by James Michener. While in high school, I read Hawaii and became an instant fan. I suppose it is an exaggeration to say I was an instant fan since the book is 960 pages. Although I haven’t read all of his works, I have read many of his epic sagas — The Source (928 pages), Centennial (928 pages), Chesapeake (865 pages), The Covenant (879 pages), Texas (1096 pages — well the state is outsized in degree if not in land size), Alaska (868 pages), and Caribbean (a mere 672 pages).

For the first two novels, I read every word. Finally, I decided I could do without some of the history as I was eager to get on with the plot. I developed a rule of thumb–skip the first 200 pages and then start reading. Since then I’ve found others who read Michener’s books the same way. Confessing my shortcut to Kendra recently produced the news of one more person who did the same thing — her mother. I knew there was valuable information in the early part of these novels, but I still skipped to page 201.

Now you can see why I found Elmore Leonard’s advice so intriguing.

Of course, not all of Michener’s novels are physically heavy. His first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, published in 1947, was a mere 384 pages. He won the Pulitzer Prize for this story written while he was serving as a lieutenant stationed in the Pacific during World War II. His second novel, The Fire of Spring was 495 pages, adding another 100 plus pages. But it was the success of Hawaii, published in 1959 (also a Pulitzer Prize winner), that caused his publisher to urge him to put aside some of his shorter works and focus on his multigenerational epics. So, I guess I can’t blame him.

He eventually published a number of shorter novels including one (Journey, 1989, 224 pages) that was a short story cut from his novel Alaska.

This blog has a two part message. First, I’m interested, as always, to find out if the writing tip is helpful. Does the video give you something new to think about?

Second, I’d like to know if this quite brief video still conveys enough information.

I invite your comments below.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Amber Lea Starfire June 28, 2010 at

I like the video. It moves along quite nicely and tells the whole story (so to speak). I’ve always objected to having to listen to a narrator read what I can read for myself (boring!). And great tip, too!

emma June 29, 2010 at

This new video is awesome! If you were playing soccer, and I was goalie, I would say you kicked that ball to score and I never even saw it. Quick, to the point, and a reminder to for us to “kill your darlings” – that too much information and over-writing can bore a reader and kill a good story. Thanks!

Matilda Butler June 30, 2010 at

Hi Amber:

Thanks for this comments. I appreciate your advice to not read what is on the screen. I certainly have done that in many of my videos. Glad this one worked for you.

Matilda Butler June 30, 2010 at


Welcome. I don’t think I’ve seen you comment here. Glad you like the new video. Here’s to killing our darlings. This is especially true for me. I never met a word I didn’t like. I’ll try to be equally brief with my next video.


Irene July 3, 2010 at

A fan of Hemingway, all of it, I would have preferred a little more. I think most of us know that we have to grab the reader at the beginning. So the tip, while a good one, does not fulfill.

Janet Riehl July 3, 2010 at

Tip is the tip of the tip. But, a teasing tip.

Tip up! Tip out! Tip Trippingly.


Sandy Fackler July 3, 2010 at

I already knew this and have used it over and over. Novel: I cut 3-4 pages and have been known to cut a full chapter but that was more work, to work in the back story elsewhere.
Short fiction: I cut 1-2 pages
Poetry: I often drop the last stanza because I was done and didn’t know when to stop writing.

It always happens, I just thought I was a slow starter. So good to know some of the great writers have done this. I am never in love with “my purple prose” as one teacher called it. I can hack those li’l darlings to pieces in a millisecond without a backward glance.

Neat way to put up tips. I liked it. Thanks.

Matilda Butler July 3, 2010 at

Hi Irene:
Thanks for your comment. We like to know both what works and what doesn’t work.

In future videos, I’ll go for a bit more depth.

To me, there are two different topics about beginnings. The one I usually emphasize has to do with crafting the opening sentences and paragraphs in a way that will hook a reader. There are a number of techniques for doing that. We even have a video on YouTube covering the topic:

With a bit of luck that link will get you there.

The second part of beginnings has to do with where you actually start the story. I was hoping to capture Elmore Leonard’s point about this in my brief video. I’m sorry it didn’t work for you. Maybe our future videos will be helpful to you. Be sure to let us know.

Matilda Butler July 3, 2010 at


As always, you are on top of this. I would agree that this is just the tip of the tip. As with an iceberg, this is just the top of the tip (okay, now you have me doing it).

In all of our Writing in Five videos, Kendra and I just want to get writers thinking about their craft in new ways and incorporating the ideas into their work.

Thanks for viewing it.

Matilda Butler July 3, 2010 at


Thanks for giving us the details of how you “cut to the chase.” I’m glad you brought in your experience with endings. In the future, we’ll be posting a video about endings and will keep your point in mind.

One of my students read a powerful vignette in class last Saturday. It was powerful, that is, until she read the last three paragraphs. When I suggested that the story probably ended earlier, she agreed. She said that she wanted a happier ending and so had tacked on the additional material. She’s going to remove the rose-colored glasses portion and let the story end where it naturally does.

Thanks for commenting. Your thoughts help us.

Katrina Masterson July 3, 2010 at

LOVED it! You followed Leonard’s advice, got right down to it, and gave us just the right amount of learning content. I love these videos for that reason! I haven’t got a lot of time in between working and writing; so the learning alchemy video series is wonderful. Thank you!

Matilda Butler July 3, 2010 at


If we’d had a contest, you would have won. Thank you so much for your comment. You found my personal secret behind this video. It seemed to me that Leonard’s advice was indeed to get rid of the fluff and ho-ing and hum-ing we often put at the start of our writing. That’s actually what inspired me to see if I could get a point across in a brief format.

Kendra’s challenge simply had me determined to make a video in five minutes rather than my usual seven to nine minutes. Then, when I read Leonard’s tip, I realized I could cut out a lot of my usual script material and get to the “real” start of the video.

I didn’t think anyone would figure out my little conceit. Kudos to you.

Renee Cassese July 4, 2010 at

Sometimes getting into the start of the memoir is simple, like with my childhood memoir on living in Levittown. It had to begin with the actual move to that house. For my second memoir the chore is just that. Even after narrowing down the focus and theme for the book I still have a variety of points at which I can start writing. There are now five different beginnings in my writing journal. It’s a process and all the tips you offer are of great help. Thanks!

Matilda Butler July 4, 2010 at

Hi Renee:

Glad to hear that your writing is moving forward.

Yes, it isn’t always hard to determine where to begin your story. As you mention, sometimes the same writer may have difficulty one time and not the next.

Keep writing. You’ll find the start of your second memoir.

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