When my teenage son picked up Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Good Writing, it fell open to Rule 3: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”
“I wish my teachers could read this,” my son said. “They tell us not to use ‘said.’ They think other words make us sound better, like we have a bigger vocabulary.”
Which is precisely Elmore Leonard’s point: Good writing is not about the writer (and the way he sounds or the size of her vocabulary), but about the story.
The writer must remain invisible.
Leonard explains Rule 3: “The line of dialogue belongs to the character. The verb is the writer sticking his nose in… ‘[S]aid’ is far less intrusive than ‘grumbled,’ ‘gasped,’ or ‘cautioned.’”
Ditto for asseverated, a word that once sent him in search of a dictionary, thus breaking the spell of the story he was reading.
But just switching to “said” isn’t enough. With tongue in cheek, Leonard spells out Rule 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.”
Leonard would have writers scrap boring details like weather, scenery, and what characters look like. Pitch-perfect dialogue should bring the story to life: Who the characters are, how they feel, why they act as they do.
This book appeared originally as an article in The New York Times in 2001, titled “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points, and Especially Hooptedoodle.”
Clever line drawings by Joe Ciardiello spice things up.
“Hooptedoodle” was John Steinbeck’s name for “pretty words” that butt in between the reader and the story. Yet Leonard allows for just a little, as handled by the masters – for example Margaret Atwood’s scenery and Jim Harrison’s landscapes.
It’s hard to argue with this master of the craft who started publishing in the mid-1950s and whose books soar to the top of bestseller lists.
A few of his rules won’t stir up trouble: Avoid the word “suddenly,” use regional dialect sparingly, write in scenes from the point of view of the character whose view can best bring the scene to life.
But Rule 10 may raise hackles: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” This means “thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.” Says he: “I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”
Leonard’s most important rule sums up the rest: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
I snatch the book from my son before he gets to the next page, too libertine for his impressionable mind: “…if proper [English] usage gets in the way, it may have to go.”