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Leonard’s Ten Commandments

The writer Elmore Leonard, who died last week at 87, was the master of hard-bitten prose. He started out as a pulp novelist, and went on to transcend the genre. Since the mid-1950s, more than forty of his works have been adapted for movies and TV, many of them featuring such A-listers as Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, and George Clooney. In his obituary, the Associated Press called the longtime Michigan resident “the Dickens of Detroit, the Chaucer of crime,” and said, “Few writers so memorably traveled the low road.”

The author’s seemingly effortless low-key, economical technique, with its affably nasty edge, has been the envy of many an aspiring novelist. In 2001, he wrote an article for the New York Times that contained ten rules for fiction writers. Anyone interested in the art and craft of writing is urged to seek out this compelling document online. Today we’ll deal with a couple of Leonard’s precepts.

Rule Three: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” This is good advice for essayists and journalists, too. Many writers worry that repeating “said” will make them look bad. So they start substituting words like “grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied” before reaching the end of the line (and of Leonard’s patience) with eyesores like “asseverated.”

Leonard is stressing that the quote is what matters, and “the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.” As William Zinsser says in his fine guide On Writing Well, “The reader’s eye skips over ‘he said’ anyway, so it’s not worth a lot of fuss.”

Which leads to Rule Four: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” Many great writers have a similar disdain for adverbs. Mark Twain said, “Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” Stephen King, another novelist who has achieved beyond his pulp pedigree, once wrote: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Some will be puzzled by this. But how is The town was completely destroyed or basically destroyed an improvement on The town was destroyed? When you become aware that in most cases, the likes of basically, completely, actually, definitely, and very are unnecessary, you start to understand adverb abhorrence.

One note about very: the distinguished journalist and author William Allen White (1868-1944) once called it “the weakest word in the English language.”

 

Pop Quiz

Despite Elmore Leonard’s commandments, some writers may prefer variations on “said” at appropriate times. There are no right answers to this quiz, but with Mr. Leonard in mind, rewrite any sentence below as you wish, and see if your instincts for staying out of the way of a good story are akin to ours.

1. Bob turned to Mary and offered, “You are the loveliest woman at the party.”

2. “I came here today and saw a whale,” she explained.

3. “Why are you here?” he asked.

“To see you,” I replied.

4. “Why, what a jolly surprise,” he smiled.

5. “Who is equivalent to he, and whom is equivalent to him,” I explained.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Bob turned to Mary and said, “You are the loveliest woman at the party.”

2. “I came here today and saw a whale,” she said. (Be careful with explained. In this sentence, nothing is “explained”; it’s just a statement of fact.)

3. “Why are you here?” he asked.

“To see you,” I replied. CORRECT

4. “Why, what a jolly surprise,” he said. (Have you ever heard anyone smile?)

5. “Who is equivalent to he, and whom is equivalent to him,” I explained. CORRECT

 

Posted on Monday, August 26, 2013, at 2:22 pm


2 Comments

2 Responses to “Leonard’s Ten Commandments”

  1. Oliver M. says:

    Agree with most things you send, they help me in my writing efforts (thanks)… but cannot agree with Rule Three: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”

    To me, there is a lot of difference between “He Shouted. ‘Stop.’” and “He said, ‘Stop.’” Or “She cried out loudly, ‘But I love you, please don’t go.’” and “She said, ‘But I love you, please don’t go.’”

    But then again, who am I to question?

    • Jane says:

      I imagine that Mr. Leonard is talking specifically about his approach to hard-boiled fiction. Notice in our Pop Quiz we said, “Despite Elmore Leonard’s commandments, some writers may prefer variations on ‘said’ at appropriate times.” And note that the answers to questions 3 and 5 use verbs other than “said.”

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