Leonard’s Ten Commandments

The writer Elmore Leonard, who died in 2013 at the age of 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 Tuesday, April 7, 2020, at 11:00 pm

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3 Comments on Leonard’s Ten Commandments

3 responses to “Leonard’s Ten Commandments”

  1. Sac says:

    Does Leonard have a book in the rules of writing? I do not see anything in a search of his works.

  2. Brenda R says:

    I agree with the theme of this article, but with reservations. Reservation #1: as illustrated by the examples, there are occasions where an amplification of “said” is appropriate; the thought that popped into my head was “Stop!” he shouted. Reservation #2: to those writers who insist upon writing everything from a first person viewpoint, usually times two, anything as straightforward as “said” is anathema, and thus unacceptable. Get over it, people. Reservation #3: I have read entire conversations written without any indication as to when the speaker changes. While this may legitimately occur while recounting a conversation between two characters alone, it can lead to some confusion, so any synonym for “said” would be a (vast) improvement. And sometimes, adverbs may be used to indicate the writer’s general tendency toward snark.

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