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08:06 am: Wright's Writing Corner: I Have Met The Enemy And It Is…Elmore Leonard


I have for some time now been a combatant in an undeclared war with a modern school of style that tries to push itself forward as “correct” writing—as if it were grammar—instead of as a style school. I knew this school got its start from Hemingway and that many authors follow it. But it is has recently become so popular that writing teachers are teaching it as if it is good writing instead of opinion.

he other day, I stumbled by accident onto Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing. They include:


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 to get 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.'' .


And this is EXACTLY what I keep hearing, almost word for word.


Hearing from whom?


Mainly from would-be writers who learned it from college classes or writing books. Though, occasionally, I have run into it with editors and copyeditors. (The copyeditor for Prospero In Hell changed all my “'xxx,' she sighed"s to “'xxx,' she said, sighing."--I, of course changed them back.)

Who have I never heard this from?

Readers. People who read books and like books but don’t study writing.

What does this mean?


It means that it is currently being taught as “good writing”. The same way not using run-ons and having a plot are good writing. But this is not a matter of good writing, it is a style—the same way using the address “Dear Reader” was a style a previous era.


Well, I would formally like to declare war with this school of style, until at which time they back off and admit that they are a preference, not a matter of good writing (much less a mortal sin!)




Because I don’t agree that their ideas—which make great mysteries and Hemingway books—are necessarily good for other types of books.


Have you ever read a Elmore Leonard book? He’s a mystery writer—a good one, I understand, who sells really well. He writes great dialogue. It’s short and quick, to the point, and utterly readable. But it is also almost skeletal in format and short on description.


They are very popular, but I do not read them. Why? Because I want in my book the very kind of thing that he leaves out.


Tone of voice is very important to me. I want to be able to hear it in my head. I really like it when the author tells me what it is. To me, that is not the author “imposing himself.” It is the author faithfully reporting sense impressions.


If the guy is cheerful as opposed to sad, I want to know it!*


Now, Mr. Leonard and also Steven King believe that character’s intent should be obvious from dialogue. I cannot help wondering if they have ever heard people read their books out loud—by people other than themselves.  I have heard things John or I read aloud. I have heard the same phrase read aloud twice, each time with a different take that completely contradicted each other.


This is all very well and fine, people can read things any way they want—unless the emotions of the speaker matters. When does it matter? When the character’s emotional reaction is significant or, and more importantly, when the speaker’s words and tone of voice are at odds.


Some modern writers respond to this by saying “Indicate emotion with body action. Body action is how we assess emotion. Just have dialogue and descriptive action.”


Well, that is okay. In fact, I would say much of the time, it is great…but, as I explained in last weeks post, you are still left at the mercy of misunderstandings. If the reader happens to think that same action means something else, your meaning is lost.


With adverbs and descriptive vocal words, the meaning is never lost.


Let’s use an example:


“Everyone in my family is an idiot,” he said.


“Everyone in my family is an idiot.” He threw up his hands and twirled in a circle.


“Everyone in my family is an idiot,” he chirped cheerfully, throwing up his hands and twirling in a circle.


Anyone who got the same image from reading the first sentence that they did from the last one can drop out now. You do not need adverbs.


Sentence one automatically conveys an image of someone complaining, perhaps of bitterness.


Sentence two might give the impression of someone speaking lightly, or, it might cause the reader to scratch their head and say, “Wha…huh? Why is his twirling? This writer makes no sense.”


Sentence three is perfectly clear. The speaker’s words are at odds with his lighthearted, cheerful attitude. (And anyone who has read Prospero Lost can now recognize the speaker. (See picture at top.) I picked him for two reasons. One, he's the only character I write about who does anything so outrageous as "chirp". Two, he routinely says words that are at odds with his attitude and tone of voice.;-)


When I was a kid, I loved Anne McCaffery. I remember counting the words she used for “said” one day: he laughed, she smiled, he grinned, she chortled, etc. I counted 22.

I cannot express the admiration I felt for her as a teenager for being able to come up with 22 words for said, and I loved her books. I still love those same books. I still admire her use of descriptive vocal words.

Pick up almost any older children’s book, Whinny the Pooh, Ramona the Pest, and you will find them filled with descriptive terms and adverbs. Why? Because children’s authors understand that children want to know. Simple, clearly, they want to know how the speaker is speaking. This matters to children. Is he angry? Is she happy?

It matters to me, too.

Now, before I close, I must take a moment to clarify. For the most part, Elmore Leonard and his ilk are right. If you can chop an adverb, do it. They are better when used lightly, like spice. If you can convey what you want just by an active description, that is even better. It's more vivid, more evocative.

"Everyone in my family is an idiot," he said, may serve just as well, or even better, as "Everyone in my family is an idiot," he grumbled, for instance, because most readers will assume the guy is speaking in a negative tone of voice. One does not need to pause to say so.

So, it is not their advice in general I object to, but the universality of it. I do not mind, “As a rule, go lightly on adverbs.” But that is a very different thing from, “Using adverbs is a mortal sin…like murder and theft.”


It is the turning of a style suggestion into a hard and fast rule that I stand against.


Many of you know that I am a founding member for the Society of the Redemption of Adverbs.  However, I am beginning to think that a society is not enough.


No, my friends, what we need is a rival school—a school of style that stands up for more colorful and explanatory dialogue tags.


The burning question that remains is: What should this new style school be called?



Your suggestions welcomed!







*Mr. Leonard is also against excess use of exclamations!!!!!!   ;-)


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[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 01:30 pm (UTC)
Well said! (ummm, stated...exhorted...explained...asserted...)

Edited at 2010-02-24 01:30 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 01:44 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 01:35 pm (UTC)
When I was in middle school, we were asked to write in the style of Hemingway. I nailed it so completely that they published it in the G & T newsletter. "(fill in my name here) writes in the style of Ernest Hemingway" was the caption.
It is just -a- style. It is easy to copy. And those points you bring up are just the grammatical aspects. To truly write like Hemingway, you must pick something as mundane and boring to most people as plain white flour, add some salty wisdom (feigned or otherwise), work in some lardy pillows of pretension and then add just enough water to the vocabulary so that it's approachable to everyman.
Voila. A Hemingway redux. But like the pie crust recipe I was emulating, a plain as pie crust story isn't worth a thing without some filling. If you add pecan filling, you get Eudora Welty.
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
That's the best analisys of Hemingway I've ever read. You are right. You have nailed him!
Date:February 24th, 2010 02:02 pm (UTC)

Well written

The best explanation I've seen on when to use adverbs. Thank you!
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
Hemmingway came up through journalism. His style attributes much to that, and at the time it came out was likely a refreshing change from some of the more overblown contemporary voices.

One of the reasons I generally avoid critique circles these days is because I got tired of hearing people spout off these types of rules as if they were gospel truth, and most often in situations where they just don't understand the rules they are shouting about.

Joan Rowling has no problems with adverbs, using words other than said, or using "ly" words to modify the dialog tag said. I think anyone with an ounce of brainpower would have to agree, it's hardly hurt her career.

Rececntly, I've seen it bandied around that the war on adverbs wasn't enough, but we have to add adjectives now to the verboten list. Pure insanity that will soon be espoused througout the internet until every story will consist nothing more than nouns and verbs.

I don't know about you, but I like a bit more to my fiction than: See Dick run.
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 02:42 pm (UTC)
>I got tired of hearing people spout off these types of rules as if they were gospel truth, and most often in situations where they just don't understand the rules they are shouting about


The problem with these ideas is that they are looking at certain books that sell and saying, "These books sell and have quality X so quality X sells."

But this is not necessarily true.

First, Quality X may not be why those books sell. It could be incidental.

Second, Quality X may make a certain kind of book sell better, all else being equal, but that does mean that a, all things are equal or b, every book is that kind.

Third, selling quickly is not the only measure of succses. I can think of many, many writers who have written in a brisk style and sold a lot of books. But few who have written that way and their books are still read twenty five or fifty years later.

To last, a book has to have depth and, often, richness, which must be sacrificed for speed.

It reminds me in a way of candy. Sweetness is a signal to our brain that a fruit is ripe and good to eat. Candy is taking that signal and multiplying it without other qualities that make fruit good for us. Candy tasts good, but doesn't fill us.

What makes a book "quick to read. I could not put it down" is not necessarily what makes it great. Potatoe chips are quick to eat, and I can't put them down, but they are not filling.

I am reminded of The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison. It took me a month to read that book, and I'm a quick reader. There was just too much to read quickly. But I loved it! I named my son after the hero (Lord Juss).

There is more to life--and books--than quick readability.
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC)
Well, there are said-bookisms and then there are said-bookisms.

There are the impossible ones. "Nothing," he polevaulted.

And there are the ones you can actually say. But even there, I find that the ones that describe tone -- "chirped" for instance -- tend to work better than the explanatory ones -- "explained" -- which are much more likely to be redundant.

Or, worse, not redundant. "'Shut up,' he explained" is funny in context but I've read ones that were not intended to be someone. A man is trying to argue some people into leaving danger, and he "admits" that the danger was his fault and not theirs. That's not an admission, something made reluctantly and against interest; it's an argument, made eagerly, even.
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 02:58 pm (UTC)
I am offended by the very term 'said bookisms', which is why I did not use it.

It is ridiculous, hard to say, and means nothing. No one could figure out from the words what they meant if someone did not explain them.

While I admit that these words can be used incorrectly, (really, one very seldom has a good excuse for "chirped". I use it with Mephisto, but unless I write a bird character of something, I'll probably never use it again.)but I love them all. In fact, I've never been much of a fan of said.

But, yeah, they have to be used both correctly. "Shut up," he explained is hilarious, but it's hard to imagine a place it could be used correctly, unless the explained were followed with something like, "is a phrase that means be quiet." ;-)
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)

My preference is to use actions, and in particular "tells" - the small, involuntary actions a body makes - to enhance dialog. But I'm not 100% adverse to adverbs. Like a strong spice, they can be used to great effect when used sparingly.

And of course, with children's literature, (or adult literature that takes the affect of children's literature) all the rules are different. I find that I return again and again to The Phantom Tollbooth as a model:

"I never thought of it that way," Milo admitted.

"Then I suggest you begin at once," admonished the Dodecahedron from his admonishing face, "for here in Digitopolis everything is quite precise."
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 03:29 pm (UTC)

I think that many fantasies are in the same emotional catagory as children's novels and want to achieve a similar mood.

That being said, they don't have to be. It's equally possible to write a fantasy in thriller mode, which is basically what we are dicussing, and have it be really engaging.

[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 03:47 pm (UTC)

"Those cobs are amazing!" said Tom cornily.


And of course, it could all be Edward Stratemeyer's fault.

[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)

Re: "Those cobs are amazing!" said Tom cornily.

In some ways it is. Steven King lists Tom Swift when he complains about adverbs. But my husband loved Tom Swift when he was a kid, and my sons have heard a few of the books. His cornyness...the perfect example...is part of his charm to young boys.

Boys Life still has Tom Swifties in it's joke section, which are statements just like your subject above. (A Tom Swiftie from this month reads: "'Fix the tire,'Tom said flatly."

One guy overdoing something doesn't make it wrong for the rest of us. ;-)
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 04:14 pm (UTC)
THANK YOU. I read that too and was also mad.

I don't know what to call more colorful writing, but we could call the style Elmore Leonard advocates "The Heming Way".
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 04:19 pm (UTC)
Oh, that's much funnier than "The Said Activists" which is what I was mentally calling them. ;-)
Date:February 24th, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
THANK YOU for this!
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 04:19 pm (UTC)
You are welcome!
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC)
Well, my creative writing teacher at school certainly never would have agreed with such stringent rules. However, that was 7 years ago. Much may have changed since then.

Apply the Tolkien test to it, then: Did Tolkien use words besides "said" whenever someone spoke? Yes. Then it's ok. ^_^

He was far and away a better writer than Hemingway in any case. If we are going to imitate the masters, we should pick the real masters.
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC)
I nearly included a quote from Tolkien to support my case. ;-)
Date:February 24th, 2010 05:29 pm (UTC)

rules for writing

Brilliant! As I heard in a marvelous class I just attended on breaking rules...Rules are merely guidelines. There are times to break them, and times to follow them. It depends on the character, the story, and the writer. And most of these so-called "rules" do come from writers like myself, who are desperate to break into this industry. I think most editors don't care about rules. They just want a fantastic story.
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC)

Re: rules for writing

This reminds me of a conversation I had in English class in Tenth Grade. It was Mrs. Tompkin's class, she was just superb. But I remember holding up a Steinbeck book we were reading, probably Grapes of Wrath and pointing out that I had counted five sentences starting with "And". If we were not to start a sentence with "And", why did he?

She replied that master writers knew when to break the rules to get the effects they wanted, our job, in Tenth Grade, was to learn the rules.

But, of course, this is slightly different. This is a group of people who are trying to make a rule out of something that is just a style preference.

If Elmore Leonard had called his thing something like "10 Rules to Writing Fast Mystery Thrillers" I would not be resentful. ;-)
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 06:22 pm (UTC)

The dimbulbs strike again

Yes, Jo Rowling is the ultimate example of someone who doesn't obey the "he said" rules and readers still enjoy the heck out of her books. I could point out SEVERAL flaws in her prose, but I don't want her fans to rise up and slap me. The readers don't even NOTICE this stuff, honestly. It's just the critique groupies.

These "know-it-alls" have probably never read Hemingway. Hemingway uses semicolons! Yes! It's true! In _The Sun Also Rises_, he even uses adverbs. Did you know that "when" and "tomorrow" are adverbs? Yes! I realize these /i/d/i/o/t/s/ well-meaning types don't want to hear it, but adjectives and adverbs, even the said-book (as they call it), are useful. They wouldn't know cadenced prose if it fell from a tenth-story window onto their shiny new Priuses, but sometimes cadenced descriptive prose is exactly what's called for. A droning monotone does not hold my interest as a reader. Of course, it seems to be what's always called for, despite the party line that people love "a new voice."

The problem is twofold. One, we're in an age of "ten simple rules." Everyone wants ten simple rules to follow, and when they get their mitts on 'em, they promulgate them and enforce them. The trouble is that many, MANY agents and editors have been poisoned into believing these rules, even though before they are initiated, they were doing perfectly well with the adverbs as readers. Many times my work is praised by the agent's new assistant and I am told to hang on while he/she goes to show it to the agent, and the agent blows the assistant out of the water, saying my work is a whale when he only takes barracudas. The assistant soon learns not to trust his/her reader instincts and develops a new set of instincts for what they believe will sell. Alas! Everything gets dumbed down (instead of having a spectrum of choices).

The more insidious problem is that we are writing for people who don't really like to read. An old-style reader loves to hear what's going on in a character's mind and likes to have the scene set and commented on a bit. The new readers have come from movies with car crashes every 10 minutes and flashing MTV quick-cut video, ever since Sesame Street childhoods, and they don't like to read the "old" way. They want a cinematic experience from their books. SO we have to write screenplays--and we can't even resort to the sparkling wit of snappy dialogue that used to characterize screwball comedies and many 1940s flicks. If you have banter, they want you to cut it and put in "ACTION ONLY ACTION." Well . . . in my life, there's a lot of action that isn't PHYSICAL BOOM BOOM GO GO GO. But they don't perceive it as action.

Elmore Leonard's work won't last the ages. His stuff is fairly outlandish (the characters do things that no one would do, even an irrational person) and has to be taken with a HUGE saltlick, PLUS I find it very shallow because there's never any serious introspection or Moral To The Story sort of stuff. You don't have to bonk readers over the heads with philosophy, but they should feel that they got SOMEthing out of the book, such as some point to having read it. I like to have a new perspective when I finish a book, at least for a short time afterward. And before you say, "Go back to re-reading Phil Dick and Vonnegut and shuddup," I'll mention that I re-read the Shell Scott books by Richard Prather regularly, and I find them NOT shallow at all . . . oddly enough.

ANYhow. Go back and actually READ Papa Hemingway, and judge for yourself whether he is ONLY subject-verb-object. He isn't. He can even get off a nice descriptive paragraph now and then (try A MOVEABLE FEAST and read about Paris and Gertrude Stein, if you can stomach her. *grin*)

I'll be linking to your post! You might want to fix the typos in "Hemingway," though, because my crowd is That Kind . . . like me.
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC)

Re: The dimbulbs strike again

The extra m's are no more. ;-)
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
"First they came for the verbs, and I said nothing, because verbing weirds language. Then they arrival for the nouns, and I speech nothing because I no verbs."

--Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 08:15 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 09:57 pm (UTC)

No More Guilt

This is GREAT to read (yes, great as in ALL-CAPS). Whenever I write dialogue these rules about adverbs pop into my mind. I have no idea where I heard them -- heck, I thought I might have heard them here -- but I know that I break them all the time...then look over my shoulder for the invisible copy editors that will one day find my out...

I've tried writing only using "he said" and "she said" and it drives me nuts. How does the reader know the mood in some instances? Or the subtle "read between the lines" type of stuff that only the author really hears?

I am really loving these Wednesday writing corners. Always something good to take back to the blank page!
[User Picture]
Date:February 25th, 2010 02:06 pm (UTC)

Re: No More Guilt

You never read them here! ;-)

Thanks, by the way. I had decided about two weeks ago that I should probably stop doing these Wednesday posts because they took a lot of time and no one read them...

You are the fifth person in the last week to take a moment to mention enjoying them. I figure that is Providence's way of letting me know that I should keep it up.

Thanks for the encouragement!
[User Picture]
Date:February 24th, 2010 10:56 pm (UTC)
The new style school should be called something along the lines of, "The Chestertonian School of Style for the Defense of Colorful Writing," or some such thing. Because if anyone was likely to rise up and boldly defend adverbs (or really, just about anything decent), it would be good old GKC. Can't you just see him drawing out a sword stick and challenging the leader of the Hemming Way to a duel over the use of a word?
[User Picture]
Date:February 25th, 2010 02:08 pm (UTC)
I love the Hemingway vs. Chesterton image. I also like your long statement...what we need is a name with adverbs in it! ;-)
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