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.

The 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!!!!!!   ;-)