I Have Met The Enemy And It Is…Elmore Leonard

In light of recent CLFA Facebook conversations on the exclamation point and other issues Elmore Leonard, I am reposting this earlier Wright’s Writing Corner post.

 

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!)

 

Why?

 

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?

 

  

*Mr. Leonard is also against excess use of exclamations!!!!!!   😉

 

  • Justin Tarquin

    Maybe the Adverbial Liberation Front? Sounds like Elmore is some kind of reactionary who fears dialogue like
    “A,” he said.
    “B,” she replied.
    “C,” he countered.
    “D,” she suggested.
    “E!” he exclaimed.
    “F!” she cried.
    “G,” he murmured.
    “H,” she whispered.
    There must be some student somewhere who turned in something like this and the teacher looked up from it with fiery eyes and a new mission in life. Moderation in all things, I’d say.

    • Overgrown Hobbit

      Hear! Hear!

  • WyrdBard

    Perhaps the Evocative Style?

  • Overgrown Hobbit

    Very timely! The mandatory style training I received suggested using the Hemingway app as a guide to correcting and improving our blog posts. Keep in mind these are almost never informational writing, but entertainment and readers’ advisory essays .

    Like Mr Elmore Leonard, the Hemingway app demands that we should eschew adverbs and in fact, any words like eschew, as well as any sentence that uses a semi-colon.

    The problem? If you plug Earnest Hemingway’s writing into this app, it rates it as problematic.

    See here: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/hemingway-takes-the-hemingway-test

    • Mrs. Wright

      lol

      In general, I would think that unless the poster had a very engaging style, the Elmore Leonard/Hemingway rules would tend to work well for blogs…the idiosyncrasies of the real Hemingway aside.

      But not so well for deep in the Wood Perilous.

  • Overgrown Hobbit

    N.B. Your style school is not a new one, it is as old as the hills.

    But if you insist: The Language Lovers.

    • Mrs. Wright

      😉

      I think Natural Language school was one of the names we came up with when I first posted this. Yours is nice, too!

  • MishaBurnett

    I am seeing a lot of advice for authors in the form “Technique A makes prose read faster, while technique B slows down the pace,so always use technique A and never use technique B.”

    To my mind that’s like telling a composer “Get rid of all those rests and whole notes and make every measure 4/4.”

    Yes, it’s important to understand how sentence structure and word choice affects the flow of the prose. However, it’s even more important to understand how the flow of the prose creates the mood of the story. Sometimes slow moving is exactly what you want. Pacing is just as important in writing fiction as it is film.

    In a well made horror movie, the character’s climb up the stairs to the attic where the monster lies waiting is not going to be filmed the same way as the confrontation at the top. Once sequence will be slow paced, with long lingering shots and a focus on the details like dust and cobwebs. The other will have a lot of camera movement and jump cuts. The director will build tension along the way to the climactic jump scare.

    Well written horror fiction will follow the same formula. The climb of the stairs will be heavy on description, with complex sentences and many adverbs and adjectives. The fight at the top will have short sentences arranged in short paragraphs and a minimum of description.

    Understanding how your writing sets the pace of the prose is only half of understanding pacing. The other half is understanding when to go fast and when to go slow.

    • Mrs. Wright

      That is a perfect example. If I said that every scene needed to be filmed quickly…your suspense film would not be worth watching. 😉

      • Roffles Lowell

        This sounds exactly like everything wrong with film making since the 1990s, come to think of it.

        If you watched the newest episode of the current revival of the X-Files you can see it dramatically! The whole original network tv run was directed in a moody, deliberate pace, which the nine episode revival from a couple years ago had maintained. I remember there were actually critics deriding it as “dated”. (Since that’s what rejecting a trend amounts to, in absence of actual innovation, I guess.) Fear not, modern cineastes: the new season opener is edited like a movie trailer, cut by a speed freak, with unmedicated ADD. It’s got the all the tension and foreboding of a car commercial. But its modern! Yeechh.

        If they had their way, they wouldn’t let any of us stop to breathe or think. Not in movies, not in television, not in books. I don’t know if critics do this on purpose or not… maybe once you’ve swallowed enough of this stuff you get honestly addicted to it. But boy does it all feel kind of creepy and authoritarian when you think about it!

        • Overgrown Hobbit

          But do please remember:
          When the time is ticking down with one minutes to go before the bomb goes off, it is not a good time to have a discussion about your feelings and relationship.

          And yes, the Yard Ape and I just watched an episode of MacGyver which did just that. We will both snarking at the television screen.

          • Justin Tarquin

            The Supergirl season finale did that too: I gave up on the show.

          • Mrs. Wright

            lol

            Yes. I always tell the authors I’m editing that you change your style for fight scenes and try to make them short, quick sentences and to the point!