Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing

A good read, and he says some interesting stuff, especially this part:

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.”

I’m not sure I could do that. Heck, when writing prose I find it hard that there’s a limited number of ways to say “said” in the English language (ie commented, noted, stated, etc) And to throw out the adverbs as well…I think much of that is style, as opposed to hard and fast “rules”. Writers love to make up rules for writing since new writers always ask them for advice on how to do it, but in reality I think it comes back to “if it works, it ain’t stupid!”

I do like this one, though:

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

Within reason, I think this is an excellent idea. I think it comes back to the idea of “masking”, wherein characters which described in great detail seem more foreign to the reader, and characters described with little detail seem more familiar because the reader projects themselves into those characters more. (The reader’s mind naturally fills in the missing information with what they want to see.)

And finally…

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

It might sound strange, but when I read I tend to skip exposition a lot and jump straight to the dialogue, so to me this rule makes perfect sense. If the exposition is strong, and important, I will read it, but I have a very strong sense of when the writer is just filling the page with unnecessary words and so I tend to just skip over them. If the exposition really isn’t adding anything but words to the page, why is it there?

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