Elmore Leonard, Miami Book Fair International,...

Leonard has been writing for sixty years,and cut his teeth on westerns because he liked watching western movies. He eventually switched to crime because it was more lucrative and is best known for his quirky characters and villains in Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Rum Punch (all made into movies). He is considered a serious writer by literary experts and at 85 is still active.

When I give critiques in my writer’s group, invariably I harp on using said vs. a plethora of other verbs in dialogue attributions or tags. Tags identify whom is speaking.

“I told you not to do that,” he laughed. “I was wrong,” she admitted. “I said that all along,” he barked. “You don’t have to rub it in,” she clucked. “I’m not the one who screwed up,” he spit.  “You’re screwing up now,” she hissed.  “I can’t help it; I love you,” he gushed.

So my question is, how can you talk while you are laughing, admitting, barking, clucking, spitting, hissing, or gushing?  It’s technically impossible. So why would character’s try?

Elmore Leonard, in his 10 Rules of Writing, might suggest that it is the writer trying to insert himself into the story by being clever.

All I know is I read use said as one of his rules 10 years ago and have tried to force-feed it to my fellow writer’s when someone uses a replied or admitted. This is because these other words stick out and call attention to themselves–especially when you use them over and over again.

Leonard says the use of said  is least intrusive (almost invisible) and can be used over and over again without calling attention to itself.  I must admit I use asked sometimes in dialogue in which a question is presented, but more often I will use said in the case of a question too.

Another pet peeve of mine is the use of the word suddenly. I tell people it is weak, but I have no reason why. Somewhere I heard you should not use suddenly. Perhaps it is because you don’t want to surprise or startle your characters or give them a heart attack.

I never like prologues and always vote against them when someone asks if they should have one. I can’t give you a good reason why, except I usually skip them and move to the first chapter. Anything I need to get motivated to read a book, should be found there–not in a historical flashback featuring characters I will never hear of again. Give me the main characters and a problem, and I’m hooked. I read a Clive Cussler prologue once and it featured a smarmy band of rogues who all die and leave a treasure somewhere. Cussler could have easily avoided this mistake by having his hero find a map in the first chapter. If he wanted to get artsy, he could have described a picture-map with smarmy knaves in caricature with a skull and crossbones by each of them.

Another pet peeve of mind is exclamation points. Always avoid exclamation points, I say. I know it takes away from the emphasis of language if you dot your exclamations with points everywhere you go in a story. The only reason I can see for doing this is to raise the word count from 60,000 words to a more respectable 80,000 words and still only achieving this by inserting a space between the word and the mark.

The last peeve I will talk about here–because I want to make a different point– is descriptions. I know it is perceived by many writers that the more description you put it, call it flowery language, literary, or information dumping–choose your vernacular– the more I want to put the book down and clip my fingernails.

I grew up reading Agatha Christie and she used to develop intricate plot twists that would leave me shaking my head for days on end. She also wrote so much prose in between to distract the reader from her murderers (I think she used flowery descriptions as red herrings) that I had the shortest fingernails, toenails, nose-and-ear-hairs on my block for years. Once she didn’t even introduce her famous hero, Hercule Poirot, until the last 100 pages of the book. The first two hundred? Uninteresting characters, red herrings and (UGH) flowery descriptions.
I don’t care how many literary lines you have written, I’ve probably read more that ten times that amount and I don’t want to read any more. Leave that part out!!!!

So where did I get all of these pet peeves. Aside from said vs. regurgitated, I couldn’t tell you until recently, when I decided to look up Elmore Leonard’s rules again.

And there they were: Rules 2, 3,5,6,9, and possibly 10. Apparently Leonard’s little article made more of an impression on me than I remembered.

  1.  Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
  5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6.  Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

To understand what Hooptdoodle is, you will have to read his article, first published in the New York Times in 2001. I dare you to follow this link and read his reasons. The article is short, but humorous and pointed. Follow the link, read it, and see if it doesn’t influence you a bit.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Good Writing

  1. Sher Davidson says:

    Thanks, Don. I enjoyed reading Randy Leonard’s 10 rules and found them very instructive. Some I have heard in other venues, but maybe have not followed them as strictly as I should. Will work harder on that.

    • Don Weston says:

      When you go to so many workshops, etc., you forget where you learn things, as I did here. Still, it’s good to get out and learn. You do a good job of that and are very open to learning.

  2. Helen Wand says:

    Really good tips, Don. Thanks! Whoops there’s one of those darn things…Whoops another one. Just kidding, for the most part I agree with the 10 tips. You taught me well. I do however, love prologues. Please forgive and when you read my book, just skip that part. Thanks for sharing.

  3. As someone who listens to audio books as well as reading printed word books I agree that ‘said’ is ignorable in print but I have to say it’s very noticeable when read aloud. I’ve been struck several times by dialogue sequences in which there have been lots of “so and so said” statements in quick succession. It’s really quite jarring for some reason.

    • Don Weston says:

      I can see where that would happen with audio books. Maybe it’s because you first notice it and then start paying attention to it. Or maybe you can tell who is talking and you don’t need the extra tags the author is using.

  4. It’s all good advice. One of my favorite books, Empire Falls, has about a four-hundred page italicized prologue. I’m taking that as permission to start my novel with a lousy 800-word prologue. There are no exclamation points in it.

  5. […] Avoid the Hooptdoodle (donweston.wordpress.com) […]

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