Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How to Write Right, via the late Elmore Leonard

Prolific and iconic mystery writer Elmore Leonard, who died this week, once offered the following rules for writing in a 2001 article for the New York Times.   His cut-to-the-bone suggestions help explain why his clipped, staccato voice -- not unlike some hard-edged detective talking out the side of his mouth -- translates so well to the screen, both big and small. 

(Not familiar?  Two can't-lose suggestions: "Get Shorty" and "Justified.")

His admonitions to avoid adverbs, hooptedoodle, exclamation points and anything other than forms of the verb "to say" could be well applied to journalism -- especially magazine writing.  Here's just a taste:
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.''
Well worth keeping in mind... she said.  bk

(Photo credit: The Guardian)

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