Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers #4: Never Use an Adverb to Modify the Verb “Said”

Welcome to the fourth in a series of posts covering Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers. Leonard started his career writing westerns, then switched to hard-boiled crime, which became his specialty. His skill as an author was widely praised by both the literary community and the general public of readers. Many of his works were made into famous movies, and he received the National Book Award in 2012.

Leonard developed ten rules for writers (and a bonus eleventh rule that sums up the rest). I love his books, so when I learned these rules, I applied them to my own writing. I think they’ve made the single biggest positive change to the quality of my work.

So, in this series, I’m going to take you through all of them. Continuing with…

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

This rule goes right along with number three, which told us to only use the verb “said” to carry dialogue.

It’s common to see adverbs modifying the verbs in dialogue tags. In many cases, you’ll see something like:

“That’s a nice suit, buddy,” Vinnie slyly lied.

So, what’s the problem with using adverbs like this? Well, there are several.

First, many writers rely on adverbs to convey the meaning of their dialogue. But the goal is to have your dialogue be strong enough to convey the meaning by itself. The adverb in this case is the author telling the reader how a line is spoken rather than showing it.

Your dialogue should be able to carry its own weight, without your help. This is also one of the reasons you should only use “said” in your dialogue tags. The principle applies to both rules.

Additionally, adverbs modifying dialogue tags take up space in your scene. When you have something like, “…slyly said,” the adverb is just one more word the reader has to sit through before moving onto the next line. Keep the flow of the conversation natural. Don’t let your voice interrupt by telling the reader something with an adverb. Let your reader be alone with the characters in the scene, without you entering into it.

And, again, the adverb shouldn’t even be necessary. The context of the exchange, the personalities of the characters, and the words themselves should explain the meaning of each individual line.

It’s a much more immersive experience for the reader to transition from one line to the next without the author’s intervention. Adverbs only get in the way of that immersion.

Since banning adverbs from my own writing, I’ve noticed that my scenes and dialogue have improved. The same thing occurred when I stopped using verbs other than “said” in my tags. By removing these crutches, I forced myself to become a better writer. That’s why I recommend following these rules… I tested them on myself before asking others to take my word for it.

So, refrain from using adverbs in your dialogue tags. You simply don’t need them.

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