Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers #3: Never Use a Verb other than “Said” to Carry Dialogue

Welcome to the third 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 a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

A dialogue tag is the, “he said,” or “she said,” that accompanies a line. Many student and amateur writers believe they need to have variety in their dialogue tags.

They often try to be creative by choosing verbs like:

  • Claimed
  • Lied
  • Responded
  • Shouted
  • Barked
  • Snapped
  • Etc.

Leonard says not to do that. He argues we should only use “said.” And I agree with him. Here are my reasons why:

1. Using a verb other than “said” is the author telling the reader how the line is spoken. Every writer has heard the phrase, “show, don’t tell,” over and over and over again. Well, it applies to dialogue, too. Let’s look at this example:

“I’m being completely honest with you, man,” Frank lied.

By using “lied,” you are telling the reader that Frank isn’t being truthful. Instead, you could show that through the context of the scene or with some description of Frank’s tone and body language. Both of those options provide a more interesting reading experience. And they help to immerse your reader in the scene.

Don’t tell the reader how a character speaks a line. Show it by writing great dialogue that captures the sounds and attitudes of the people in your story.

2. “Said” helps you control the rhythm of a conversation. The idea here is that every line of dialogue belongs to a character. When a writer uses a word other than “said,” they are intruding into the conversation with their own voice.

“Said” is far less intrusive than any other verb. Eventually, the reader passes over all the dialogue tags, and their focus remains solely on the dialogue itself. The tags provide a split second of clarity without interrupting the flow of the speech. That’s what you want.

However, other verbs draw the reader’s attention away from the conversation, to the dialogue tag. That’s where the writer’s voice butts into the exchange. And that’s not what you want.

You can also use dialogue tags to create pauses. Read the following example out loud and listen to the rhythm with the tag placed at the end:

“What I think is we shoot the guy before he gets us,” Vinnie said.

Now read it aloud again, this time with the tag placed in the middle:

“What I think,” Vinnie said, “is we shoot the guy before he gets us.”

Hear that pause in the second rendering of the line? This is one of my favorite ways to play around with dialogue and the rhythms of speech. The reader should be so used to “said” that they pass right over the tag. But it still creates a split-second pause in the line. It reads smoothly and doesn’t pull the reader out of the conversation. Yet, you’ve just changed up the rhythm! Pretty cool, right?

The real goal is to write such good dialogue that you don’t need but a few tags. The reader should know who is speaking and get the meaning of the lines without your help.

I think of dialogue tags almost like punctuation. They affect the rhythm and provide both clarity and structure. Beyond that, I try to keep them as nondescript as possible.

I don’t want to intrude, because I think every scene belongs to the characters in it and not to me. So, I only use “said.”

Do you agree or disagree with this rule? Why or why not? Leave me a comment below!

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Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers #2: Avoid Prologues

Welcome to the second 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…

Avoid prologues.

Different readers and writers will have varying opinions on this rule. Some people enjoy prologues, others do not. First, let me explain Leonard’s reasoning for telling us to avoid them, and then you can decide if you agree or disagree.

Leonard described prologues as, “annoying.” His idea is that you pick up a book, read the back cover, and, if it sounds interesting, you buy it. You’re excited to get into the story, but you can’t start chapter one yet because there’s a prologue. So, you have to sit through that before you can get to the part you really want to read.

He also adds that prologues in novels are always backstory. He argues that you can put that information in the book itself. Instead of the prologue, put that backstory into the narrative. Have characters talk about it. Do a flashback scene. Or find some other creative way to implement it.

So, that’s Leonard’s feeling. As a reader, I tend to agree with him. I don’t like prologues. If I’m interested enough in a story to pick up a book, I want to get right into it with the first chapter. That’s how I’m handling my current novel—you won’t find a prologue in it.

However, many readers don’t mind (or even enjoy) prologues. And writers certainly like having the option of using them.

What’s your opinion? Keep in mind that any “rule” of writing, no matter where you hear it, can be broken. That’s the magic of creative work. There are no hard and fast rules, just guidelines and the commentary of pros.

Do you like prologues? Leave me a comment!

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Novel Update – 3/22/17

I just hit 30,000 words in the manuscript. My goal is 75,000 words or so, which should work out to about 300 pages. As a reader, that’s what I think is the ideal size for a novel. It’s long enough for me to get to know the characters and enjoy a complicated plot, but short enough for the storytelling to remain tight and efficient.

Those 30,000 words have filled ten and a quarter chapters so far. By this point in the book, I’ve introduced all the major characters, and now they’re really mixing it up.

In the first hundred pages, I wrote in as many different characters as I could, then decided who was interesting and which scenes advanced the plot. Not every character and not every chapter made the cut. Sometimes that meant eliminating them from the story altogether. Other times, I kept a character in the book, but because it’s crime fiction, maybe they don’t survive to the end…

Some more info on the novel and on my writing process:

  1. It’s a hard-boiled crime thriller. True to the genre, I’m focusing on characters, twists, and storytelling through snappy dialogue. With any luck, I’ll have a solid hard-boiled book when it’s all done.
  2. I write two to five pages per day. Well, except when I don’t. Life happens, but I do try to be disciplined about it, so that most of the time I hit my daily quota. If it’s a good week, that equates to about two chapters. The last few chapters have taken longer because they set up the rest of the novel. I’ve had to really think about how I want the story to proceed.
  3. I write the first drafts of those pages in long-hand. Then I do my first round of rewriting there on the notebook paper. After that, I type the pages into Word and read them out loud. If I get hung up anywhere while reading, I’ll make more changes and fix places where the rhythm is off. I only recently started writing with a pen and paper, but I’ve seen an improvement in my work since making the switch. I don’t know if that’s thanks to writing in long-hand, but I’m still doing it just in case. Plus, there’s something I like about using a pen.
  4. I’ve set for myself a deadline of August. At the current pace, I think I’ll have the manuscript finished by August 1. That’s the goal, anyway. Then come the processes of editing, cover design, and planning a launch. And, of course, I’ll be blogging about all of it.

More updates to come! In the meantime, I’ve got another 45,000 words to put down.

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Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers #1: Never Open a Story with Weather

Welcome to the first 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. Beginning with…

Never open a book with weather.

Many authors, amateurs and professionals alike, make this mistake. I see it frequently in submissions to the literary magazine on which I serve as an editorial assistant. The first paragraph of a piece will be a long passage about the rain, sleet, or snow. It’s often well-written, with lots of flowery language and literary artistry.

But here are some major problems with starting a story that way:

  1. It’s not interesting.

Especially in today’s hyper-competitive bookselling marketplaces like Amazon, you want to grab your readers from the very first line.

Drop them into some interesting situation and make them ask questions about what’s going on. Weather will not cut it. It may build atmosphere, but creating tension and conflict in a compelling opening scene is much more effective.

That’s what turns browsers of your book into buyers of your book.

  1. It’s throat clearing.

Maybe you’ve heard that term before. It means that the author doesn’t have a sense of their story yet, so they delay by talking about the weather for a while. They write the best descriptions of rain they can, because that feels more comfortable than actually starting their book.

Don’t clear your throat. You’re a writer, so jump in and write! You can do it!

  1. Readers want to connect with characters, not get a weather report.

This ties in with #1. The reader doesn’t want to hear how much snow is falling. They want to meet the people you’ve created.

Start your book with a character doing something intriguing. Make the reader ask questions like: Who is this person? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? If your readers have questions, they’ll keep reading to find answers.

So, unless your character is a meteorologist, don’t open your book or short story with weather. Instead, begin with an interesting person doing an equally interesting thing.

That’s my advice to you, based on Elmore Leonard’s first rule of writing. Get the reader invested from the very start. You’ll hook them, and they won’t be able to put your novel back on the bookstore shelf. Or pass it by on Amazon.

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What is hard-boiled crime fiction?

If you’re a fan of crime books, you’ve probably heard of a sub-genre called hard-boiled or pulp fiction.

There seem to be endless categories of crime listed on Amazon these days. Everything from FBI thrillers to British detective stories, classic mysteries to novels about vigilante justice. Like many readers of the genre, I enjoy pretty much all of it. Give me any of those, and I’m happy.

But I do have my favorite: hard-boiled.

It’s a genre known for gritty realism, violent action, and snappy dialogue made rich with slang. And of course, sleazy, urban settings that create a noir atmosphere.

Picture the black and white detective films of the thirties and forties. A homicide cop in a tan trench coat walking into a smoky bar full of gangsters in pinstripe suits and fedoras. They all turn and look at him. There’s voice-over on top of the action, the detective narrating in first person. It sounds like he’s talking out the side of his mouth.

What always fascinates me about hard-boiled authors is that they often create that entire image just from the sound of the writing and of the characters. Master stylists like Raymond Chandler, George Higgins, and Elmore Leonard immerse their readers in that world by making their narration sound like those old voice-overs. And their dialogue is endlessly fun. It’s full of slang, snappy lines, and such craftsmanship that the writers don’t have to describe characters in detail. You hear them speak and you know who they are.

Those of you who remember your high school English classes may be thinking, “Hey, that’s what Hemingway always did.” You’d be right. Hemingway’s realism and his reliance on dialogue to tell a story were major influences on these hard-boiled writers.

The very first author in this genre, Dashiell Hammett, combined his experiences as a detective with the writing style of Hemingway to create his own works, many of which he contributed to pulp magazines. The first of these was “Fly Paper,” which appeared in the pulp, Black Mask, in 1929.

Pulps, by the way, got their name because they were made on cheap, low-quality wood-pulp paper. By contrast, high-quality magazines were called glossies or slicks. But pulps became famous for their gritty crime, western, and romance stories. Much of modern genre fiction finds some of its roots in these inexpensive magazines.

Comic books do, as well. Are you a Batman fan? D.C. Comics’ initials come from their early series, Detective Comics, which included Batman’s debut. It’s no surprise that many Batman comics show remarkable similarities to pulp crime fiction. Gotham is the epitome of a hard-boiled setting. Characters like the Falcone family fit right into the genre. And Batman himself, often called The World’s Greatest Detective, is a protagonist one could easily see in a hard-boiled novel (but maybe without the cape).

In 1929, the year of Hammett’s groundbreaking “Fly Paper,” American Prohibition Law was still in effect. It was the age of the infamous bootleggers and mobsters. Many hard-boiled books tell stories of cops or private investigators taking on such villains.

It is a strikingly American genre because of its Prohibition-era origins. Prior to hard-boiled crime fiction, the British authors had perfected the classic mystery tale. Often these mysteries would be set in a country house, away from a city. Characters would range from butlers and cooks to the wealthy homeowners and their friends. If you’ve read Agatha Christie’s novels, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I recommend, And Then There Were None, the best-selling mystery novel of all time… and a great example of this.

Hard-boiled writers broke from that by exchanging the country home for the dirty, gritty, urban settings of big, American cities. The characters became lowlife criminals and tough cops, all of whom spoke in slang-tainted language. It’s a stark contrast to the prim and proper people of classic British mysteries. Prohibition led to a rise in famous organized crime. And this, in turn, gave birth to a hard-hitting and gritty new genre of crime fiction.

Today, you’ll hear about authors such as James Lee Burke, whose hard-boiled stories set in Louisiana continue the traditions of the genre while exploring new elements, such as human nature and settings outside the big city. Then there’s James Ellroy, a modern stylist whose fragmented, staccato writing creates a sound that pulls readers into the atmosphere and attitude of his stories.

So, if you enjoy books that prioritize snappy dialogue, gritty realism, and the sleazy feel of the criminal world, check out hard-boiled fiction.

And look forward to my debut hard-boiled novel… updates on that coming soon!

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References:

“Hard-boiled fiction.” Britannica.net. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11 Sept. 2007. Web. <https://www.britannica.com/art/hard-boiled-fiction&gt;.

Lewin, Matthew. “Modern hardboiled crime.” TheGuardian.com. The Guardian, 17 Jan. 2009. Web. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/jan/18/1000-novels-writing-crime-modern-ellroy&gt;.