Home » Writing Advice » Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

21 August 2013

From Elmore Leonard in 2001 via The New York Times:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Abel for the tip.

Writing Advice

46 Comments to “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”

  1. That “never use said” thing annoys me. As a reader, I want to know how someone is delivering dialogue, if it’s different from their normal tone. By all means, use “said” most of the time, but if they’re whispering, muttering, yelling, growling, cooing instead of just saying something… that’s important information. To me, anyway.

    I like aural cues, though. Not all people seem to care about that.

    • Amen.

    • I’m the other way. I believe that well-written dialogue doesn’t need more than occasional descriptive tags. If a writer has to include something like “… he exhorted” the dialogue itself is probably lacking.

      • Her list included common differentials, not exhorted. My list is generally mutter, murmur, whisper, growl, state, and yelled. These are occasional. M.C.A. said use “said” most of the time. Your description varies from hers only in that you said it did, not in any substantial detail.

        • And seriously, a retort or a demand sounds different and can’t always be made obvious by the words. Retort implies a bite to the words, though not necessarily a change in the words. Demand implies anger in the words with a single word instead of a bunch to “show” the anger.

          • I use the same descriptive words as you, with a few extra thrown in. And I don’t give a damn who says I should or shouldn’t, except for my readers. So far, not one of them has said, “You know, Meryl, you used ‘he muttered’ too many times in your novel.”

            Writing style is personal. Things go in and out of fashion, so that one writer’s list is filled with the things a writer five years ago said never to use. Yes, “said-bookisms” can be abused, but I was taught at Clarion never to use them.

            Didn’t take.

          • Deleted because I’m not going to bother arguing my opinion. Christ.

            • I wasn’t trying to start an argument. I do apologize. I was pointing out that though you said you disagreed, the rest of your comment was in perfect agreement with the parameters she laid down. So your comments agreed. If you had a different opinion, I wouldn’t mind hearing it, but as stated, you and M.C.A. agreed.

      • The problem for me is, once I see the constant use of “said”, I can’t unsee it. Sci-Fi writer John Scalzi is terribly guilty of this. I was once listening to an audiobook version of one of his books, and once I noticed that “said” ended every single line of dialogue, I had to stop listening, because it distracted me to the point where I wasn’t paying attention to the rest of the book. It happens to me as well when I’m reading – I just find it annoyingly repetitive.

        I think things like “he replied” or “he agreed” or “he answered” help break up the monotony a little. There’s no need to get overly creative, but I think a bit of variety helps, and the occasional “he muttered” or “he whined” does provide a little extra flavor.

      • Just because “he exhorted” is going to sound ridiculous 99.9% of the time doesn’t mean “he whispered” sounds similarly ridiculous. That’s like refusing to eat any animal protein because you think deep-fried tarantulas sound gross.

        Angie

      • I usually use no tags at all (and have used them less and less as my style has developed.) When I do, I use the tag I damn well please, which is usually “said,” but sometimes is not.

    • Agreed. Pretty much any “never-ever” rule is crap at least some small fraction of the time. Some are crap pretty often.

      And when it comes to dialogue tags, it’s all about fashion. [eyeroll] When I first got into writing and paying attention to writers and writing advice (call it late seventies and into the eighties) everyone used “said” most of the time. Then someone decided that “said” was boring, and everyone (or at least, all the cool kids) used other dialog tags — growled, whispered, shouted, spat, drawled, huffed, etc. — and that was considered Correct. That went on for a while, then everyone (the same cool kids, I suppose) decided that dialogue tags were completely passe, and they were done away with. Dialogue attribution was done with actions and reactions performed by the people speaking, and a conversation with two participants could simply go back and forth for a few exchanges without attribution, for as long as the writer thought the reader could keep track of who was speaking.

      Now we’re back to only using “said” again, and I for one washed my hands of the whole mess several years ago. I’ve never been one for fashion, and I’m not going to let the cool kids of writing dictate to me, any more than I let the cool kids in realspace dictate what I wear. I use “said” a lot, yes, because it works. But I’ll use other dialogue tags too, when I think they’re appropriate. And sometimes I’ll just put a line of dialogue down on its own, if the speaker has performed an action in that paragraph which makes it clear who’s speaking.

      I’ll do what I think works for a given story or sentence, and the cool kids can go whistle up a rope.

      Angie

    • I use other dialogue tags only when “said” really isn’t accurate. Otherwise, I think overwriting that one word can distract from the important thing: the dialogue itself.

    • I agree (with your take) on this. I like the aural cues, and sometimes the cues tell you what sort of character you have. The deadpan snarker and the manic who uses uptalk might say something in a way that’s incongruous with how they’re saying it, and the aural cues alert you to it.

  2. “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.”

    P.G.

    Wonderful.

    I am such a guilty B’stard:)

    brendan

  3. My problem with his list of all the many things you shouldn’t do unless you’re this or that ridiculously famous writer is, how the bleep is anyone going to become just as good at writing scene description or character description or internal dialogue or long chunks of narrative as these famous people, if they never practice?

    When you say, “Don’t ever do this,” you’re telling people not to practice doing it. If they grow a personality of their own twenty years later and decide to try a paragraph or two of scene description, when they’ve never given more than one or two details in their earlier work because they read your rules when they were thirteen and took them to heart, guess what? Those paragraphs are going to suck, because they’ve never practiced that skill before.

    I get that he means well, and I’m sure you can become an excellent writer following his rules. Everyone doing things the same way and sounding alike makes for a boring literary landscape, though.

    Angie

    • My problem with it is that it’s a good rule for a narrow kind of fiction.

      Leonard is famous and rich, but his books do nothing for me. They’re about people I don’t care about, doing things I don’t want to read about.

      The reader market thinks otherwise. But maybe it’s not just about the bennies.

      It bothers me how newspeak the style is. It’s plus ungood if you want to read or write anything with a wider range.

      • Richard — exactly. It’s a style thing, and people who follow Leonard’s rules are going to produce writing that sounds sort of like Leonard’s. There are certainly worse things, but I’m glad there are a lot of different writers with a lot of different styles.

        Angie

        • No, following those “rules” won’t make you sound like Leonard. Only Leonard sounded like he did. And if you aren’t aware of it, which it sounds like, he died yesterday.

          What it will do is keep you from making a lot of beginner mistakes.

          • Yes, I know he died recently. That’s a shame, but it won’t make me pretend to agree with all his rules.

            About making “beginner mistakes,” some things are harder to get right than others. That doesn’t mean it’s bad to do those things; it just means they take more study and practice. There are things a beginner should be careful about, things a beginner shouldn’t expect to get right immediately. Maybe not for a long time. But if they don’t practice, they’ll never get them right.

            Mr. Leonard had a clean, straight-on style, and that’s great. That’s a good style to have, if that’s what you like and how you want to write. But there are other styles that are just as valid as Mr. Leonard’s. Some take longer to perfect, some have more pit traps, some are easier to screw up. That doesn’t make trying to write in those styles an invalid decision, even for a young beginning writer.

            If Steinbeck hadn’t spent a lot of time practicing “Hooptedoodle,” he wouldn’t have written those two chapters full of it, which Mr. Leonard read every word of.

            Steinbeck and Atwood and Wolfe were all beginning writers once, and I’m sure their suckitude was strong, just because all beginning writers are strong in their suckitude. They had to practice, and not care that they sucked for a while, to get to the point where Mr. Leonard could point at them as writers who are good enough at this or that or the other thing to be able to successfully break his rules.

            Beginners need to practice. Yes, some of it’s going to suck. They still need to practice, and a bunch of rules saying “Thou Shalt Not” will just stop them from practicing the things that need the most practice.

            Angie

            • Yep.

              Stephen King began to advise excising adverbs and dialogue tags later in his career. But most of his early books had a lot of dialogue tags.

              Even Elmore Leonard used some of these in his early works (just from a brief scan of Amazon samples):

              From “52 Pickup” Page 5: “He said quietly…”

              From “Tishomingo Blues” Page 330: “Billy Darwin’s quiet voiced asked him…”

              From “Mr. Majestyk” Page 5: “…the labor contractor called out.”

          • No, following those “rules” won’t make you sound like Leonard. Only Leonard sounded like he did.

            Then what do you stand to gain by following Leonard’s rules? At best, you’ll end up with an obviously inferior imitation of his style.

            What it will do is keep you from making a lot of beginner mistakes.

            What it will do is keep you from trying a lot of perfectly good techniques that will lead you to have a style unlike Elmore Leonard’s.

            Look, Leonard’s ‘rules’ worked well for him; they suited his natural voice, and the kind of stories he liked to tell, and that his readers looked for under his name. They kept him from going off the rails. But they are as narrow as rails, and virtually none of the world’s literature obeys all ten. Much of it doesn’t obey any of them. Only #10 (‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’) even comes close to being a universal rule, and it’s a worthless rule, because it gives no information about how to identify which part that is. At that, it has often been broken. I forget whether it was Stephen King, or a critic analysing his writing, who pointed out that King often deliberately inserts passages that readers would like to skip, to build suspense by slowing the pace of the story. That method has worked for King at least as well as the opposite worked for Leonard, no?

  4. I agree with Mr. Leonard.

    • So do I.

      What most of the posters above forget is that Mr. Leonard’s advice isn’t for the likes of Stephen King, but thee and me a million words ago. They forget that all starting writers are apt to pay more attention to pretty phrasings than the story, and spend more time on character descriptions than on characters. At least a novice who follows these rules won’t waste time learning every said-bookism in the world.

      By the time a writer has joined the ranks of the professionals – or at least semiprofessionals – the writer is fully entitled to break any or all of Mr. Leonard’s rules. However, by that time, the writer will have learned that all such rules are right most of the time, and will have learned to violate the rules will skill.

      Mr. Leonard’s advice here can be grouped for convenience into three sets:
      Rules 1&2: start with something interesting
      Rules 3-7: don’t write in such away that it detracts from the story
      Rules 8-10: don’t slow the story down for unnecessary verbiage

      If the posters above wish to start with something boring and write in a way that detracts from the story, and then slow down the pacing for a loving description of each individual freckle on a character’s face, then I won’t be reading their books.

      I’m not a big Elmore Leonard fan. I’ve only read three of his books, all westerns, but I’ve never put one down because I was bored.

      Requiescat in pace.

      • All of the posters above were talking about occasionally using something other than said, as appropriate—not lovingly describing freckles and slow openings.

        It is problematic when people pick a fight over what was NOT said instead of addressing what was.

        • Liana,

          I do think Jack Badelaire’s reference to too many “s/he saids,” is right. In audio it does get very old on the ear.

          My eyes skip across it without trouble in print. In audio narration it grates.

          I do like the idea of making your characters so distinct that their voices speak for themselves. Nice if you can manage it.

          brendan

          • I do like the idea of making your characters so distinct that their voices speak for themselves. Nice if you can manage it.

            The trouble is, you can’t. Every one of those voices has got to speak for the first time, and at that point you have to identify the speaker. You need to tag enough of the dialogue to establish that these utterances are all in the same voice, so that the reader can learn to identify it on sight. Only then can you begin to dispense with the tags. If you have a complex scene — several characters, no turn-taking, people interrupting one another — then you are liable to need tags even for the best-established characters, to help the reader keep everything straight.

            B. R. Myers, in A Reader’s Manifesto, once called out an author for having a simple exchange of lines between two characters fall apart, because they basically swapped roles for no reason. Either someone spoke twice in a row (but the author erroneously closed the quotation marks after the first bit), or the characters started saying each other’s lines. There were no dialogue tags in the scene, after (I believe) the first line for each speaker. If there had been, I suspect the author would have seen his own mistake and not written it in that clumsy and confusing way.

            • Don’t forget the value of action tags as a stand-ins for dialogue tags. If you’re not weaving action/setting into your talking heads scenes, they may not work as well. ;)

              • Quite true. However, action tags are not always appropriate. The trouble is that they take up space; they take time to read. In my experience, the real skill in tagging dialogue is pacing. You want your tags to be chosen and placed so as to contribute to the rhythm (and thus the rhetorical effect) of the speech. A well-placed tag (including an action tag) can accentuate a pause, or emphasize a phrase, or simply give the reader a moment to appreciate a funny line without interrupting the scanning motion of the eyeballs. It’s like having a whole set of custom punctuation marks at your disposal, with the ability to custom-build new ones for any situation. If you limit yourself to ‘said’ or nothing, you lose a powerful rhetorical tool.

                • Quite true. However, action tags are not always appropriate. The trouble is that they take up space; they take time to read. That can slow down the dialogue precisely at the point where you don’t want it slowed down; in which case a simple dialogue tag, being shorter and essentially invisible, will serve better.

                  In my experience, the real skill in tagging dialogue is pacing. You want your tags to be chosen and placed so as to contribute to the rhythm (and thus the rhetorical effect) of the speech. A well-placed tag (including an action tag) can accentuate a pause, or emphasize a phrase, or simply give the reader a moment to appreciate a funny line without interrupting the scanning motion of the eyeballs. It’s like having a whole set of custom punctuation marks at your disposal, with the ability to custom-build new ones for any situation. If you limit yourself to ‘said’ or nothing, you lose a powerful rhetorical tool.

        • “It is problematic when people pick a fight over what was NOT said instead of addressing what was.”

          Did you address what I said? The first five paragraphs of my post are just saying, “Tell novice writers to pay attention to story and character, rather than trying to be fancy with prose.”

          If there’s any part of that you disagree with, tell me what it is.

          For the record, I do think there’s hyperbole in Leonard’s essay, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

          • I think the problem was that your 2nd, 3rd, and 5th paragraphs – which seemed to be trying to apply counterpoint to “the posters above” were actually in agreement with what “the posters above” were already saying.

            That’s probably what Liana was replying about.

            Specifically:

            What most of the posters above forget is that Mr. Leonard’s advice isn’t for the likes of Stephen King, but thee and me a million words ago. They forget that all starting writers are apt to pay more attention to pretty phrasings than the story, and spend more time on character descriptions than on characters.

            and:

            By the time a writer has joined the ranks of the professionals – or at least semiprofessionals – the writer is fully entitled to break any or all of Mr. Leonard’s rules.

            and:

            If the posters above wish to start with something boring and write in a way that detracts from the story, and then slow down the pacing for a loving description of each individual freckle on a character’s face, then I won’t be reading their books.

            Here is what the posters above said:

            M.C.A. Hogwarth: “By all means, use “said” most of the time, but if they’re whispering, muttering, yelling, growling, cooing instead of just saying something… that’s important information.”

            Liana Mir: “Amen”

            Dan DeWitt: “I believe that well-written dialogue doesn’t need more than occasional descriptive tags. If a writer has to include something like “… he exhorted” the dialogue itself is probably lacking.

            Liana Mir: “My list is generally mutter, murmur, whisper, growl, state, and yelled. These are occasional.”

            Jack Badelaire: “I think things like “he replied” or “he agreed” or “he answered” help break up the monotony a little. There’s no need to get overly creative, but I think a bit of variety helps, and the occasional “he muttered” or “he whined” does provide a little extra flavor.”

            J.R. Tomlin: “But that doesn’t mean he should have used a different verb. It means he was overusing dialogue tags.”

            Angie: “Just because “he exhorted” is going to sound ridiculous 99.9% of the time doesn’t mean “he whispered” sounds similarly ridiculous.”

            Marc Cabot: “I usually use no tags at all (and have used them less and less as my style has developed.) When I do, I use the tag I damn well please, which is usually “said,” but sometimes is not.”

            India Drummond: “I use other dialogue tags only when “said” really isn’t accurate.”

            Angie: “Steinbeck and Atwood and Wolfe were all beginning writers once, and I’m sure their suckitude was strong, just because all beginning writers are strong in their suckitude. They had to practice, and not care that they sucked for a while, to get to the point where Mr. Leonard could point at them as writers who are good enough at this or that or the other thing to be able to successfully break his rules.”

            And also a mini-discussion of the way “rules” tend to go in and out of style, and are also more applicable to certain genres than others, and that individual style counts.

            No one was defending the use of excessive character description, or beginning a story with the weather, or starting “with something boring.” No one was saying that novice writers produce excellent work by flaunting rules.

            That’s probably why Liana replied: “All of the posters above were talking about occasionally using something other than said, as appropriate—not lovingly describing freckles and slow openings.”

            I don’t think Liana had a problem with you saying that skilled authors can make exceptions to the rules. I think she was puzzled why you seemed to believe that many people previous to your post were arguing for something that from my reading of what they said, they were not arguing for.

  5. Somerset Maugham once said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

    But for the most part, I agree with Dutch’s recommendations.

  6. RIP, Mr. Leonard. We learned a lot from you and owe you much.

  7. Obituary from “The Onion,” in which they break every one of his rules:

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/elmore-leonard-modern-prose-master-noted-for-his-t,33559/

    • I was coming here to post that! Well done to the Onion.

      • I have never tried to do that in a book, but I’ve done it in photography, and it is a LOT harder than it looks. (By “it” I mean try to purposefully break most if not all of the “rules” about how to produce an artwork.) That is why there are so many quotes about geniuses being people who know how to ignore and/or break rules. :)

        And then half the time people can’t tell the difference between purposeful breaking of the rules and ignorance, which *used* to mean it was much harder to get people to take unconventional artwork seriously, but now (I’m looking at you, Ryan McGinley) means that people are willing to accept that ignorance is more often lauded as genius when well-marketed.

  8. I may have to use Hooptedoodle as the title of a novel someday. What a great word.

  9. Fortunately, the late Mr. Leonard gave a gigantic disclaimer at the outset. Unfortunately, his disciples seem unable to notice it:

    These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book.

    In other words, these ‘rules’ are applicable only when you are trying to make your own voice as the author invisible. If the narrator is a character, or if you need, for whatever reason, to establish a vivid auctorial voice, the motive behind the rules does not apply.

    Try telling William Goldman that he got The Princess Bride all wrong because he doesn’t ‘remain invisible’ all the way through the book. Hell, the entire story is predicated upon his being visible; at least half the humour only works because of it.

    A carpenter does not tell a bricklayer that he isn’t allowed to use mortar, because carpenters only use nails and screws. It takes an incompetent writer to be that arrogant. No, I don’t mean Elmore Leonard; I mean all the eleventh-rate scribblers who quote Leonard’s rules as if they were the Word of God, and criticize other writers for not trying to write Elmore Leonard stories.

  10. Kathlena Contreras

    You know what I learned about writing rules by reading successful fiction?

    There are no rules.

    Write what you want. Write what you’re passionate about. If you care, if you’re sincere, if you’re honest, the reader will feel that. And really, what’s the point otherwise?

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