Elmore Leonard: Never Use a Verb Other Than “Said” to Carry Dialogue

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He also said, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”

The Washington Post ran a good piece two years ago about Elmore Leonard—the hook was a new Library of America volume of four Leonard novels from the 1970s.

Post writer Neely Tucker said that Leonard had solid, if not spectacular, success in the first two decades of writing. “Then, in the winter of 1972, his agent told him to get George V. Higgins’s new book, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Higgins’s characters were lowlifes and working-class cops, none of whom were the brightest guys you ever met.

“Leonard loved how Higgins let the characters’ voices dictate the style of writing, how he moved the story almost entirely with dialogue.

“He began a new career phase, with crime novels set in Detroit. His character-driven stories were not mysteries—you always knew who did it, because that was the person or people helping narrate the story. His debt to Higgins was so profound that he read the first sentence of Coyle—’Jackie Brown, at 26, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns’—when he accepted the lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation, 40 years later.”
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Elmore Leonard’s advice on writing dialogue:

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.

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

To use an adverb this way (or almost any other way) is a mortal sin.

Comments

  1. David Maraniss says

    Leonard was great at what he did. But when it comes to writing, never say never.

  2. Jack Limpert says

    I found it was newer writers who had the idea that using too many saids wasn’t being creative enough so they exclaimed, declared, asserted, or stated and we changed almost all of those back to said.

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