“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones” — Albert Einstein

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Elmore Leonard on the Mortal Sin of Dialogue Tags

Elmore Leonard needs no introduction but his rules of writing bear repeat. I particularly like Rules 3 and 4 and need to be constantly reminded of 3 and 4. So I'm herein reminding myself at the same time I'm reminding you.
Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing.
Rule 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.
Rule 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.
It’s better to convey your characters emotion through their actions, odd habits (ie. biting bottom lip, etc.) and that the word 'said' disappears to readers
Despite the overwhelming temptation to do otherwise, use the word, “said,” a lot. The classic dialogue tags,“He grimaced,” or “He chuckled,” or “He snickered” draws attention to the tag line and away from the purpose of the dialogue. Use them sparingly.

If you feel the snickering or chuckling is necessary to move your story forward, fine. Just put it in a sentence of its own.

“No, you don’t,” he chuckled.


“No, you don’t.” He chuckled at the notion.

Turn your inappropriate tags into enhancing sentences to improve your writing.

Finally: Don't let your characters sound the same.

I know I shouldn't stick my nose in a character's line of dialogue, but like any mere mortal writer, I often buckle to the temptation. How about you? Are you guilty?


Frances Garrood said...

I tend to stick to the "said" rule, although occasionally my characters are allowed to whisper. I agree totally about the adverbs. I've read some appallingly adverb-strewn books recently, and find them really irritating.

Yvonne Osborne said...

Hi Frances!
I know I'm guilty of the whispering too. We tend to think we can get away an occasional tag,and the lapse might be forgiven as long as they aren't strew about as you describe. Thanks for commenting!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm much better now at sticking to 'said.' (Or 'thought,' as my characters are telepathic.) And I eliminate any tag when possible.

Sarah Allen said...

I think this is a pretty solid rule. Good post.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, with Joy)

Yvonne Osborne said...

I just bet your characters are all telepathic! Thanks!

It is a solid rule so why is it so often broken? There is another saying, goes something like, "It's okay to break the rules as long as you first know them"! Thanks so much.