Reflections from the Well
On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration
By Alexander Slagg
Breaking the Rules on Dialogue
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”— from Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing
Elmore Leonard is a writing hero of mine. I remember coming across these rules somewhere, before I had read any of his books. These Moses-like commandments flew in the face of my approach to writing at the time. I was young and Beat-inspired, wanting to throw in every kitchen-sink, Michael Chabon-esque word I could think of. I was trying to communicate the experiences I was writing about in as much depth and breadth as I could. I was showing off.
And then I read this old fuddy-duddy’s “rules” — hey man don’t try to shackle my creative freedom — and I paused. This guy wasn’t trying to communicate the totality of human experience, he was talking about telling a successful story. Hmmm. I went out and read several of his books and I was quickly hooked.
Elmore Leonard tells a pretty good story. By that I mean: the plot operates efficiently, the writing itself is slim and toned, the characters are sketched and leave room for the imagination to fill in the details, the dialogue glides like a figure skater. All good writing qualities. And all qualities that I aspire to in my writing.
But...these two particular Leonard writing rules have always rubbed me the wrong way. And I think they bother me because in real life no one just “says” something. Reality is much more complex and detailed than that. People speak with pauses and emphases, intonations and inflections. If you happen to speak Chinese, for example, you know that the inflection of how a word is spoken can give it vastly different meaning, asking for “beauty” instead of “tea.” If I’m going to try to get across a semblance of how people actually talk, I need to be able to describe it.
Conventional creative writing will instruct you to not to get in the way of dialogue with descriptions. Let it flow. Let the characters’ actions and descriptions “communicate” how the reader should interpret the dialogue. I think that’s garbage.
Part of the problem is that writing is at its essence a poor communication medium for describing the finer details of reality. Words are actually very poor signifiers of information. They’re too limiting in their ability to convey the vast universe of possible action/experience/behavior. And they aren’t very good at handling subtle nuances, such as how people talk. When we do try to get more specific, it's usually clunky. With English, one of the lazy ways we’ve come up with as an approach to describing action is to take an adjective such as “rapid” and clamp an “ly” onto the back of it. “Rapidly.” Here's an example to consider:
“Stop. Don’t open that door. Seriously. You will regret it,” Felix enunciated rapidly.
No, Mr. Leonard, “enunciated rapidly” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. It’s awkward; it slows the reading down. I get that. But as a reader, I certainly appreciate knowing specifically how Felix spoke. I can clearly imagine "enunciated rapidly" much better than if Felix merely "said" something. It makes for a richer reading experience.
In some instances, not having an descriptor of how the character is speaking can even be confusing. Consider this dialogue from Leonard’s Maximum Bob. Two characters, Elvin and Dr. Tommy, are feeling each other out, determining if they can do some shady business together. Dr. Tommy’s talking about a rifle here, using it to kill someone.
Elvin said, “What’s wrong with you?” The guy acting strange, his eyes getting a funny look, while his voice was fairly calm.
“Or would you like to use it? Dr. Tommy said. “You have the experience, uh? You’re looking for a score...I’m serious now. You listening?”
“Yeah. I’m listening.”
“I’ll pay you to kill a man. What do you say?”
What Elvin said was, “How much?”
This dialogue comes from a crucial early scene in the story. Elvin’s acceptance of this “job” sets the whole conflict of the novel into motion. As a reader, I’m riveted as I read this. But...how am I to read “Yeah. I’m listening.” in this exchange? Is it said with doubt, conviction, feigned disregard, bluster, salivating interest? Who knows.
It might be nice to know, to be able to understand where the character Elvin is coming from in his response. And sure, reading the surrounding text of the story can probably sketch for the reader how Elvin is saying these words. But why does this responsibility get pushed back onto the reader? The writer’s driving the story here, can’t he provide us with what we know to interpret this crucial scene?
Dialogue is crucial to a story. Because of its importance, it needs to be handled thoughtfully. Give some real thought to how those words are coming out of his or her mouth. More often than not, Mr. Leonard’s advice will suffice; just use “said.” But the rules are meant to be broken. On occasion, some detailed description of how the words are spoken can be crucial to keeping the reader engaged.