The sad news this morning is that crime writer Elmore Leonard died this morning. He was 87 years old.
Leonard first began writing Westerns, but slowly moved into crime writing, frequently focusing on his adopted home of Detroit. He became iconic for this style, and if you don’t know his books you almost certainly know some of the films that are based on them — 26 of his novels have been adapted, resulting in “Jackie Brown” and “Get Shorty.” The TV show “Justified” is also based on his work.
In 2001, Leonard wrote an article for the New York Times that explained his rules for writing. It’s interesting reading them as a journalist. Some, such as number one (“Never open a book with weather”) aren’t that applicable, but others make total sense. Here’s points three and four:
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.
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. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”
Perhaps the best point of them all is the final one, and in an age where most people do their reading (and writing) online, it’s never been more important:
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
Leonard goes on to say explain how far he’ll go to make writing interesting. “[If] proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go,” he wrote. “I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
This entire style seems to be an effort to appear effortless. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” he wrote in the Times. This allowed the realism of his dialogue and plot to shine through — his writing style became “invisible.”
A lot of writers try to do this and almost all fail. Leonard achieved it.
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