February 25, 2004

Avoiding rape and adverbs

Elmore Leonard offers some advice about writing. [New link here -- 3/15/2006.] For his kind of story-telling, his rules make sense to me. At least, they're a fairly accurate description of how he writes, and I like the results. He doesn't mention adjectives, but his fourth rule does suggest avoiding adverbs in one particular context:

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.''

I wanted to check how Leonard stacks up on the contentious adjective dimension. So I pulled a couple of titles at random from my (complete?) collection of his works. A quick, rough count puts the first few paragraphs of Cat Chaser at about 15% adjectives (" ...long two-tone hair thinning fast, what was left of a blond pompadour receding from a sunburned peeling forehead..."), and the first few paragraphs of Mr. Majestyk at 10% ("...worn-out looking men in dirty, worn-out clothes that had once been their own or someone else's good clothes..."), both high relative to Doug Biber's norms.

Honesty compels me to point out that Leonard uses lots of adverbs. The first few paragraphs of Cat Chaser have fast, neatly, freshly, once, half, already, almost, directly, there, and today, not counting the large number of adverbial PPs.

I should also point out that Leonard often uses appositives and adverbial PPs in quotative tags:

...Moran said, just as dry.
...Nolen Tyner said, smiling a little, ...
...the woman said, with an edge but only the hint of an accent.
...Virgil said, spacing the words.
...Mr. Perez said, with his soft accent.
...Ryan said, still wanting to be sure.
...Rafi said, his expression still grave.

"Blah blah, Rafi said, his expression still grave" is stylistically different from "blah blah, Rafi said gravely", but it doesn't seem to me that the writer is intruding any less in these quotative-tag appositives than in quotative-tag adverbs.

Leonard also sometimes uses non-"said" tags like "the girl went on" and "Ryan told his friend."

But still, he uses plain "X said" a lot more than most writers. And this is Elmore Leonard. I'm going to cut him some slack.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 25, 2004 09:06 PM