Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle
from the New York Times, Writers on Writing Series.
Being a good author is a disappearing act.
By ELMORE LEONARD
These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain
invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than
tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for
language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you,
invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules.
Still, you might look them over.
1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create
atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you
don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead
looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry
Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you
can do all the weather reporting you want.
2. Avoid prologues.
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an
introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily
found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can
drop it in anywhere you want.
There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet
Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book
makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like
a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me
what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what
he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the
guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not
too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a
bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a
little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set
aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle
to get mixed up with the story.”
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.”
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of
prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom
Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that
writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in
the application of exclamation points.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading
the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the
way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of
short stories “Close Range.”
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills
Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl
with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it
on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical
description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by
their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with
language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if
you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring
the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
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.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I
can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the
sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain
invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.
(Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what
you want to say.)
If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a
particular character—the one whose view best brings the scene to
life—I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the
characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they
see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.
What Steinbeck did in “Sweet Thursday” was title his
chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover.
“Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy
Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled
“Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle
2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying:
“Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy
with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip
them if you want.”
“Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just
beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that
Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.