Part four of the series on Leonard’s golden rules, featuring mortal sins, unwanted exposure and a point of comparison between Harry Potter and Ulysses.
4. Never use an adverb to modify ‘said’
Elmore says: 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’.
Anyone who has followed Elmore this far (and plenty of writers have —a quick search reveals hundreds of Leonard fans willing to treat his opinion as law) will have learnt to abandon all verbs other than ‘said’ when writing dialogue. Unfortunately, dialogue can still go horrifically wrong: just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, you discover a great trite adverb waiting to swallow up your chances of success. Using adverbs, says Elmore, is a ‘mortal sin’, perhaps not exactly comparable to rape, but certainly worthy of a place in the same sentence. As usual, I’ve made it my mission to track down a few mortal sinners, writers willing to ‘expose themselves in earnest’ (a welcome thought in some cases, if disquieting in others) and kill off their novel’s credibility with a single deadly verb-adverb combo.
Reasons to ignore him:
William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair
‘Lady Jane can play, sir, at the game to which you state you are so partial,’ Pitt said haughtily. ‘But she wawn’t stop for all that.’
Vanity Fair is one of those gigantic Victorian classics which you could happily use as a surrogate dumbbell or a weapon against potential burglars. It’s bound to contain an adverb to modify ‘said’ at some point, and, a few hundred pages in, Sir Pitt ‘haughtily’ qualifies Lady Jane’s assertion that she can play backgammon — Pitt’s syntax suggests haughtiness even without the adverb, but Thackeray makes sure we get the point. Anyone unwilling to read as far as Chapter 39 can find another example in Becky Sharp’s first line:
‘You’ll go in and say good-by to Miss Pinkerton, Becky!’ said Miss Jemima to a young lady of whom nobody took any notice, and who was coming downstairs with her own bandbox.
‘I suppose I must,’ said Miss Sharp calmly…
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
‘She raised me, sat in her chair, and standing me before her, said slowly in a cold, low voice — I see her knitted brow and pointed finger — ‘Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers.’
Anything Vanity Fair can do, Bleak House can do better. Dickens is pretty much the anti-Leonard, and this tortuous sentence, replete with dashes and commas, would have many editors reaching for the red pen (or the ‘track changes’ button). Like great jokes, great sentences rely on timing: here, the impact of Miss Barbary’s sharp sentence is increased by the meandering build-up. Rewritten according to Leonard’s rules, this would read something like: ‘She stood me in front of her. ‘Your mother is your disgrace and you were hers,’ she said.’ It gets to the point quicker, but is it in any way superior to the original?
T. H. White, The Once and Future King
Lancelot stuck his blade in the ground and went over to examine the wound.
‘I am not going to hurt you,’ he said. ‘It’s alright. Let me see.’
‘You have cut open my liver,’ said the man accusingly.
Here, in the third part of The Once and Future King, the extra word completes the punchline. It’s hard to argue that the tone of indignation added by ‘accusingly’ doesn’t add something to the scene; like Dickens, T. H. White proves that timing is critical.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [but feel free to look at any of the other six]
‘You can’t blame them,’ said Dumbledore gently. ‘We’ve had precious little to celebrate for eleven years.’
‘I know that,’ said Professor McGonagall irritably.
The Harry Potter series is a masterclass on how not to write dialogue. In the first chapter alone, characters sniff, chortle, snap, mumble, falter, gasp, repeat, hiss, sob, whisper, murmur and generally stick two fingers up at the likes of Elmore Leonard. On the page from which this particular example is taken, McGonagall also sniffs angrily and speaks impatiently, and the adverbs keep going right the way through to the end of the seventh book. On the very last page of The Deathly Hallows, we have Hermione ‘saying quietly’, a few paragraphs below Ron ‘saying loudly’ and Harry ‘saying wearily’. Perhaps it’s possible to get away with more in a children’s book, but it’s worth remembering that millions of adults take Rowling’s books very seriously indeed — there’s no better example of a writer falling short of the rules and still succeeding, against all odds.
James Joyce, Ulysses
Buck Mulligan peeped an instant under the mirror and then covered the bowl smartly.
—Back to barracks, he said sternly.
Joyce’s Ulysses and the Harry Potter series have little in common. One extends to over a thousand pages, baffles the most learned of university professors and is frequently painful to read; the other is Joyce’s Ulysses. Like Rowling, Joyce is exceptionally fond of using adverbs to modify verbs, and the opening chapter of his greatest novel (anyone who favours Finnegans Wake has almost certainly never read it) features Stephen ‘saying gaily’, Buck ‘crying thickly’ and Stephen ‘saying gloomily’, amongst numerous other examples. The excess of adverbs is partly parodic, but also an indication that Joyce cares very little for rules. When you write as well as he did, you can use modifying adverbs whenever and wherever you choose.