In Defense of Elmore Leonard’s Rules, Part 2

Continuing a dissection of Elmore Leonard’s Rules,

looking at rules 6-10.

6.      Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7.      Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8.      Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9.      Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10.    Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

He could have also said, “avoid clichés like the plague.” Both of these phrases are– like exclamation points– designed to manufacture excitement instead of letting it be created naturally.

Examine these two phrases:

  • I pulled over by the side of the road and got out of my car. The night sky lit up as lightning sizzled the ground in front of me.
  • I pulled over by the side of the road and got out of my car. Suddenly, the night sky lit up as lightning sizzled the ground in front of me.

Here, “suddenly” doesn’t add anything useful to the sentence. In theory, it’s supposed to make the sentence feel quick and surprising. But, since it adds an extra word and a comma, it actually makes the sentence feel slower.

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

In David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, one of the short stories is a far-future dystopian tale in which characters speak in this quasi-southern dialect, and Mitchell gleefully uses this thick dialect full of apostrophes and hyphens during every single piece of dialogue. It’s maddeningly complex. But Mitchell does it on purpose, as that whole book is a meta-joke on genres and bad writing.

A southern character might say “y’all”, but he doesn’t need to say “are y’all comin’ to the dance?” We can infer from the y’all how the rest of the sentence goes. Dialect slows down the reader, which slows down the story. An occasional tidbit like y’all or youse is enough for us to get the sense of the character. Let the cadence and subject matter do the rest.

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

One incredibly annoying thing I’ve encountered in books is when an author describes a character partway into the story. I spend 120 pages with Paula Protagonist, having an image of her in my head, then the author mentions that Paula has blond hair or is chubby and has an eye patch and a parrot on her shoulder. This information might have been useful when I first met Paula, but not after I’ve already created an image for her in my mind. Takes me right out of the story. What would you think if a character in a movie inexplicably changed his appearance halfway through?

Also, if Paula’s blond hair is important to the story, tell me. If not, I don’t see how it bears mentioning. I’d much rather see characterization through what she does, rather than what she looks like.

And never, ever put your protagonist in front of a mirror. Ugh.

Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

This is an extension of the previous. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, says to describe locations only if they are important to the story, such as if the reader will visit the location more than once. I think locations need to be described to the extent that the reader must be oriented in space, and the subject matter dictates the depth. If two characters are going to have a fight sequence and use the environment in the fight, it would be helpful to know what’s around them.

Think of the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker fight at the end of Empire. Darth Vader uses the force to rip pipes and stuff from the walls to throw at Luke. Imagine if that scene were in a book: since the environment is directly involved in the story, it should be described beforehand. Otherwise, it feels too much like deus ex machina: I need a weapon… oh look, there just happens to be a heavy-framed velvet Elvis on the wall next to me. Take that, Skywalker!

Don’t make the mistake of going into great detail describing your protagonist’s apartment so you can tell us what kind of person she is. I’d rather learn what kind of person she is by what she says and does (see how Leonard’s rules keep coming back to a few simple principles?).

A detail or two is fine: what kind of posters she has on the wall, what books she has on her bookshelf. But whether the furniture is sandalwood or oak, who gives a crap?

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Quentin Tarantino may be able to write characters talking about nothing for minutes on end, but he’s a two-time Oscar winner. You, however, need to keep your reader interested from the first page and never let up. Give your character a goal, then put your character in jeopardy of reaching that goal.

Readers in suspense can’t wait to get to the next page and devour the text like a fat kid eating pie. Bored readers skip ahead. Don’t be boring.

Source: “WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle” 
By ELMORE LEONARD, published in NY TIMES

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