Look at that writing: Elmore Leonard

Sometimes a piece of writing just hits me the right way, and I sit back, amazed. It makes me want to hold up the book and exclaim, “Look! Look at this right here. Now this is writing!”

I usually don’t literally do that, but I did this week.

I’m reading Get Shorty for, I dunno, maybe the tenth time. That puts it up there amongst my most-read books. It’s the first and only Elmore Leonard book I’ve read, a mistake I’ve been meaning to correct for something like fifteen years. My reward for finishing this post is checking out Rum Punch from the library.

I’ll be honest: I picked up the book because I adore the movie and the character Chili Palmer. I apologize to book purists in advance, but there are are some parts of the movie I prefer. However, there’s one thing it didn’t capture.

That Elmore Leonard frickin’ dialogue, man.

John Travolta is nice and smooth in the movie, Chil you might say, but his portrayal has that Hollywood polish. Chili Palmer in the book is tougher, rough around the edges. He thinks and talks like a person, which is to say, not like a written character obeying the rules of writing and language. He also doesn’t think much of the things people say.

Despite having read this book several times, it always takes me a few pages to regain my comfort with Leonard’s natural, if unusual style. I say that with all possible affection. As much as I appreciate grammar and the mechanics of writing, there are times when you break all the rules, and he is a master.

I’m coming to the end of the book and this passage knocks me out:

Getting up he seemed to notice Harry for the first time, Harry wanting to be recognized, Harry saying, “Buddy, how you doing?” The agent nodded, said yeah, great. Chili watched him glance this way now—like, what, another one? Where’d these guys come from? Michael didn’t tell him. He said one more time he wanted that book. Buddy told him it was his, and left.

I read this paragraph, which as I mentioned above, wasn’t for the first time. But I immediately re-read it, thinking about the writing decisions made here, my brain telling me, this shouldn’t work, but it does!

Quick side note about me: I loved high school English, studied writing in college, and have been a professional writer for twenty years. Heck, I even married an English teacher. If any of us turned in something like that for anything but a creative writing class – and even then! – well, there’d be some serious head-shaking going on by the person grading or paying you. “By all the rules of the venerated English language, every piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten, this was not the way you write, good sir!” Punctuated by a slammed fist upon the desk, which is followed by the adjusting of a powdered wig.

Back to Elmore Leonard. Here are three things I took away as I considered his style.

Mechanics: it’s basically a middle finger raised to all the rules you’ve been taught. From run-ons to unattributed dialogue to multiple people saying things in the same paragraph. Put in the hands of a less capable, and perhaps less imaginative writer, this might have been six short paragraphs, mostly dialogue, and would have lost the impact that Leonard delivers here.

I like to imagine an editor reading the manuscript, red pen twitching in anticipation, much like a parent at the playground who’s watching someone else’s child misbehaving, and they’re doing that stop-start thing where they keep reconsidering whether they should say something.

Point-of-view: this passage is representative of much of the book, which is told from the POV of a few main characters. But there’s no “I did this” or “I’m going there” sentences. Additionally, dialogue and the conveying of information, emotion, etc. is all subject to a character’s interpretation of what’s being said or expressed nonverbally in some other manner.

A lack of quotes speaks to the importance of some of the dialogue, too. Only Harry’s initial greeting sits in quotes – the rest is throw-away chit-chat – because it’s what Chili believes is important. Overall, Leonard’s style reduces the the need for traditional dialogue, which many writers, myself included, are hesitant to do. Speaking of which….

Dialogue: You’ve got SIX different things communicated by the characters in that paragraph, seven, if you count Chili’s perspective of the scene. You’ve got the verbal stuff from Harry in quotes, but the agent’s response isn’t. Then you’ve got Chili’s interpretation of the agent’s look, and Michael’s neglect to answer an unspoken question. It ends with another exchange between Michael and Buddy. In the hands of a less competent writer, the reader might get whiplash from the transitions or become confused. Neither happens to us here, especially since we’re already comfortable with Leonard’s style by this point in the book.

Reading through those three things, you might be thinking that it’s a lot of analysis for a single paragraph. Yep. But here’s the thing. It’s just me typing out all the unconscious processes and interpretations going through a person’s head while they read. Because Leonard is so skilled, we don’t have to consciously consider them as we enjoy his book.

He’s teaching us how to adapt to his style and we didn’t even know it. And that is perhaps one of the highest compliments I can give a writer.

We’ve grown up hearing about the importance of reading. Professional writers reinforce its importance to their process, too. And this post is an example of why. Reading gives us myriad opportunities to learn other ways to write beyond the mechanics and rules. Whether you’d write like Elmore Leonard is irrelevant. Deciding you’d never use that style is also a valid choice. But at the very least, I think that looking at options and making a conscious choice is a critical step toward developing a writer’s style. Imagine how boring we’d be if we never progressed past the grammatically correct, “See Dick and Jane run.”

Good luck creating your own style!


© Michael Wallevand, July 2021


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