Leaving Out What Readers Skip: Elmore Leonard



Crime writer Elmore Leonard, who died last week, had such a strong writing voice that you can watch one of his movies or the current television show based on his work – Justifiedand hear him loud and clear. Here is an excerpt from his 2012 book, Raylan, which shows his acute eye for character, snappy dialogue, and ironic humor:

 The girl on the cow-feed sacks kept looking up at Raylan like she was wondering about him, thinking hard of something to say, until she found a sweet voice to ask him, “Sir, would you think I’m bold to inguire what you do as your job?”

Raylan smiled. “Which one is the question, what I think or what I do?”

Pervis Crowe, called “Speed” in the magazine, said “Loretta, don’t you know Drug Enforcement, you would see a man wearing a suit of clothes? The come arouns sniffin the air.”

“You got me wrong,” Raylan said, “I’m marshals service. We go around smelling the flowers, till we get turned on to wanted felons.”

 So we were excited we discovered that Leonard had a list of ten rules for writers. The rules were first published in the New York Times in 2001 and then later made into a short book. Leonard says his rules “help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.”

We think that Leonard was anything but invisible in his stories since his voice was so distinctive, but he sure could show what was taking place as the above excerpt demonstrates. And we recommend his rules that can be seen here, but with some caveats.

When Leonard says never open a book with the weather, he does not mean leave the weather out entirely which is what many of our clients tend to do. Weather is important to how readers picture a scene, particularly if it is outdoors. He begins Raylan with dialogue between characters in an SUV but he notes the “early morning sun showing behind them.”  This not only tells what the weather is, it also gives the time of day.

Similarly, when Leonard says to avoid detailed descriptions of characters and lengthy descriptions of places and things, he doesn’t mean skip them completely. As we have said before a word or two can go a long way when it comes to description. In the passage above, can’t you just see the girl lounging on the cow-feed sacks trying to formulate a question. That is a description even though it may not read like one.

Leonard’s most salient rule may be the one where he advises that writers leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. Read over what you have written with that in mind. Are there parts that ought to go?