Dutch’s Immortal Words

The late Cecil Day-Lewis, once Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, writing as Nicholas Blake, noted that a book “is the precious life-blood of a master spirit.” Nothing makes reading more pleasurable than experiencing a masterwork written by a master craftsman.

leonardOne of the masters of the hard-boiled crime novel passed away yesterday. Elmore Leonard was 87. He died at his home of complications from a stroke he had suffered a few weeks back.

From the 1930’s on, American crime/mystery fiction in the 20th Century, and to some extent today, was dominated by two interrelated genres: hard-boiled and noir. The only real difference between the two is the subject matter. Both concern crime, but hard-boiled generally revolves around a lead character who is a detective, while noir involves a male protagonist who is often an “average Joe” (although he can be police or a criminal) that meets up with femme fatale who leads him to his downfall. Leonard’s fiction straddled both sides of that fence with a definite lean towards noir.

The writing style of both hard-boiled and noir fiction is essentially the same, and it’s built around economy of words. These writers approach a novel in much the same way as a Japanese poet does haiku. Another key ingredient is great, pithy opening sentences. Consider the opening line of Leonard’s Freaky Deaky:

Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.”

In just twenty-four words he tells us quite a bit about one of the chief characters in the novel, his job, employment status, his attributes, and gives us a good feel for what is to come. Other writers would have used many more words to tell us all that. Hell, Proust would have spent three or four pages on two in the afternoon alone.

Style may be king in hard-boiled and noir novels, but it’s rather empty without a good story and characterizations. The latter must be believable. And you’d be hard pressed to find any character in a Elmore Leonard story who wasn’t. They were gritty, quirky, misfits who spoke snappy, laconic dialogue that matched perfectly the narrative voice. Hollywood loved Leonard’s characters. 26 of his stories were made into movies: 3:10 to Yuma, Mr. Majestyk, Stick, Get Shorty, Be Cool, Jackie Brown . . .

I’m going to take my cue from “Dutch,” as Leonard was often called, and be concise here. As far as I’m concerned, he was one of the great American novelists. I will refer you to the obituary at the LA Times to learn more about Elmore Leonard’s life and career. For my tribute, and for your edification, here are his 10 Rules for writing, composed in 2001. It’s aimed at writers, obviously, but I think readers can learn a lot about reading from it, too.

WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle


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.

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.

And finally:

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 prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.


2 thoughts on “Dutch’s Immortal Words

  1. Great stuff, what I like most about his rules is the undogmatic tone…he is prepared to cite the exceptions and pay homage. There is a lot in there for the noin-fiction writer as well, I think.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.