Write It Like Elmore Leonard: Ditch Formal Language
In an interview with Martin Amis, Elmore Leonard discusses how his prose style developed. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
AMIS: I want to ask about your prose. Your prose makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy. Now the way I do it is: I say the sentence in my head until nothing sticks out, there are no “elbows”… With you, it’s all planed flat. How do you plane your prose into this wonderful instrument?
LEONARD: First of all, I’m always writing from a point of view. I decide what the purpose of the scene is, and at least begin with some purpose. But, even more important, from whose point of view is this scene seen? Because then the narrative will take on somewhat the sound of the person who is seeing the scene. And from his dialogue, that’s what goes, somewhat, into the narrative. I start to write and I think, “Upon entering the room,” and I know I don’t want to say “Upon entering the room.” I don’t want my writing to sound like the way we were taught to write. Because I don’t want you to be aware of my writing. I don’t have the language. I have to rely upon my characters.
Here’s one of the greatest crime writers saying that he doesn’t want you to be aware of his writing. A little weird, no?
But this is part of why he’s so good. He lets his characters tell the story. You read a Leonard book and every line sounds like talk. It never sounds, as Leonard put it, “like the way we were taught to write.”
Do you know anyone who would say “Upon entering the room”? It’s one of those phrases that only appears in writing.
Maybe writing in a formal, stilted way worked in the nineteenth century. Maybe it still works in “high literature” or academic journals or something else no one reads. But it doesn’t work in genre fiction and it sure as hell doesn’t work in crime fiction.
Here’s a test I use when editing: If I read a line out loud and it trips me up, or it just doesn’t gel, then it’s gotta go. When I’m reading fiction, the last thing I want is to have to go back and read a line because I didn’t understand it or because it’s poorly phrased. It breaks the illusion that you the reader are part of the book’s fictional world.
I’m going to use a passage from Leonard’s Out of Sight to illustrate a few points about using the natural rhythm of speech and eliminating formal language. I chose this passage at random — just flipped to a page and picked it out. It’s not the most fascinating passage in the book but like all of Leonard’s writing, it goes down smooth. Here it is:
Karen phoned her dad late Monday afternoon from her room in the Westin. He asked about her flight, hoping, he said, Northwest wasn’t still serving that scrambled egg sandwich with the banana and yogurt, and the bagel if you got the sandwich down and were still hungry. A cold bagel, for Christ sake.
Write incomplete sentences
People often talk in incomplete sentences and your characters should too. When editing, I use Word’s search function to find every instance of “There was/were…” and “It was…” Most of the time you can remove these phrases and improve flow. The occasional incomplete sentence will help your writing mimic the natural rhythm of speech.
What if the last line in the Leonard excerpt — A cold bagel, for Christ sake. — had been a complete sentence: They served a cold bagel, for Christ sake. The difference is subtle but noticeable. The incomplete sentence at the end of this passage makes it feel, well, complete.
Here’s one of those “I learned it in school” rules. Some time in the nineteenth century it became a rule not to use contractions in writing. But in recent years even academic style guides have begun to encourage using contractions. Contractions almost always sound more natural than the alternative.
Here’s how the Leonard excerpt would sound with no contractions: He asked about her flight, hoping, he said, Northwest was not still serving that scrambled egg sandwich with the banana and yogurt… Removing that one contraction causes the reader to trip. The sentence loses some of its flavor.
Avoid terrible words
Writing fiction isn’t a vocab test. Forget those words you learned to pass the GRE or to move up the corporate ladder and stick with words people use in everyday speech. As a reader, I get turned off if I have to look up a word in the dictionary.
Some examples of terrible words: equilibrium, inchoate, garrulous, amalgamate. Ditch those easy but stuffy words too: slated, transmitted, uppermost, clientele. There are occasions to use these kinds of words — if you want to show that a character is an asshole or if the setting is a cubicle farm — but ordinary language works in most instances.
The Out of Sight passage contains no fancy words. I’d bet the same goes for the rest of the book.
Use conversational phrasing
Let’s take a look at the end of the second sentence from that passage: He asked about her flight, hoping, he said, Northwest wasn’t still serving that scrambled egg sandwich with the banana and yogurt, and the bagel if you got the sandwich down and were still hungry.
What if it had been …and the bagel if you ate the sandwich and were still hungry. Again, it’s not bad or wrong. I’m not going to throw the book across the room. But if you got the sandwich down sounds better and is more illustrative. By using that phrase, Leonard shows how mediocre and depressing this character thinks airline food is. He uses ordinary language to mimic the natural rhythm of speech.
And it’s not just Leonard who writes this way. I picked up four of my favorite crime fiction titles off my shelf: Donald Westlake’s 361, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground, George Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and Lawrence Block’s Grifter’s Game. I scanned each of them and couldn’t find a single example of formal language.
What I did find were many examples of the natural rhythm of speech. I would assume these writers compared alternate phrasings until each line passed the ear test. They weeded out the awkward or unnecessary. They fretted over details of word choice and punctuation. Like the old saying goes, easy reading is hard writing.
Chris Rhatigan is a freelance editor and publisher of All Due Respect Books.