Elmore Leonard Was Wrong

I really don’t want to take on Elmore Leonard. The man is a national treasure.  I agree with almost everything he says.  But there’s just one thing . . . It began back in 2001 when he wrote an almost completely dead-on accurate list of 10 Rules for Writers for the NY Times’ “Writers on Writing” series.

It’s gone viral ever since – largely because it is, in fact, dead-on accurate.

That’s how I felt when I first read it. Yes, yes, I thought, reading rule number one: Never open a book with weather.   (You’d be shocked how many writers do.  I remember one week when every submission seemed to begin, The purply pink clouds danced lightly over the towering mountain tops, blanketed in a velvety snow so white that . . . zzzzzzzzzz.)

And each rule that followed perfectly summed up a hidden trap that writers inadvertently stumble into.  The tenth was my favorite, the best of all: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

But then I read the fine print.  That is, what Leonard singled out as something readers tend leap over, lest they fall into a big mushy pile of unnecessary information.   First he mentions the weather again – yes, agreed – but then he says, or maybe the writer “has gone into the character's head . . .”

Now wait one minute!  While sure, the last thing the reader wants is to spend time inside the head of a guy who’s navel gazing, rambling or narrating exactly what he’s doing in I-am-moving-my-left-foot-I-am-moving-my-right-foot detail, the truth is “inside the head of a guy” is exactly where the reader wants to be.

After all, a story isn’t what happens, or even what happens to someone, a story is how what happens affects someone.  That means characters need to react to everything that happens in a way the reader can see.  And since most of us (our protagonist included) hold our true reaction to what happens pretty close to the vest, the real story often unfolds right there in the protagonist’s head as she tries to make sense of what’s happening to her and decide what to do next.

We want to know what she’s thinking!  Either point blank, or by slipping it in so subtly that the reader doesn’t even notice we’re doing it.  Want a great example? Here’s one by the master himself, Elmore Leonard, from the fabulous Freaky Deaky:

“Robin watched him drink his wine and refill the glass.  Poor little guy, he needed a mommy.  She reached out and touched his arm.  “Mark?”

Now I ask you, who’d ever want to skip such a creepily intriguing sentence like, “Poor little guy, he needed a mommy”?  Not me. That is, not unless my head was lost in those purply pink clouds dancing lightly across . . . zzzzzzzz.