Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Elmore Leonard's dialogue

You'd think, if you read this blog at all regularly, that I would be a huge Elmore Leonard fan. And indeed, I've long thought of myself as one, even though I'd only read one of his novels (Killshot, maybe?) and listened to another (Be Cool) on a car trip. Unfortunately, the guy reading the latter was terrible--I can't recall who it was--but he made all the women sound like seven-year-old children.

Anyway, the one book I actually read, I loved. And I knew I would love his other books. And I love crime novels and am always looking for something to read. Sometimes it is actually painful for me not to have a good crime novel to read--and here's Leonard with like, how many, thirty books? And yet I never read him. Why not? I have no idea. I guess it was always just something I was going to get around to.

Well, I'm on a Leonard kick now. I just read the new one (terrific) and Freaky Deaky, and will probably read half a dozen more before school starts. It's kind of a cliché to say that Leonard is a Great American Writer, because it's obvious that he is, though he doesn't write about anything of particular importance--nothing historically significant, or morally challenging, or especially "moving" or "inspiring." But he does do the only thing literary writers are supposed to give a crap about--create distinctive characters using distinctive prose.

The thing that really makes the guy what he is, though, is dialogue--he is better at writing it than pretty much anyone I've ever read. Here's a random scene from Freaky Deaky; a police Detective, Chris, is staying at his father's apartment after getting kicked out by his girlfriend:

     His dad said, "You seem to have a lot of trouble with women. They keep throwing you out."
     "I do what she wants, she comes up with something else, I don't talk to her."
     "I don't know what it is," his dad said, "you're not a bad-looking guy. You could give a little more thought to your grooming. Get your hair trimmed, wear a white shirt now and then, see if that works. What kind of aftershave you use?"
     "I'm serious."
     "I know you are and I'm glad you came to me. When'd she throw you out, last night?"
     "She didn't throw me out, I left. I phoned, you weren't home, so I stayed at Jerry's."
     "When you needed me most," his dad said. "I'm sorry I wasn't here."
     "Actually," Chris said, "you get right down to it, Phyllis's the one does all the talking. She gives me banking facts about different kinds of annuities, fiduciary trusts, institutional liquid asset funds...I'm sitting here trying to stay awake, she's telling me about the exciting world of trust funds."
     "I had a feeling," his dad said, "you've given it some thought. You realize life goes on."
     "I'm not even sure what attracted me to her in the first place."
     His dad said, "You want me to tell you?"

Leonard is a master of dropped words, rubber-stamped dialogue tags, comma splices, tense changes, cross purposes--he mingles the inventive efficiencies of real speech, as spoken by people who love to talk, with the technical requirements of written prose in a way that makes the page disappear and the voices come to life in the mind. As I said to Rhian last night, in the final stretch of this book, I could listen to these people all day long.

15 comments:

Sung said...

And Freaky Deaky is actually one of his lesser novels! I've been a huge Leonard fan for years. There was a piece in TNY a number of years back about the guy who did the research/legwork for Leonard, a nice read.

I'm sorry you had a bad reader for Be Cool -- there's nothing quite like listening to Leonard's dialogue when it's read right. Frank Muller did it better than anyone (with Joe Mantegna a close second), and he read a number of his books. City Primeval is my favorite, and even though it's been years, I can still remember this great part: while our hero and his woman are making love, he tells her, "I know you." Is that just wonderful or what?

jon said...

I heard him on Terry Gross and he said that he didn't usually know how his books would end till they were about 2/3's of the way done.I love that.

Gary said...

I find his tough guy heroes mannered, I always think of John Travolta as Chili Palmer and throw up, I don't expect anyone to agree. Splice me a kipper, I'll be back for breakfast.

christianbauman said...

Beautiful, JRL. There is nothing nothing nothing that keeps me glued to a book like killer dialogue. And the great thing about killer dialogue is that you don't realize it until you're way in it...or past it. Like your example there, it's that smooth.

Dialogue is definately one of those things in writing that looks a whole lot easier than it is to execute. Because it seems just like a mirror on reality, so the brain says, "All I have to do is hold that mirror up and I've got it." But killer dialogue is not a mirror, right? It's smoke and mirror, slight of hand, complete trickery. And when done well, totally transparent.

And it is a skill that the hardboiled seem to know a whole lot more about than many of the "literary." Maybe that makes sense, because killer dialogue like your Leonard example is the ultimate heist...a theft of disbelief.

jrlennon said...

Well put, Christian!

McCloskey said...

Sung, I agree. Frank Muller is wonderful. In fact, I have City Primeval right next to me. This is the third time I’ve checked it out from the library. I have this idea that I want to play a snip-it for my students, probably the interview scene early on between the cop and the reporter, and let them “hear” how Leonard crafts his dialogue – with the help of an excellent reader – let them “see” everything that is conveyed through his dialogue. I haven’t, however, followed through with this idea yet because my fear is that we’d just end up listening to it the whole class period.

Pale Ramón said...

In case there are a few readers out there who are unfamiliar with Leonard's rules for writing, here they are. He addresses dialogue specifically toward the end.

Easy on the Hooptedoodle

LemmusLemmus said...

What I wonder: When you introduce the "random" scene, do you use "random" in the oldfashioned way of "random" or the modern sense of "choice"?

jrlennon said...

Pale Ramón, that's a great piece, though it does only refer to a particular kind of writing. (It is my favorite kind of writing, but still.) The money quote, though, is, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." This is excellent advice. Over the many drafts of a novel, there are always things I secretly hate, which I eventually delete...in general, they are things that sound like writing. If it sounds like characters thinking (or, in Leonard's case, talking), it's good. If it sounds like you thinking, it's bad.

jon said...

there are so many great books that would not survive these rules. beethoven couldn't write like the ramones, but that doesn't mean beethoven sucks. of course, the rules on dialogue are quite right, but i assume all rules are meant to be broken.

rmellis said...

Jon, you're right, you can break any rule you like if you're good.

I just reread Housekeeping, which is packed with weather, and is almost all "the stuff readers skip." Except you don't, because it is awesome.

I also believe you can break each of those rules for the sake of being funny. I can think of a number of situations in which the phrase "all hell broke loose" would be perfect and hilarious.

Kevin said...

I love Leonard and think those rules are great, but I also agree that they are particular to a very specific kind of writing. And I think rules like this have become popular simply because they easily put into rule form, they're easily taught. It would be impossible to put a Pynchon aesthetic into an easily understood pedagogy.

Kevin said...

What I meant was: "they can easily be put into rule form." Looks like a left a couple words out of my post. And I also used the passive voice.

IsaacBloomberg said...

I'll have to check him out. Also, Richard Price (Lush Life, Samaritan in particular) and David Simon, of The Wire fame, (Homicide is rife with amazing dialogue) are both masters.

Nancy said...

John, there is something quite real about their dialogue. And the father son relationship. The mismatch of some of their comments. Reminds me of Saul Bellow's remark somewhere about how disjointed speech is from our ideas, speech often lagging way behind.

I have ordered LEONARD'S cowboy stories for H.