Linguist, lexicographer, writer, editor, broadcaster

Elmore, I do skip dialogue

In Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing he includes at number ten, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.…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.”

I skip dialogue. I skip it by the book-full. The bookstores (even the non-chain ones) have shelves and carrels stuffed with what some good-hearted writers (and a bunch of evil ones) are convinced is their best work ever. To me, those books look and read like screenplays packaged with pretty covers. They’re all dialogue. They’re insubstantial. I never buy them if I can help it.

In books, I often skip full passages of dialogue because I’ve learned that most writers write dialogue poorly. It’s mainly a space-filler for them. Manuscript-padding. (“It took me forever to write it! There are 900 pages!”) Most of it is less interesting than what I could hear right now at the corner of Madison Avenue and 34th Street.

So I would rewrite Leonard’s rule to say, “Make sure there’s a reason for everything. Dialogue needs to reveal, description needs a destination. Either becomes hooptedoodle if written over-long, out of rhythm, or with too many writerly good intentions.”

I’d also add in there somewhere: “Most boring descriptions can be aided by being broken into short sentences and short paragraphs.”

And Amen! on the just say no to adverbs. The only one I usually forgive is “warily.” It seems to perfectly capture the side-to-side head and eye movements of a man in expensive shoes who is fishing in a pay phone’s coin return slot.

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Grant Barrett