I'm a bit ashamed to admit I haven't read any of Elmore Leonard's novels, but I've watched several of the shows and movies that were adapted from his stories, and after I heard about his death a few weeks ago, I was drawn to learn more about him in a way I hadn't been before. In particular, I was intrigued by his essay, "Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle," which is a list of the rules Leonard employed 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."
Here's a condensed version of Leonard's rules:
- Never open a book with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said."
- Keep your exclamation points under control.
- Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Good writing advice, to be sure. But no matter how carefully I might try to follow them, I'm sure I would mess up along the way. (I did in the previous sentence, for example.) So, instead of trying (and failing) to imitate Elmore Leonard's style, I decided to go in the opposite direction; to break as many of the rules as many times as I could in a single story.
The clouds rolled in suddenly over the summer-scorched Kansas prairie the day Leonard gave me the most important advice of my life! He was a stoop-shouldered man, his formerly erect posture burdened by the unrelentingly inexorable march of the years. “Now, you gon’ listen up right and proper-like, y’hear?” Leonard declaimed, flecks of spittle hanging precariously from his bulbous lower lip.
“Yes’m, I’s listenin’,” I asseverated reverently!
Years after that day, when my son, a bald-headed ex-marine with a tattoo of his vociferously forgotten ex-wife on the backside of his left calf, who served one tour in Iraq and then another one immediately following the first, slammed the white-trimmed screen door I had carefully repainted just a month before, stripping off the old faded sky-blue paint before sanding it smoothly with the sandpaper I had purchased from the hardware store on the corner of Jay and Chamberlain, the one the arthritic old owner who searched you menacingly with his one good eye staunchly refused to sell to the big chain store no matter how encroachingly they presented the offer, all hell nearly broke loose! And I don’t mean the rain-signaling air with its precipitously lower pressure that the aforementioned door slamming unceremoniously let in.
“Dagnabbit! C’mon back now, Sonny!” I ejaculated after him imploringly, hoping my words might convince him to turn tail and come back in open-mindedly, ready to hear me out. “I ain’t toldja Leonard’s advice none yet!”
Miraculously, he suddenly stopped and turned tail to come back inside, just as I had asked him. He tremblingly grabbed the handle of the screen door and opened it up, the door swinging creakingly on its hinges, and walked back in, one step at a time. He crossed the room tentatively, his workbooted feet taking steps roughly two feet shorter than he typically strode, the scuffed soles rebounding harmlessly off the weather-worn wood floor, until he stood in front of the sofa. He sat down slowly, and I haltingly began to speak.
“Now, I knows this ain’t what you wantin’ to hear none right this now,” I pronounced gravely, “and I knows just as well as you knows things ain’t always been sunshine and dandylions twixt us’n, but I need ya t’ hear me out, Sonny. C’n ya do that fer me?”
Sonny nodded agreeably. “Yes’m, Pa. I reckon I can do that.”
I cleared my quickly to speak, not wanting to let this exceedingly rare moment between us pass. We didn’t often get moments like this, when Sonny’s temper didn’t make the veins appear bulgingly across his forehead, in a way that I was mostly sure kept his ears from hearing anything or anyone else might say to admonish him.
“Here’s what I gots to say t’ ya’,” Sonny. And you remember now, these’r them words Leonard imparted to me with his speaking mouth all them years ago,” I impelled hopefully. “’If it sounds like hooptedoodle, you best rewrite those words firing synaptically through your thinking brain afore all hell breaks loose!’”
Sonny nodded comprehendingly. “I understands, Pa. I for sure most definitely does!”