Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Don't Listen to Elmore Leonard!

Michael Lydon, a well-known writer on popular music since the 1960s, has for many years also been writing about writing. Lydon's essays, written with a colloquial clarity, shed fresh light on familiar and not so familiar aspects of the writing art. Here Lydon takes issue with the novelist Elmore Leonard's "rules" against descriptive writing.

Elmore Leonard's "Ten Rules of Writing" have been popping up on various literary sites in the last few months. Eight of Leonard's rules are matters of personal taste or make some sloppy sense, and since I figure they'll earn a writer money, always a good thing, I'll let them pass. But his two rules on visual description—

#8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

#9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

—must be faced down and stopped in their tracks.

Fellow writers, be warned: Leonard's two rules are grotesquely bad advice, advice bad enough to make one wonder if Leonard is joking, and if not, whether his own work, assuming that he practices as he preaches, has any value.

Avoid visual description? Revel in visual description! Word painting is not difficult: look and write what you see, using the simplest words possible. Here's the start of a sketched self-portrait:

A tall, thin man with a white beard and ponytail, wearing blue jeans and red canvas shirt, sat at a battered card table set up between a bureau and a bookcase in the bedroom of a crowded Manhattan apartment. On the table were scattered pens and pencils, two cups of coffee, papers clipped together but still messy, an address book and an extra pair of reading glasses.

Painting with words is one of our art's greatest glories, most useful and powerful tools. Whether we write fiction, non-fiction, biography, memoir, news, drama, even poetry, a primary goal is: get a person in a place. The person and place could be a debutante in Dubai, a Czech spy in a Chinese brothel, or a Martian in a Miami marina: in every case we need visual description to put them there. If readers can't see our characters in a three-dimensional world, what have we got? Nobody nowhere.

Here is somebody somewhere: Alice Vavasor, the "her" of Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? Trollope first paints Alice:

...she was tall and well made, rather large in her neck and shoulders, as were all the Vavasors, but by no means fat. Her hair was brown, but very dark, and she wore it rather lower on her forehead than is customary in the present day. Her eyes, too, were dark, though they were not black, and her complexion, though not quite that of a brunette, was far away from being fair. Her nose was somewhat broad, and rétrousse too, but to my thinking it was a charming nose...

—then her dowdy house:

...a small house on the south side of the street, squeezed in between two large mansions which seemed to crush it, and by which its fair proportion of doorstep and area was in truth curtailed. The stairs were narrow; the dining room was dark...[The drawingroom had] green paper, a green carpet, green curtains, and green damask chairs...

A person in a place, as simple as that. Homer, the authors of the Bible, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Fielding, Balzac, Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Dreiser, James Jones, Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn—all excel in painting real people in real places. Here is Melville's savage portrait of Ahab on the Pequod:

He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form seemed made from solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini's cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish.

Would Leonard ask Melville to rewrite that into, "The captain didn't look very nice"?

Leonard fears that visual description will slow down narrative action. In his hands perhaps, but good writers learn to move their point of view and get action not only from what they describe, but also their zooming around the subject trying to get the best possible view. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo takes us down to the smoky depths of Paris's thieves' kitchen:

Fires, round which swarmed strange-looking groups, were blazing here and there. All was bustle, confusion, uproar. Coarse laughter, the crying of children, the voices of women, were intermingled. The hands and heads of this multitude, black upon a luminous ground, were making a thousand antic gestures. A dog which looked like a man, or a man who looked like a dog, might be seen from time to time passing over the place...

—then, at an accelerating pace, he leads us up the cathedral towers until we get a bird's eye view of the whole sunlit city:

The spectator, on arriving breathless at that elevation, was dazzled by the chaos of roofs, chimneys, streets, bridges, belfries, towers, and steeples. All burst at once upon the eye—the carved gable, the sharp roof, the turret perched upon the angles of the walls, the stone pyramid of the eleventh century, the slated obelisk of the fifteenth, the round and naked keep of the castle, the square and fretted tower of the church, the great and the small, the massive and the light.

When Vronsky's horse breaks her back in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy takes us close to Vronsky on the racetrack—

...he stood staggering alone on the muddy, stationary ground and Frou-Frou lay breathing heavily before him, bending her head back and gazing at him with her beautiful eyes. Still unable to realize what had happened Vronsky tugged at the rein. Again she writhed like a fish, creaking the flaps of the saddle, and put out her forelegs but, unable to lift her back, immediately collapsed and fell on her side again.

—then moves to the grandstand where Anna sees the same event in long shot:

Without replying to her husband, Anna lifted her binoculars and gazed toward the place where Vronsky had fallen; but it was so far off and so many people had crowded there that it was impossible to distinguish anything.

Good writers use what they see to intuit inner states of mind, moving seamlessly from sight to insight—again Trollope, here in Framley Parsonage describing the cold Griselda Grantly:

She was decidedly a beauty, but somewhat statuesque in her loveliness. Her forehead was high and white, but perhaps too like marble to gratify the taste of those who are fond of flesh and blood. Her eyes were large and exquisitely formed, but they seldom showed much emotion....Her mouth, too, was very fine...but to me she always seemed as though she wanted fullness of lip.

"So 19th century," Leonard might argue, "us tough guy American modernists don't bother painting details." Raymond Chandler, grandpa of the tough guy style, bothered plenty, here a California highway at twilight:

Tired men in dusty coupes and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and ploughed on north and west toward home and dinner, an evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives. I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed carhops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchen that would have poisoned a toad.

Leonard's rules on visual description, in sum, point us away from the broad vistas of good writing down a literary blind alley. My advice? Don't go there. Or if you must, let your reader see the alley: the stony walls and bricked-in windows, the sickly ailanthus tree, the burnt-out car, bald tires mired in oily puddles, broken beer bottles, torn black garbage bags, and forgotten, half-rotten books.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 7th 2010, 1:50 AM
Comment by: Tiktaalik
I agree with your view of descriptive writing Michael, but like most things, it can be used to excess. I once tried to read an otherwise interesting book by Dean Koontz that was about 30% descriptive.

Oh, the tedium. I read about a third of it before throwing it away in frustration. I don't remember the title, but I do remember I was on the ferry from Alaska, with not much else to do.
Monday June 7th 2010, 3:30 AM
Comment by: kate L. (fairlight Australia)
I agree with you but... think it always better to 'show' the reader rather than 'tell' ie use descriptive devices, similes, metaphors etc
Monday June 7th 2010, 8:05 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
The key to this discussion lies in the excoriated rules themselves: Leonard said to avoid "detailed" description of characters, not all description (rule 8); and he said to avoid describing places and things "in great detail," not to avoid it completely (rule 9).

The examples Mr. Lydon presents are eloquent, but they are, indeed, very 19th-century. In writers' circles, this is often explained through an analogy with painting: realistic paysage painting was very attractive decades ago, but someone who does just this today will find his or her paintings snubbed by connoisseurs and condemned to decorating elevators. Similarly, someone who redoes Trollope, Hugo, or Melville today will run into trouble finding a publisher.

Now, this is not to say that Mr. Lydon isn't right. He is. Verbal portraits of characters and settings are one of fiction's most powerful and most memorable parts. The trouble is, as Leonard points out, overdoing it. Leonard's is good advice, because excessive descriptions can do precisely what Mr. Lydon mentioned: bog down the narrative. And that's a great risk for contemporary fiction.

That doesn't mean some people don't take the risk. Here's a very recent example: look at the long, and very descriptive start of Jonathan Franzen's story called " Agreeable" in The New Yorker. Franzen's story shows how detailed description can in fact slow down the action. I think the opening should've been severely trimmed in order to tie into the action, which only starts a couple of pages later.

And here's a very pertinent example, from p. 5 of Elmore Leonard's recent novel Up in Honey's Room: "They stood looking at each other, Walter Schoen wearing little round prince-nez glasses pinched on the bridge of his nose, his hair shaved high on the sides and combed flat on top. Honey saw it as German military, judging from pictures of Life of Adolf Hitler and his crowd. Walter even looked like one of them." So there is Leonard himself, describing a character. The reason this description isn't excessive is that it pushes the action forward (this is how two characters met) and that it serves to characterize both Honey and Walter (here we learn as much about Honey's personality as about Walter's physical appearance).

So, going back to the beginning, the key lies in the wording of the rules themselves: avoid an excessive helping of details. I think we can all agree with that.
Monday June 7th 2010, 8:26 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
"Here is Melville's savage portrait of Ahab on the Pequod:

He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form seemed made from solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini's cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish.

Would Leonard ask Melville to rewrite that into, "The captain didn't look very nice"?"

Absolutely brilliant! I couldn't stop my laughter, for a while, after reading what I quoted, above, from your paper. And I have enjoyed reading this article, as I always enjoy reading what you write.
Monday June 7th 2010, 10:35 AM
Comment by: Sumner G. (Los Angeles, CA)
Monday June 7th 2010, 11:06 AM
Comment by: L. C. S. (Albuquerque, NM)
Good stuff, Michael. And thank you for shining the light on Melville.

I posted links to the entire "Ten rules for writing fiction" from the Guardian U.K. in my LinkedIn group.

The most fascinating aspect was the amazing variety in personal writing style descriptions from a slew of contemporary authors.
Part 1: http://bit.ly/bUBF9l
Part 2: http://bit.ly/dkQ6Ul

The full list included: Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy, Hilary Mantel, Michael Moorcock, Michael Morpurgo, Andrew Motion, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Will Self, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson

Monday June 7th 2010, 11:22 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
When I published my first novel, I got a call one day from Harlan Ellison, who told me that my novel (which had won all sorts of acclaim) would have been better had I avoided all description and made it look as much as possible like a screenplay. Luckily, I was on my back after a bad fall from a horse and heavily on vallium, which tamped down any offense I would otherwise have taken. I said "My style models have always been Austen and Dickens." (Though T.H. White would have been more accurate.) "Yeah, baby," he replied, but we've gotten a lot better since."

I found the conversation a laugh and shared it with a friend of mine, who had been married to Randal Garrison, an SF writer of a previous generation. "Harlen?" she giggled. "I remember Randal telling him to cut out all description and reduce dialog to "He said," or "She said." He told him that because young Harlen was so hopeless, Randal was trying to save something of his writing!"

Leonard himself puts all his flavor into the direct conversation.
Monday June 7th 2010, 12:14 PM
Comment by: Waldo G. (London United Kingdom)
I think that Elmore Leonard's later work is over-rated; he's supposed to be a master of dialogue but his earlier novels were balanced between dialogue and descriptive writing - the 'realism' of his dialogue strikes me as phoney in his recent work, the characters repeat themselves and talk about each other incessantly. He hasn't dispensed with description, he's moved it into the dialogue, and this makes the dialogue ring untrue in certain places. Having said all that, I do think description should be kept to a minimum in stories where narrative momentum is of the essence. And I can't help wondering if the writer of this article has actually read any Elmore Leonard?
Monday June 7th 2010, 2:36 PM
Comment by: Lyn P.
Creative writing instructor I had some time ago said that we should strive for 50:50 action:description (however we present it), more dialog, less author point of view, start with action rather than description or backstory. And, most importantly, anything that slows down the story, needs to be pared to the minimum if not eliminated entirely, esp in non-novel length pieces. If a thing/place is important, consider it a character and figure out how to reveal it to the reader without compromising the story. Good advice...if you can figure out how to do all that simultaneously *G*!

"Whether we write fiction, non-fiction, biography, memoir, news, drama, even poetry, a primary goal is: get a person in a place...in every case we need visual description to put them there. If readers can't see our characters in a three-dimensional world, what have we got? Nobody nowhere." Reviwed a friend's start of a short story and the first para blew me away -- protagonist musing over the sight of a girl and her horse in a pasture as he walks toward them shifting the weight of his current possessions from one shoulder to the other -- could have been any century -- then the shifting reminded him of the weight of the shoulder artillery and shazam we're anchored in time and place and we know a lot about our character. It's all gotta work together or as Lydon says, "we have nobody nowhere." Great phrase Lydon, thanks, I'm keeping it !
Monday June 7th 2010, 2:48 PM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
I have visited the websites Part 1: http://bit.ly/bUBF9l and Part 2: http://bit.ly/dkQ6Ul , as I am an extraordinarily curious creature. On the first site, as the last part of rule 10 said that “thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them”, Hermann Broch and Marcel Proust came to my mind immediately. Just imagine!
We certainly should be thankful that such rules have not reached their ears, though, would such a thing have happened, surely they would have remained unheard!
Monday June 7th 2010, 3:32 PM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
Except for the Trollope, when I found myself drifting off, I notice that rather than straight description, each of your examples were filled with active verbs. What we have here is specific narrative action, especially in the Ray Chandler: "Tired men in dusty coupes and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and ploughed on. . . ."--not only do we see the details, we're there on the highway. Joyce Hollingsworth
Tuesday June 8th 2010, 1:20 AM
Comment by: Loren P.
In writing, as in life, I prefer not to have set "rules." "Guidelines" seems a more appropriate term and give space for individual experimentation and creativity. As for description or not, obviously we all have to describe at times otherwise we wouldn't be writers. For me, the question is rather how much or how little. Other than saying, "not too much and not too little," I don't think the answer is clear. That is what makes writing an art--and what keeps our readers reading. If description keeps the reader reading, we succeed. If it stops the reader's reading, we fail. The best advice I ever got wasn't to know what to include, it was, "Know what to leave out."
Wednesday June 9th 2010, 10:34 AM
Comment by: L. C. S. (Albuquerque, NM)
Antonia D., My personal favorite was Annie Proulx.
Wednesday June 9th 2010, 12:14 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you all for your comments! All of you make good points. My reactions:

Yes, how much visual description is a matter of taste, and since no writer can put in every detail, the challenge is to put in those details that will suggest what is not described. If we write, for example, "He wore a fedora at a rakish slant that matched his cynical smile," we can imagine the guy's pointy shoes and flashy tie.

But if we scant description, we do end up with disembodied characters floating in empty space.

Detailed visual description may be less common in 20th century prose than 19th, but here I liked Lyn P's coment that a scene could have taken place in "any century." Yes! The essence of life has changed little since Homer, and neither has writing's ability to capture life on paper. And as a general rule, I think that writing rich in visual description lives longer than writing weak in visual description. Dreiser, I believe, will long outlive Hemingway.

I have read some Elmore Leonard, but not much. Does anybody have any recommendations?
Wednesday June 9th 2010, 3:03 PM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
To answer Waldo G.'s question (which I want to take as a question for everyone, not only for the author of this article) : I read none of Elmore Leonard’s writings, but after seeing films made after his writings I have no desire of reading what he wrote. Suffices to say that after seeing two episodes (two because I was hoping that the second would be better) of the 2010 FX series Justified (based around the popular Leonard character U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens from the novels Pronto and Riding the Rap and the short story "Fire in the Hole") I had no desire to see another episode of this series. The language used in the two episodes I saw is not the kind of language I would call a language used by an enlightened mankind, and language and the way is used is something extraordinarily important for me. I might read, when I’ll have more time, his novel Pronto with the hope that the film made after it was a miserable representation of Leonard’s novel.
Thursday June 10th 2010, 2:27 PM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
This paragraph from editors Renni Browne and Dave King (in the second edition of their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers [2004]) is particularly relevant to this discussion:

"Scenes usually have settings [...], specific locations the readers can picture. In Victorian novels these settings were often described in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail. Nowadays literature is leaner and meaner, and it's often a good idea to give your readers just enough detail to jumpstart their imaginations so they can picture your settings for themselves" (pp. 7-8).

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