Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On Elmore Leonard's Rules: "Avoid Detailed Descriptions of Characters"

One of the late Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is to “Avoid Detailed Descriptions of Characters.” As an example of how to describe a character without getting bogged down in details, he quotes Hemingway: “She had taken off her hat and put it on the bed.”

That’s it. That’s sufficient, too, at least for me.

Whenever an author starts describing a character in detail, he usually does so in a passage resembling what Leonard calls “thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.”

Sometimes detailed descriptions serve a purpose, as in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep where Philip Marlowe describes his attire when making his first visit to General Sternwood:

"I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them."

This was Chandler’s way of letting the reader know that his private detective hero was paying more attention than usual to his dress when visiting a wealthy client (“I was calling on four million dollars”). In describing the “dark blue clocks” on his socks, Marlowe was almost mocking the care he was taking to make a good impression.

Chandler doesn’t go on and on and on, however, the way some authors are prone to do.

There may be readers who find detailed descriptions helpful in visualizing a character, but I find it dictatorial, an attempt to make me see the exact image that the author sees which is not really possible no matter how vivid the description. Since my introduction to Marlowe came through movies, I always see Humphrey Bogart, the Marlowe of the 1946 film version of The Big Sleep, when reading Chandler. Sometimes, it’s even Elliott Gould from 1973’s The Long Goodbye. These images did not originate with Chandler or in my own imagination, but from Warner Bros., Howard Hawks, and, in Gould’s case, Robert Altman.

When reading fiction, I usually have an image of how a character looks from the moment he is introduced. When I read, I enter what is almost comparable to a dream state. My subconscious mind takes over and sometimes produces a mental picture whose origin I cannot trace. Maybe I’ve taken the nose or chin of someone I once saw, and a forehead from someone else, and constructed a collage that becomes a person who did not previously exist. More often, I’ll cast an actor already familiar to me from movies or television in the role. This can sometimes be a problem.

When I read Ayn Rand’s Altas Shrugged in 1979, I saw Lindsey Wagner, then the star of TV’s Bionic Woman, as Dagny Taggart, the heroine. She seemed right for the part. She was beautiful and looked smart. As Hank Rearden, however, I got an image in mind of actor Paul Benedict who played a supporting role on The Jeffersons, a popular sitcom of the time. I didn’t consider him right for the role at all, but he came to mind for some unknown reason and it was an image that I couldn’t shake. I had him locked in as Rand’s steel magnate throughout the book's 1,168 pages. I guess that I didn’t have the heart to fire him.

An author who describes his characters in too much detail violates another of Leonard’s rules, to be invisible, to get out of the way of the story and its characters, and conceal the fact that a writer is writing: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Not every writer wants to be invisible, though. “If you have a felicity for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you’re after, and you can skip the rules.”

That kind of writer is likely fond of what Leonard quotes John Steinbeck as calling “hooptedoodle,” stuff that shows off a writer’s skill with words, but may intrude on a story.

There is no “hooptedoodle” in 10 Rules of Writing. To call it lean is an understatement. It’s not really a book, but an essay, a short one, spread out over 92 pages with illustrations by Joe Ciardiello. Its total length is roughly equal to the “First Forward,” “Second Foreword,” and “Third Foreword” in Stephen King’s On Writing, a book that violates Leonard’s second rule, to “Avoid Prologues: They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.”

King can be excused. His book appeared in 2000, a year before Leonard’s essay was first published in The New York Times.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


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