As you may have figured out by now, I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard. I wrote an earlierpost about the deft way he leads you into a story and introduces a character on the very first page of a book. He never gives his readers fits the way we academic writers do ours, by making them plow through half a paper before they finally discover its point.
Here I want to show you one of the best scenes Leonard ever wrote — and he wrote a lot of them. It’s from the book Be Cool, which is the sequel to another called Get Shorty. Both were turned into films starring John Travolta as Chili Palmer. Chili is a loan shark from back east who heads to Hollywood to collect on a marker, but what he really wants is to make movies. As a favor, he looks up a producer who owes someone else money, and instead of collecting he pitches a story. The rest of the series is about the cinematic mess that ensues.
In the scene below, Chili runs into a minor thug floating in a backyard swimming pool. In the larger story this is a nothing scene, but it’s stunning how Leonard turns it into a tour de force. In a virtuoso display of writing, he shows Chili effortlessly take the thug apart while also mesmerizing him. Chili the movie maker rewrites the scene as he’s acting it out and then directs the thug on the raft how to play his own part more effectively.
Watch how Chili does it:
He got out of there, went into the living room and stood looking around, seeing it now as the lobby of an expensive health club, a spa: walk through there to the pool where one of the guests was drying out. From here Chili had a clear view of Derek, the kid floating in the pool on the yellow raft, sun beating down on him, his shades reflecting the light. Chili walked outside, crossed the terrace to where a quart bottle of Absolut, almost full, stood at the tiled edge of the pool. He looked down at Derek laid out in his undershorts.
He said, “Derek Stones?”
And watched the kid raise his head from the round edge of the raft, stare this way through his shades and let his head fall back again.
“Your mother called,” Chili said. “You have to go home.”
A wrought-iron table and chairs with cushions stood in an arbor of shade close to the house. Chili walked over and sat down. He watched Derek struggle to pull himself up and begin paddling with his hands, bringing the raft to the side of the pool; watched him try to crawl out and fall in the water when the raft moved out from under him. Derek made it finally, came over to the table and stood there showing Chili his skinny white body, his titty rings, his tats, his sagging wet underwear.
“You wake me up,” Derek said, “with some shit about I’m suppose to go home? I don’t even know you, man. You from the funeral home? Put on your undertaker suit and deliver Tommy’s ashes? No, I forgot, they’re being picked up. But you’re either from the funeral home or—shit, I know what you are, you’re a lawyer. I can tell ’cause all you assholes look alike.”
Chili said to him, “Derek, are you trying to fuck with me?”
Derek said, “Shit, if I was fucking with you, man, you’d know it.”
Chili was shaking his head before the words were out of Derek’s mouth.
“You sure that’s what you want to say? ‘If I was fuckin with you, man, you’d know it?’ The ‘If I was fucking with you’ part is okay, if that’s the way you want to go. But then, ‘you’d know it’—come on, you can do better than that.”
Derek took off his shades and squinted at him.
“The fuck’re you talking about?”
“You hear a line,” Chili said, “like in a movie. The one guy says, ‘Are you trying to fuck with me?’ The other guy comes back with, ‘If I was fuckin with you, man . . .’ and you want to hear what he says next ’cause it’s the punch line. He’s not gonna say, ‘You’d know it.’ When the first guy says, ‘Are you trying to fuck with me?’ he already knows the guy’s fuckin with him, it’s a rhetorical question. So the other guy isn’t gonna say ‘you’d know it.’ You understand what I’m saying? ‘You’d know it’ doesn’t do the job. You have to think of something better than that.”
“Wait,” Derek said, in his wet underwear, weaving a little, still half in the bag. “The first guy goes, ‘You trying to fuck with me?’ Okay, and the second guy goes, ‘If I was fucking with you . . . If I was fucking with you, man . . .’ “
Chili waited. “Yeah?”
“Okay, how about, ‘You wouldn’t live to tell about it?’
“Jesus Christ,” Chili said, “come on, Derek, does that make sense? ‘You wouldn’t live to tell about it’? What’s that mean? Fuckin with a guy’s the same as taking him out?” Chili got up from the table. “What you have to do, Derek, you want to be cool, is have punch lines on the top of your head for every occasion. Guy says, ‘Are you trying to fuck with me?’ You’re ready, you come back with your line.” Chili said, “Think about it,” walking away. He went in the house through the glass doors to the bedroom.
Don’t you wish you could be Elmore Leonard and write a scene like that, or be Chili Palmer and construct it on the fly? I sure do, and I’m not sure which role would be the more gratifying.
You could have a lot of fun picking apart the things that make the scene work. Chili the movie maker walking into the living room and suddenly “seeing it as the lobby of an expensive health spa.” Derek with “his skinny white body, his titty rings, his tats, his sagging wet underwear.” The way Derek talks: “The fuck’re you talking about?” Derek struggling to come up with the right line to replace the lame one he thought up himself. Chili explaining the core dilemma of the writer, that you can’t ever set up a punchline and then fail to deliver.
But instead of explaining his joke, let’s just learn from his example. Deliver what you promise. Reward the effort that your readers invest in engaging with your work. Have your key insight ready, deliver it on cue, and then walk away. Never step on the punchline.
David F. Labaree is Lee L. Jacks Professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and a professor (by courtesy) in history. His research focuses on the historical sociology of American schooling, including topics such as the evolution of high schools, the growth of consumerism, the origins and nature of education schools, and the role of schools in promoting access and advantage more than subject-matter learning. He was president of the History of Education Society and member of the executive board of the American Educational Research Association. His books include: The Making of an American High School (Yale, 1988); How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (Yale, 1997); The Trouble with Ed Schools (Yale University Press, 2004); Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Harvard, 2010); and A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (Chicago, 2017).
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