Posted in Academic writing, Writing

Elmore Leonard’s Master Class on Writing a Scene

As you may have figured out by now, I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard.  I wrote an earlier post 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.

Chili Palmer

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.

Posted in Academic writing, Uncategorized

Academic Writing Issues #8 — Getting Off to a Fast Start

The introduction to a paper is critically important.  This is where you try to draw in readers, tell them what you’re going to address, and show why this issue is important.  It’s also a place to show a little style, demonstrating that you’re going to take readers on a fun ride.  Below are two exemplary cases of opening strong, one is from a detective novel, the other from an academic book.

If you want to see how to draw in the reader quickly, a good place to look is the work of a genre writer.  Authors who make a living from their writing need to make their case up front — to catch readers in the first paragraph and make them want to keep going.  Check out writers of mystery, detective, spy, or science fiction novels.  They’ve got to be good on the first page or the reader is just going to put the book down and pick up another.

One of my favorite genre writers is Elmore Leonard, who’s a master of the opening page.  Here’s the opening page of his novel Glitz:

THE NIGHT VINCENT WAS SHOT he saw it coming. The guy approached out of the streetlight on the corner of Meridian and Sixteenth, South Beach, and reached Vincent as he was walking from his car to his apartment building. It was early, a few minutes past nine.

Vincent turned his head to look at the guy and there was a moment when he could have taken him and did consider it, hit the guy as hard as he could. But Vincent was carrying a sack of groceries. He wasn’t going to drop a half gallon of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, a bottle of prune juice and a jar of Ragú spaghetti sauce on the sidewalk. Not even when the guy showed his gun, called him a motherfucker through his teeth and said he wanted Vincent’s wallet and all the money he had on him. The guy was not big, he was scruffy, wore a tank top and biker boots and smelled. Vincent believed he had seen him before, in the detective bureau holding cell. It wouldn’t surprise him. Muggers were repeaters in their strungout state, often dumb, always desperate. They came on with adrenaline pumping, hoping to hit and get out. Vincent’s hope was to give the guy pause.

He said, “You see that car? Standard Plymouth, nothing on it, not even wheel covers?” It was a pale gray. “You think I’d go out and buy a car like that?” The guy was wired or not paying attention. Vincent had to tell him, “It’s a police car, asshole. Now gimme the gun and go lean against it.”

What he should have done, either put the groceries down and given the guy his wallet or screamed in the guy’s face to hit the deck, now, or he was fucking dead. Instead of trying to be clever and getting shot for it.

Quite a grabber, isn’t it — right from the opening sentence.  For me the key is the deft and concise way he manages to introduce his main character — Vincent, the scruffy, street-wise detective.  Instead of an extensive physical description or character analysis, he provides a list of what’s in his bag of groceries.  Specific details like Gallo Hearty Burgundy and Ragu spaghetti sauce tell you clearly what kind of guy he is:  not a man of refinement on the world stage but a single guy in a seedy part of town with proletarian tastes.  And the next paragraph shows him as the wise-guy cop who can’t resist sticking it to a guy even though it might well not be the smartest move under the circumstances.  One page and you already know Vincent and want to stick with him for a while.

The second example comes from the opening of the first chapter of a 1968 book by the educational sociologist Philip Jackson called Life in Classrooms.

On a typical weekday morning between September and June some 35 million Americans kiss their loved ones goodby, pick up their lunch pails and books, and leave to spend their day in that collection of enclosures (totaling about one million) known as elementary school class­rooms. This massive exodus from home to school is accomplished with a minimum of fuss and bother. Few tears are shed (except perhaps by the very youngest) and few cheers are raised. The school attendance of children is such a common experience in our society that those of us who watch them go hardly pause to consider what happens to them when they get there. Of course our indifference disappears occasionally. When something goes wrong or when we have been notified of his remarkable achievement, we might ponder, for a moment at least, the mean­ing of the experience for the child in question, but most of the time we simply note that our Johnny is on his way to school, and now, it is time for our second cup of coffee.

Parents are interested, to be sure, in how well Johnny does while there, and when he comes trudging home they may ask him questions about what happened today or, more generally, how things went. But both their questions and his answers typically focus on the highlights of the school experience-its unusual aspects-rather than on the mundane and seemingly trivial events that filled the bulk of his school hours. Parents are interested, in other words, in the spice of school life rather than its substance.

Teachers, too, are chiefly concerned with only a very narrow aspect of a youngster’s school experience. They, too, are likely to focus on specific acts of misbehavior or accomplishment as representing what a particular student did in school today, even though the acts in question occupied but a small fraction of the student’s time. Teachers, like parents, seldom ponder the significance of the thousands of fleeting events that combine to form the routine of the classroom.

And the student himself is no less selective. Even if someone bothered to question him about the minutiae of his school day, he would probably be unable to give a complete account of what he had done. For him, too, the day has been reduced in memory into a small number of signal events-“I got 100 on my spelling test,” “A new boy came and he sat next to me,”-or recurring activities-“We went to gym,” “We had music.” His spontaneous recall of detail is not much greater than that required to answer our conventional questions.

This concentration on the highlights of school life is understandable from the standpoint of human interest. A similar selection process operates when we inquire into or recount other types of daily activity. When we are asked about our trip downtown or our day at the office we rarely bother describing the ride on the bus or the time spent in front of the watercooler. In­deed, we are more likely to report that nothing happened than to catalogue the pedestrian actions that took place between home and return. Unless something interesting occurred there is little purpose in talking about our experience.

Yet from the standpoint of giving shape and meaning to our lives these events about which we rarely speak may be as important as those that hold our listener’s attention. Certainly they represent a much larger portion of our experience than do those about which we talk. The daily routine, the “rat race,” and the infamous “old grind” may be brightened from time to time by happenings that add color to an otherwise drab existence, but the grayness of our daily lives has an abrasive potency of its own. Anthropologists understand this fact better than do most other social scientists, and their field studies have taught us to appreciate the cultural signifi­cance of the humdrum elements of human existence. This is the lesson we must heed as we seek to understand life in elementary classrooms.

Notice how he draws you into observing the daily life of school from the perspective of its main participants — parents, teachers, and students.  He’s showing you how the routine of schooling is so familiar to everyone that it becomes invisible.  Ask students what happened in school today and they’re likely to say, “Nothing.”  Of course, a lot actually happened but none of it is noteworthy.  You only hear about something that broke the routine:  there was a concert in assembly; Jimmy threw up in the lunchroom.

This is his point.  Students are learning things from the regular process of schooling.  They stand in line, wait for the bell, get evaluated, respond to commands.  This is not the formal curriculum, made up of school subjects, but the hidden curriculum of doing school.  The process of schooling, he suggests, may in fact have a bigger impact on the student than its formal content.  He draws you into this idea and leaves you wanting to know more.  That’s good writing.