Thursday, November 03, 2011

What to Leave Out

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master,” Ernest Hemingway once said. Reading Elmore Leonard’s “Road Dogs” has got me thinking of this quote often of late because the book highlights something (actually many things) I need to do better.

I received a compliment this week when a reader said she enjoyed the visual description of my characters. Fact is, I’m working to cut that out—or, at least, trying to eliminate as much of it as I can. I’m so thoroughly impressed by Leonard’s ability to, as he says, “Skip the parts nobody reads,” meaning, in part, extraneous physical descriptions, that it makes my own use of detail seem unnecessary.

I tell myself to simply “put the people on the stage, give them a conflict, and watch them work it out.” This has become my mantra. I don’t know anyone who does it as well as Leonard. And coming back to his books, like a lover who has strayed, is reiterating that.

So this week, I will offer a writing exercise to help you follow Leonard’s famous rule—to leave out the parts no one reads. But I offer this warning: The assignment will sound much easier than it is, an oversimplification as means of illustration. Yet it is not easy. Try it. You’ll find it to be more challenging than you think.

Two-Scene Activity: Choose a point of view and write a one-paragraph scene of narration in which you establish a conflict between two characters. Then write the same scene using only dialogue. See what you notice: How does dialogue convey not only action but personality as well? How do the two characters sound different? Is the setting established? Overall, what do you know about the characters based on what each has said?

Tom sat across from Beth wondering what she would say about the baby. Did she still want it? The weekend apart had been her idea and had given him time to think. And he had done so—and had some fun, too. What was one month? Having it would be a mistake. He was sure of that now. And what was the big deal? Neither of them was religious.

He looked across the table at Beth. Had she come to the same conclusion?


He twirled the ice in his rum and Coke and waited for her to speak.
“It’s not even noon, Tom,” she said.
“I need a drink.”
“I missed you this weekend,” Beth said. “Thought about you, about us, a lot.”
“Was that what you wanted when you told me you needed time alone?” He watched a blond waitress move across the room.
“Look at me when we talk,” she said. “Please. Just this once, can you focus on me when we talk.”
“I am. Always do.”
She chuckled. Then she looked at the tabletop. “Did you miss me, Tom?”
“Of course.”
“Did you think of the baby?”
“It’s not a baby yet.”
“So that’s it? That’s how you think of her?”
“ ‘Her?’ You’re only one month.”
“That doesn’t matter, not to me.”
“It’s reality, Beth. You’re only one month pregnant. We have a choice to make.”
“I think you’ve already made it,” she said and stood.


Hannah Dennison said...

John, this is terrific. What a great exercise. The "dialogue" version reveals character in powerful way. I'm going to use this a lot - but I'll give you the credit. Naturally.

H. L. Banks said...

Thanks for such an explicit example. No doubt what is best.

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Rick Blechta said...

On the topic of “what to leave out”, buy term papers, you might want to leave out those parentheses at the end of your comment.


Donis Casey said...

This is why learning to write poetry is such a good thing for a novelist. The whole point to poetry is to create a compelling image with the fewest words possible.

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Rocky Bakkum said...

Hi John this is first time i visit your site and i found your article interesting and the dialogues you used was amazing, i must appreciate that your writing skills are very well.

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