Some Words On Style

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

Rule #8 – Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.tumblr_lg0d0ngVgs1qzq6gbo1_500

Rule #9 – Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Rule #10 – Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A few months ago, I contributed a post to Scott Bury’s ongoing series on writers’ styles (find it here), and I pointed out these three rules of Mr. Leonard’s as ones I live by. My writing tends to be pretty Spartan, with not a lot of wasted words, but the difficulty with rule #10 is…how do you know what it is that readers tend to skip?

My answer is…I don’t know. All I can do is leave out what I wouldn’t read. For instance, if you pick up my latest books, the Khirro’s Journey epic fantasy trilogy, you will not find page after page describing what my characters had for dinner, nor will you read extended descriptions of the quality, colour and style of their clothing. I know these things are somewhat de rigueur in today’s world of 800+ page epic fantasies that go on for book after book seeming like they may never end, but it just ain’t me. My epic fantasy reads more like an action/adventure, and I know hard-core epic fantasists (is that the right term? Anybody?) might not appreciate it, but what’s a man to do?

There is a particular reason why this subject has come up for me, and it is because of a book I just started reading: Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie. Normally, I spend my time reading other independent authors (solidarity, brothers and sisters!), but my wife recently stole my Kobo, on which all those books are located, so I found myself with nothing to read. I know, you’re going to say I shoulduntitledSpeedy just take it back…it’s mine after all, right? True, but there are two flaws with that plan: 1. she’s my wife and 2. she stole it so she can read my latest book. Can’t argue with either of those. For anyone who follows me here or on my own blog, you know my reading speed makes your average garden slug resemble Speedy Gonzales, so I’m only 50 pages in, but I have to say, I’m enjoying Mr. Abercrombie’s style more than any author I’ve read since I discovered Mike Carey (and they are both English. Coincidence?). So far, no dinners…no fancy dress…just quick descriptions with poignant or unusual details, then on with the story.

untitledHere are a couple of quick lines to illustrate (I hope Joe doesn’t mind me quoting, but it is for all the right reasons):

“It was quite a different world beyond the gates, air heavy with lavender, shining green after the grey mountainside. A world of close-clipped lawns, of hedges tortured into wondrous shapes, of fountains throwing up glittering spray. Grim guardsmen, the black cross of Talins stitched into their white surcoats, spoiled the mood at every doorway.”

“The remains of the mean farmhouse peered sadly over the edge of the woods, and she peered sadly back.”

There are others I enjoyed, too, and sixty-odd pages in, I’m expecting to find many more. What I am enjoying about Mr. Abercrombie’s style is that it is both descriptive and tight. So far, not a wasted or poorly chosen word, and each different point of view (all third person) are so distinct, he could leave out the names and you’d still know who it is. Thoroughly enjoyable and I find myself looking forward to getting back to his world…the way a reading experience is meant to be and exactly what I hope to offer my readers.

So it’s your turn now. If you’re a reader, what style most appeals to you? What makes you like a particular writer? If you’re a writer, what’s your style?

—–

Bruce Blake is the author of the action adventure Khirro’s Journey trilogy cleverly disguised as an epic fantasy (or perhaps it’s the other way around), as well as the Icarus Fell urban fantasy series, cleverly disguised as…urban fantasy.

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8 comments on “Some Words On Style

  1. Hi Bruce,

    I’m both a writer and a reader–mostly of the epic fantasy or science-fiction genre (more the latter than the former), and I feel the exact same way about descriptions. I typically think of a video game when I’m writing, in the sense that when I play any game (such as Zelda or Final Fantasy), I don’t bother with side quests or mini-games. While I think it’s interesting to implement those elements into a game to create a more convincing world, I just want to get on with the story. That’s all I care about, and so that’s what I focus on. The same can be said for reading: details are nice, but I just don’t tend to care and often find myself skipping over page after page until I find where the story picks up again. Hell, I’ve actually seen one author–whose 1000 page epic fantasy will go unnamed, since I did enjoy the story overall–who had to take up SIX PARAGRAPHS to describe seemingly everything.

    From scenery, to clothes, to faces of minor characters who the protagonist didn’t even care about, to the (often negative) way a character felt about something they did, to justifying the reason why a character was doing a particular action… There was a lot of excessive description that the story didn’t need. I would read the first paragraph or two and could still understand and enjoy the story. Skipping those extra paragraphs didn’t hinder the quality–it made it better; less of a chore, I thought. I felt if the author cut out most of his excessive paragraphs, the book would have been at least 1-200 pages shorter.

    My favorite author is Sir Terry Pratchett, especially his Discworld books. I favor his writing specifically because even though he tends to go on a tangent with his descriptions and details, I WANT to read it because it’s hilarious. If the description can make me laugh, then it doesn’t matter to me if it takes several paragraphs to read. Not only that, but most of Terry Pratchett’s books are shorter than most epic fantasies nowadays anyway.

    It’s an entertaining business, so if you bore the reader with too much detail, they might not read on long enough to find out how great your story is. Of course, adversely, if you offer no detail at all, the story may turn out bland and readers who enjoy new worlds may find it boring also. So, there needs to be a balance. That’s my opinion, at least.

    • Thanks for the comments, Ellie. I have yet to read Terry Pratchett, but there’s another VERY prominent series I started to read but had to stop after the first third of the first book because the author chose to relate everything the characters did for every moment of every day…and it’s considered one of the top 5 fantasy series every written.
      I guess it really is a matter of taste.

  2. To be honest with you, Mr. Leonard’s work is not to my taste. I find his work very bland and stripped of all flavour. The things he took out because he expected readers to skip them might have been the things I wanted left in – it’s all a matter of perspective and relative to individual preferences. On the other hand, there are many fantasy writers I don’t like because I find their work overly-descriptive, so he does have a point.

    For me as a reader I think there is a happy medium, a balance between not enough and too much. I strive for that when I write, whether I manage to achieve it or not.

    • It is funny that, on the one hand, you have Elmore Leonard’s stripped down prose, which has been very successful for him, then you have those monster epic fantasy novels that also sell very well. There is an audience for everything, it’s just a matter of finding them.
      Thanks for your comments!

  3. As a writer, I like to use descriptions to set a feeling within the reader. If shafts of light pierce the jungle canopy and illuminate the mist rising from the swamp, it has more to do with feeling the swamp than picturing it. I will also get a little more wordy when I want to slow the pace down a bit and let some time pass, rather than have my heroine climb into the boat and suddenly arrive at the opposing dock.

    • Thanks for the comments John. I think you’ve got it right in that the thing to take out of all this is not that there is no place for description, but that we as writers need to understand the proper time and amount. We need to know when it’s too much and we need to know when it’s too little.

  4. As a reader I am definitely the sort to skip over long winded descriptions. The ones that tend to tick me off the most in the fantasy genre is excessive backstory–particularly when it feels like the writer is just showing off how much thought he supposedly put into his work. I don’t need to know the three different names for the sword in the first chapter. Maybe in the twenty-seventh chapter when you’ve already hooked me as a reader, but you have to earn that level of attention.

    As a writer, I also try to keep things spare and relevant. I tend to write in a close third-person so I like to weave the character’s POV into how they see the world. Are they anxious? Are they awed? Are they disdainful? These things will invariably impact how they describe what’s going on around them and give you a bit more about their character at the same time.

    • Thanks for the comments, Athena.
      I remember reading a very famous fantasy novel and getting to a part where two characters have a long conversation about the history of the world they lived in. Problem was, they both already knew the history, so the conversation was strictly to inform the reader. The moment a character says something like ‘as you know’…it’s time to skip.
      I also write in a tight third person POV. Not only do I believe this changes how you describe things, but also what you describe. In a fantasy world, there are likely to be things the POV character just doesn’t know.

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