Leaving Out the Parts People Skip

One of our best American writers, Elmore Leonard, has famously said that he tries to “leave out the parts people skip” when he’s writing. Anyone who has read a Leonard novel knows that they are lean, move quickly, and certainly don’t require any skimming.

But what exactly does that mean?

People start skimming when they lose interest. When they want you to get on with things. When they’re not as engaged by the story as they should be.

So how do you keep them engaged? I have a few ideas:

Keep your prose style simple and economic and clear

You can certainly be clever and artistic, but never sacrifice economy and clarity for the sake of “art.” Much of that art, in fact, is writing in a way that the sentences and paragraphs and pages flow from one to the next, giving the reader no choice but to hang onto every word.

And clarity is always important. If a reader is confused about what is going on, she may well give up on you.

Don’t bog your story down with too much description

Descriptive passages can be quite beautiful, but your job is to weigh whether or not they’re necessary. Are they slowing the story down?

One of my favorite writers of all time is Raymond Chandler. But when I read his novels, I sometimes find myself skipping entire paragraphs. Chandler seemed to have this need to describe a room or character in great detail, and while that may have been part of the job is his day, I think it’s much less important now.

Gregory MacDonald, the author of the Fletch books, among others, once said that because we live in a “post-television” world, it is no longer necessary to describe everything. We all know what the Statue of Liberty looks like because we’ve seen it on TV. We’ve seen just about everything on TV, and probably even more on the Internet.

So, I think it’s best to limit your descriptions to only what is absolutely necessary to make the story work. Meaning: enough to set the scene, set up a character, or to CLARIFY an action.

Let’s face it. Saying something as simple as, The place was a dump. Several used syringes lay on the floor next to a ratty mattress with half its stuffing gone is often more than enough to get the message across.

If you can, describe a setting through the eyes of whatever character controls the scene (meaning POV). If you include the description as part of that character’s thought process, colored by his or her mood or personality, the description then becomes much more dynamic and also reveals a lot about that character.

One man’s dump, after all, may be another man’s paradise. And showing how a character reacts to a place is much more interesting than a static description.

Tease your readers

One of the biggest mistakes I see aspiring writers make is that they try to reveal too much about character motivation and story too soon. Your job – as crass as it might sound – is to manipulate your reader. Too keep her reading. Turning those pages.

Imagine meeting someone for the first time and she tells you everything there is to know about her. Where she was born, where she went to school, how many affairs she’s had, how many brothers and sisters, her favorite color, her favorite food –

– you get the point.

What makes people interesting to us is that all of these things are revealed over a long period of time. We get to know them gradually, rather than all at once. They are a mystery that we have to unravel.

The same holds true with storytelling. You manipulate your readers by constantly creating questions in their minds. Why is she doing that? Where is she going? What happened to her in the past that makes her afraid of confronting him?

If we know it all up front, we”ll lose interest fast.

Give your characters a series of goals

Most stories will involve a central character who wants something. In a thriller, for instance, that may be something very big. The hero wants to stop the bad guy from, say, blowing up the federal building.

But if that’s all the story is about, then I’m yawning already.

If you give the hero a series of goals, smaller points he or she must reach – both internally and externally – before finally reaching that ultimate goal, then your reader will never lose interest.

A great example is the third DIE HARD movie. DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE.

The bad guy has something nefarious up his sleeve. But in order to distract the police from that ultimate goal, he sends them on a series of wild goose chases involving high explosives. Because our heroes are moving from one goal to the next, we’re never bored. In fact, we spend much of our time on the edge of our seats.

In the meantime, the main hero suspects that something is up, and as he tries to puzzle it out, we’re right there with him. We have only as much information as he has, so we’re not about to abandon ship until he (and we) knows the truth.

But more importantly, we also have a dynamic relationship playing out on screen between two characters played by Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. These two men must work together reluctantly, and because we find them engaging, our stake in the outcome of the story is even higher.

Which brings me to my final point:

Create compelling characters

If you don’t create characters who are interesting in themselves, who have internal struggles we can relate to, who have fears we understand, who have a goal that makes sense to us on a personal level, then it doesn’t matter how cleverly you plot your novel. We won’t care.

If you need help creating compelling characters, take a look at my article on Creating Characters that Jump Off the Page.

Hopefully all of the above will help you “leave out the parts people skip.” And if you want to find out how the master himself does it, go pick up an Elmore Leonard novel today.

But be warned. He does it so well, it’s seamless. So you’ll have to pay close attention…

19 thoughts on “Leaving Out the Parts People Skip

  1. jdrhoades

    Excellent advice, Rob, especially the bit about description. I was reading Ross MacDonald recently and marveling at how much character description he could pack into one or two sentences, then move on with the story. He’s definitely worth studying for that.

    Reply
  2. Jessica Scott

    I’m reading a book right now that is exactly like you’re describing. I’m curious to see what happens but I’ve discovered that I can skim a whole lot and not really miss much. So while I won’t quit reading it – yet – I’m also not really motivated to stay up and read it. But we’ll see. More than anything, as a writer, I’m inclined to learn from books like this because its similar to learning from a poor leader in the army. You’ll learn something, even though it may just be what not to do.
    Thanks for a great post and excellent advice!
    Jess Scott

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  3. James Scott Bell

    Good points as always, Rob. I’d add to that Hitchcock’s Axiom: A great story is life with the dull parts taken out. And dull = no trouble, no conflict. So take out those parts where trouble is absent. Or put some trouble in, as Chandler used to do: Bring in a guy with a gun.

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  4. TerriMolina

    Great Post, Robert
    I’ve read this article at your website along with the other great writing articles you have there…(blog cheater. haha) They’ve really helped keep my on task with my current WIP (which, yes, I’m still working on *sigh*). I got somewhat discouraged with the opening chapter because an editor said it moved too fast (she was doing a five page read at Bksp)…but then realized, hey, it’s a suspense, it’s supposed to move fast. (but, I’ll deal with it later).

    A n y w a y…

    I was at my RWA chapter meeting last night and a young woman was there, checking it out…she’s on the fence with writing a novel and wanted to see what our chapter was about and hoping to learn how to start a book and develop the characters. I must have been channeling you because I gave her (basically) the same advice using characters from my first novel (their internal/external conflicts) as an example. And, I actually sounded like I knew what I was talking about. heh So, thanks. =)

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  5. Alli

    Awesome post. I have always skimmed descriptions when and kept them to a minimum when writing. Sure, I like to know what the scene/ry looks like, but I don’t need to know about the eight ants carrying a brittle brown leaf. πŸ™‚ Get me to the action, intneral and external, and I’ll keep reading.

    Thanks for the link to that article – great stuff. Now I have another blog to get lost in!

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  6. Carla Buckley

    It’s during revision that I go on killing spree. If I find myself skipping words, sentences, entire paragraphs, then I know it’s time for them to go. It’s like cleaning your closet–if you keep pushing past that blue shirt on the hanger instead of pulling it off and trying it on–time to say hello, Salvation Army.

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  7. Rob Gregory Browne

    Yes, Terri, you caught me. I’m a blog cheater. Same thing my wife said when she read it this morning.

    But I’m sure there are a lot of people who haven’t been to my craft website, and I’m very, very, very busy, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to cheat a little. πŸ™‚

    Okay, enough from me. The rest doesn’t need to be said, so I’ll leave it out….

    Reply
  8. Derek Nikitas

    Great post, Rob, and this is an issue I’m constantly having to deal with in my own writing. I’m a terrible first-draft over-writer and have reduced stories and even novels by HALF during the editing process. Even then, I’ve gotten email from readers who don’t think I cut nearly enough. I think paring down to a razor edge is essential for a crime writer, for rhythmic issues.

    But I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t play devil’s advocate (and I hope you see this as an attempt at a good fun debate)!

    One questions I’ve always had about Elmore’s "leave out the parts people skip" is: what people? There are many kinds of readers with many different tastes, and do we all want to be writing to that lowest common denominator dude who has a three second attention span? Some readers are turned off by novels that seem like summaries of novels or reformatted screenplays. To them, it all seems so slick, so disposable. Sure, you can get through it in five hours or less, but is getting through fast the only, the ultimate goal? That said, I don’ t think Leonard writes disposable prose at all, so some writers are taking his advice more to heart than he is.

    Also, what parts do these "people" skip? The default answer is usually "description," but I’m a little wary of advice about cutting description. Yes, kill your darlings. Yes, we live in a media age where everyone knows what everything looks like already. But GOOD description ought to be a hell of a lot more than just a litany of what stuff looks like. Chandler is a great example. His descriptions are so vivid, so full of figures of speech, that I’m immersed in his fictional world and shown old things in brand new ways.

    Every good metaphor from him is a jolt as exhilarating as a plot twist (MORE exhilarating than a plot twist because the metaphors tend to be more unique). And, of course, the other big joy of reading Chandler is getting inside Marlowe’s mind–and here again we have lengthy descriptions and compelling philosophical musings that another, much less talented, much more "careful" author, would’ve cut. Chandler’s plots are boilerplate–so the "stuff people skip" is exactly what makes Chandler Chandler. I feel like I AM Marlowe when I read him, and I’d lose some of that if I started skipping stuff, you know?

    Vague, "no nonsense" description in "disposable" writing keeps me at a distance, because everything is so ill defined. I don’t feel inside of the world of the novel. Don’t get me wrong: some writers are absolutely amazing with their conciseness, James Ellroy above all. But he’s not an easy, quick read. His conciseness is DENSE and DIFFICULT and I love him for it. You feel the density of the labyrinthine world he creates. You feel obsessed and paranoid like his characters.

    And some writers are BORING in their indulgence–like me, probably. But each writer (and his readership) must decide how little or how much, I think.

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  9. Rob Gregory Browne

    Derek, I agree with you about Chandler’s ability to get inside Marlowe’s mind. And his observations were always witty in that smart-ass, noir way. Those are the very things that make me love Chandler.

    But all those great things aside, he had a tendency to describe in such minute detail that it wound up being overkill and a lot of the great lines got lost in the unnecessary stuff surrounding them. Now, I’m probably thinking more The Big Sleep than Chandler’s masterwork, The Long Goodbye. By the time he got there, I think he’d developed his craft so well that there’s very little I’d want to skip. That said, I’ve read every line he’s ever written — including the short stories — and I certainly don’t regret it.

    As to your question "what people?" — it’s true that everyone is different. One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. I can’t speak for Leonard, but I think you make his point with your last line.

    Some writers are BORING in their indulgence (and I certainly wouldn’t include you in that statement). Those who can manage all the descriptions, etc., without boring us are few and far between, but if a writer thinks he has it in him, far be it from me to discourage him from doing what he does best.

    But this is why I suggest that when you do describe things, you do through the eyes of the character. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a book that steps away from the character to describe a scene, and, for me at least, the story comes to a standstill. None of it matters unless we know how it affects the characters emotionally. How they react to their environment and the other people populating it.

    My additional two cents.

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  10. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Rob

    Very interesting post. When Derek asks his question, "What people?" I agree. I came across someone recently who said she loved books that were almost solid narrative with very little dialogue.

    Me, I’m the opposite. I love Robert B Parker’s spare prose. It’s like the old line: ‘I’m writing you a long letter because I don’t have time to write you a short one.’ A sentence that tells you as much as a paragraph is always my goal.

    Damn, so how come my books aren’t shorter?

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  11. Derek Nikitas

    Here, here. I’ve always read Leonard’s ten rules as pretty tongue-in-cheek, esp considering the last rule basically negates the nine others, where appropriate. I just bristle when I hear "don’t" rules, whether they’re for writing or the ten commandments. You can think of so many exceptions. Rules just make you want to break them.

    Perhaps the only rule should be: "If it’s risky, either don’t do it, or do it brilliantly." It’s the second part that doesn’t dissuade the would-be genius.

    Through the character’s POV, yes. But…. we have Dickens, who goes on and on from his own POV. And Melville. Maybe in that case, the writer is the character. So a third person narrator can be a character, too, no? A voice that we can’t get enough of?

    I think of Cormac McCarthy in this regard. Blood Meridian, a western, is one of my favorite books. He goes on and on and on and on with way over the top descriptions of landscapes and groups of people and violence, and every word of it is riveting in a whacked-out, wild-eyed sort of way. And it’s most certainly not from any character’s POV.

    In No Country For Old Men, by huge contract, McCarthy seems to have taken Leonard’s advice seriously. Everything is so pared down it’s anemic. It’s all plot with the "boring" parts taken out, so fast moving and summarized that it’s, ironically, boring. And it’s a bad book. A great movie—because all the details are there.

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  12. Rob Gregory Browne

    Well, I’m neither a Dickens nor a Melville fan, so you lost me there. πŸ™‚ But let me qualify that a bit. I like their stories, as they’ve been retold, but I don’t particularly like they way THEY chose to tell them. I’ve never been attracted to their voices — particularly Melville, who puts me to sleep after a page or two.

    But that’s just me, and their books were written in a different time.

    I agree, however, about Leonard’s rules. Although, despite the tongue in cheek, many of them are right on the money.

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  13. Allison Brennan

    Great post, Rob. I agree wholeheartedly that it’s all about the character. It’s often difficult to find that balance, between not enough description and too much, where there’s just enough to move the story in a compelling way. I’m not one for meaty descriptions (and I, myself, have to watch for repetition), but I do like narrative in action that sets the tone, that focuses on atmosphere and how the character is reacting to whatever she’s facing. I want to feel what she’s feeling, thinking what she’s thinking, I love being right there in the page with the character.

    Reply

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