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Dialogue tips I learned from reading Elmore Leonard

My favorite books are fantasy, paranormal, some horror, and stories about anything strange or extraordinary. But I’ve also read many classics, crime stories, and mysteries. When another writer told me a few years ago that I should study Elmore Leonard’s novels to see how he writes dialogue, it took me awhile to pick up one of his books, but when I finally did, I was blown away.

My first foray into Leonard territory was the novel Road Dogs about bank robber Jack Foley and street-wise Cundo Rey who meet in prison and quickly become friends, referring to themselves as Road Dogs. Foley is released two weeks before Rey who insists that Foley stay at his home—but warning him not to mess with his girlfriend Dawn (who really just wants to milk Rey out of his money). Below is an excerpt early on in the book, before either man is released from prison.

“You and the wife,” Foley said, “devoting your lives to caring for people.”

“Is the reason we fall in love with each other. We alike in how we know how to make people happy.”

“But running a psychic con,” Foley said, “doesn’t mean she’s actually psychic.”

“She saw me in the fucking courtroom, didn’t she?”

“She as cool as Megan Norris?”

“They both cool, but in different ways. Miss Megan is cool because she smart, man, always knows what to say. Dawn is cool because she knows what you going to say.”

“They must be a lot different,” Foley said, “in how they see things.”

“Tha’s what I just tole you, they different.”

“Megan asked me how could I stand to throw away some of my best years in a dump like this. She wanted to know why I didn’t get in a prison rehab program. Learn how to grow sugarcane.”

“Burn the field you ready to go in and cut the cane, these poison snakes in there eating rats, man, they come at you. Hey, fuck that. You tell her God made you a bank robber?”

“I think she knew it.”

“The way I see you, Jack, you smart, you can be a serious guy, but you don’t like to show anything is important to you. You here, you don’t complain—not anymore—you could be an old hippie living here. You get your release…Ah, now you get to think what you going to do.”

“I’ve been reading about Costa Rica,” Foley said. “Go down there and start over.”

“Yes, someday, uh? You want me to tell you,” Cundo said, “you leave here, the first thing you going to do?”

“Rob a bank.”

“See? Is already on your mind.”

“It’s on your mind, not mine.”

“How you gonna get to Costa Rica?”

The first thing I noticed while reading Road Dogs is that Leonard uses dialogue tags infrequently, only when necessary or when he wants a break in the back and forth dialogue. The two men speak differently enough that it’s clear who is saying what. He also uses few interruptions like visceral responses or body language cues. I believe this is because his dialogue is so strong he doesn’t need them and he didn’t want to slow down the pace.

The next thing I noticed is that the character Cundo, who is speaking to Foley, clips his sentences and often doesn’t use pronouns or linking verbs which gives him more of a savvy street feeling. Where Cundo peppers his speech with swear words, Foley does not. Foley speaks a bit more formally. He’s not quite as “street” or laid back as Cundo. He’s wound more tightly, but not tight enough that he sounds like an English professor.

If you want to learn about the craft of writing, and especially how to write great dialogue, I highly recommend reading any of Elmore Leonard’s novels. You don’t have to be a reader of crime novels to learn from the master.

I’m ready to read another Leonard novel. Any suggestions?

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