Elmore Leonard: A Pitch-Perfect Scene

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series In Praise of Prose

Elmore Leonard

I’ve got this idea about a series of posts in which I adore somebody else’s writing. I’m starting with Elmore Leonard, who died in 2013 at 87 years old with something like fifty-five novels under his belt. At the time of his death he was still involved with the television series Justified, based on his Raylan Jennings short story “Fire in the Hole.”  The cast and producers recorded a wonderful short tribute to him that you’ll find after the excerpted scene below. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, start at exactly one minute in. 

This  scene is from Cuba Libre, a historical novel set in the Southwest and in Cuba. It opens with the sinking of the Maine in Cuba Harbor in 1898, and ends later that year with the battle of San Juan Hill.  Every time I re-read it, I fall in love with Leonard’s prose, his ability to draw a character in precise, short strokes, the effortless way he weaves indirect and direct dialogue, the rightness of the way the spoken language flows, the visual cues. All perfect. 

Note where the tense shifts from past tense to present tense, that’s a storytelling technique we all use in our day-to-day communication with the people around us. When you get to the exciting part, you switch into present tense. 


What happened, Tyler’s business fell on hard times and he took to robbing banks. So then the next time Charlie Burke actually saw him was out in the far reaches of the territory at Yuma Prison: convicts and their visitors sitting across from one another at tables placed end to end down the center of the mess hall.

Mothers, wives, sweethearts all wondering how their loved ones would fare in this stone prison known as the Hell Hole on the Bluff; Charlie Burke wondering why, if Tyler had made up his mind to rob banks, he chose the Maricopa branch in Sweetmary, where he was known.

He said on account of it was the closest one.

Charlie Burke said, “I come all the way out here to watch you stare past me at the wall?”

So then Tyler said, all right, because it was where LaSalle Mining did their banking and LaSalle Mining owed him nine hundred dollars. “Four times I went up the hill to collect,” Tyler said in his prison stripes and haircut, looking hard and half starved. “Try and find anybody in charge can cut a check. I went to the Maricopa Bank, showed the teller a .44 and withdrew the nine hundred from the mine company’s account.”

“That’s how you do business, huh?”

“Hatch and Hodges owed me twelve hundred the day they shut down their line. They said don’t worry, you’ll get your money. I waited another four months, the same as I did with LaSalle, and drew it out of their bank over in Benson.”

“Who else owed you money?”


“But you robbed another bank.”

“Yeah, well, once we had the hang of it…I’m kidding. It wasn’t like Red and I got drunk and went out and robbed a bank. Red worked for Dana Moon before he came with me, had all that experience, so I offered him a share, but he’d only work for wages. After we did the two banks I paid Red what he had coming and he bought a suit of clothes cost him ten dollars, and wanted to put the rest in the bank. We’re in St. David at the time. We go to the bank to open a savings account and the bank refused him. I asked the manager, was it on account of Red being Warm Springs Apache? The manager become snotty and one thing led to another….”

“You robbed the bank to teach him manners.”

“Red was about to shoot him.”

“Speaking of shooting people,” Charlie Burke said, prompting his friend the convict.

“We were on the dodge by then,” Tyler said, “wanted posters out on us. To some people that five hundred reward looked like a year’s wages. These fellas I know were horse thieves–they ran my stock more than once–they got after us for the reward, followed our tracks all the way to Nogales and threw down on us in a cantina–smoky place, had a real low ceiling.”

“The story going around,” Charlie Burke said, “they pulled, Ben Tyler pulled and shot all three of them dead.”

“Maybe, though I doubt it. All the guns going off in there and the smoke, it was hard to tell. We came back across the border, the deputies were waiting there to run us down.”

“Have you learned anything?”

“Always have fresh horses with you.”

“You’ve become a smart aleck, huh?”

“Not around here. They put you in leg irons.”

“What do you need I can get you?”

“Some books, magazines. Dana Moon sends me the Chicago Times he gets from some fella he knows.”

“You don’t seem to be doing too bad.”

“Considering I live in a cell with five hot-headed morons and bust rocks into gravel all day. I’ve started teaching Mr. Rinning’s children how to ride the horsey and they like me. Mr. Rinning’s the superintendent; he says to me, ‘You’re no outlaw, you’re just stupid–a big educated fella like you robbing banks?’ He says if I’m done being stupid I’ll be out as soon as I do three years.”

Charlie Burke said to him that day in the Yuma mess hall, “Are you done?”

“I was mad is all, those people owing me money I’d worked hard for. Yeah, I got it out of my system,” Tyler said. “But you know what? There ain’t nothing to robbing a bank.”


tricks of the (craft) trade: the fictional footnote

Narrative techniques come in and out of fashion. First person point-of-view is the most obvious example. If you remember any one line of Jane Eyre, it’s most likely Reader, I married him..

That particular example also uses a technique which you’ll see less often — breaking down the fourth wall. Which means, simply enough, that the narrator looks right at the reader and consciously addresses that person.

This is done most often on stage, and when it’s deftly handled, it adds a whole new dimension to the story. The audience becomes complicit, in a way, drawn into the story itself. Of course, this technique works especially well for stage plays because the audience really is sitting right there,; there’s a real energy, a palpable energy, flowing back and forth.

In England there’s a kind of stage play I have never experienced here in the states. A pantomime is a play for children, with a lot of interaction between players and audience built in. (Wikipedia has a good overview of how pantomimes work, here.) I’ve seen a couple of these — Frog & Toad, and The Ugly Ducking, and I have rarely enjoyed a theater production so much. Kind of like going to a midnight screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show, but with a happier edge, and sometimes even wackier bent. Kids and adults seem to enjoy pantomimes equally.

If an author wants to break down the fourth wall in a novel, the easiest way is with a first person narrator who tells his or her story to the reader directly. This is not done very often. More usually the primary character is talking to another character within the story. In third person narratives it’s even less common to have a story narrated directly to the audience. John Fowles managed it in The French Lieutenant’s Woman by means of footnotes. He uses the space at the bottom of the page as a kind of parlor where he comes to talk to the readers about the story as it unfolds. I remember an almost visceral shock when I first read that novel and came across a footnote. Being allowed into the author’s creative process in that way jolted me. It wasn’t instructive in tone — no “observe this, reader” but collaborative: this character insists on going down to the Cobb, though I had no intention of her going there.

You don’t see the footnote-as-parlor approach very often. My guess is that most authors are afraid of it. I personally love the idea, but it also scares me. If I put that door at the bottom of the page, what kind of complications might ensue? Maybe you, the reader, will use it to creep into the story.

tone and/or voice

People who spend their professional lives reading, analyzing and talking about novels have a vocabulary, a kind of short hand they share that makes it possible to talk about  fine points. So do fishermen, prostitutes, software engineers, poodle breeders and just about any other group you can name. Every kind of work has its own specialized vocabulary.

If you skim essays in literary criticism, a lot of the terms you’ll come across won’t mean anything to you, and to be honest, they don’t need to mean anything to you. You can have a deep understanding of a story, an empathy for the characters, a full sense of the themes without ever deciding if the novel is a bildungsroman or a roman a clef.

But if you are writing, and you find it would be useful to talk to other writers about what you’re trying (and maybe not achieving) with a particular character or plot point, you might have need of certain terms. And there are a lot of them, some more difficult to appreciate than others. Two that my students often had trouble with were tone and voice.

Tone is quite easy and instinctive.

“Young man, I do not like your tone.”

“You know that tone he gets, when he’s going to ask for a favor that’s way out of line? That oh-put-upon-me thing he does.”

“That talk she gave at the meeting? I thought her tone was way off. She sounded like an air-head, you’d never know she’s the best chemical engineer in the company.”

Tone is as universal as emotion. Snotty, imperious, jovial, condescending, those associations are clear no matter what kind of character they come from. A bus driver who tells you this is your stop in an imperious tone, an oral surgeon who gives you really bad news in an impatient tone, the seven year old who informs you he never eats vegetables in a tone that might be snotty or apologetic.

So any given character can use many possible tones. On the other hand,  he or she has only one voice (theoretically, at least). The author establishes the character’s voice, and uses tone to shade in meaning.

One way to think of this is to imagine the author as a ventriloquist with four dummies (is there another word for that these days?). The idea is to tell a story, using the four characters, and of course the ventriloquist will be involved in the narrative. He (or she, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen a female ventriloquist) creates four different characters, each with a distinctive voice. A manner and style of speaking that distinguishes one from the other, and the characters from himself. If all four sound exactly alike, something is not working.

One way to tell if your characters have distinctive voices is to ask them all the same question.

I heard there was a fight on the corner last night, what happened?

1: What are you looking at me? What do I know? I’m nobody. Nobody cares about me. I got no interest in anybody else. So Tony from the bakery got knocked over the head, so what? Ain’t got nothing to do with me.

2: I hope you aren’t insinuating that I had any connection, any possible connection to something like that. You must know that I have always been, and will always be, law abiding. If I had seen something amiss, if I *had* — which I did not — I should have called the police immediately, and possibly the fire department as well, though of course they tend to disregard my calls these days. They seem to have entirely the wrong idea about me, I don’t know who has been talking to them.

3: Oh my dear, oh dear, it really was very, very frightening. Have you ever seen a fight, a real fight, right in front of you? Of course you’ haven’t. Of course not. My dear, do you know what it sounds like when a fist hits a cheek bone? Of course, you could not.  Would you like some coffee? Of course you would, you must be parched. And wouldn’t you like to hear all about it? Because I certainly can tell you, but only if you are truly, truly interested.

4: There’s not much to tell. Tony got drunk, he made some remarks about Jerry’s girlfriend, and things took off from there. One or two punches thrown, and Tony went down. Jerry took off before the cops got there, I don’t think he even realized Tony hit is head on the curb. It must have been a shock when the police showed up at his door and arrested him for manslaughter.

If you’ve got a large cast of characters, and the time and energy, you can interview every one of them. Later, when you read over what they’ve dictated, you’ll see where the thin spots are, which characters’ voices aren’t well formed.

Authors have narrative voices, apart from the voices they create for their characters. Some authors are so distinctive that you know who wrote what you’re reading even if you haven’t looked at the cover of the book. Annie Proulx has a very idiosyncratic style and voice that carry over from one novel or story to the next. So did Hemingway. You may be able to think of others.

Some people will tell you that you can’t be a great writer unless you develop a distinctive voice of your own. I don’t think that’s true.  There are too many counter examples. A distinct authorial voice is a good thing, but it’s far more important to get the characters’ voices right.

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