By Ron Merk
For those of us who make our living as wordsmiths, words of wisdom from those more experienced and more successful can make our lives more simple. Author Elmore Leonard, who passed away recently at age 87, wrote a wonderful essay in the New York Times in 2001. While his comments were intended for writers of books, I think they apply equally to those of us writing for the screen. Here’s the list of the things he thought we should never do:
- Never open a book with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
- Keep your exclamation points under control.
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Clearly, these rules are reflected in Leonard’s writing style. But like all rules, they are made to be broken. These are not The Ten Commandments, written on a tablet of stone, but they do offer us a way to keep things clear, free of too much embellishment. Sometimes it’s best to just let the characters speak for themselves. Generally what they say tells us who they are and what they’re either thinking or feeling when they say it. It’s just that we have to put great words in their mouths.
I remember a wonderful one hour film, made in the late forties by Hal Roach Studios, featuring what the studio hoped would be a new group of “Our Gang” children. The film was “Curley” and it was shot in a two-color system called Cinecolor. There’s a wonderful scene which really sticks in my head. Curley, the head of this mischievous and adventurous group of kids, mistakenly assumes that a rather crabby old woman is going to be the new schoolteacher. The kids then decide that they will find a way to get rid of her. Scratching their heads for ideas, the ponder the problem, and when Curley says that he has an idea, one of the other kids says to him, “The last time we listened to you, we all got thrown out of the Circus.” With one line of dialog we know so much about Curley, and what the other kids think of him. One line. When I talk to other writers about the problems of writing, this story always finds its way into the conversation. This clever bit of writing just impressed on me the value of great dialog and incorporating the background and inner thoughts of a character in what they say.
Keep things simple. Keep them clear. Embellish only when necessary. Writing is like decorating a Christmas tree. The branches can hold only so many lights and ornaments before they sag, and there can be only one star on the top of the tree.