8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
Elmore says: Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants“, what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.
Elmore Leonard, who died last month at the age of 87, seems to have been one of the few people who realised his rules for writing could be safely ignored: ‘If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules.’ If you don’t have a facility for language and imagery, on the other hand, simply following the rules won’t be enough to make you a great writer, or even a good writer. (To appropriate a line or two from Robert Hass, the difference between great writing and good writing is ‘What the Fat Man in The Maltese Falcon/ Calls “a nice question, sir, a very nice question indeed.”’)
So this piece is dedicated to the memory of Elmore Leonard, and to forgetting his ten rules with impunity.
Before looking at a few examples of writers with ‘a facility for language and imagery’ merrily defenestrating the rule book, a special mention to Salman Rushdie, who breaks Leonard’s sixth rule (never use ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose’) in Shame… not once, but twice:
“But at the eleventh hour Good News told her mother, ‘I won’t marry that stupid potato,’ and all hell broke loose.”
“…the Heads of State arrived from all over the globe, and they all brought their mothers along, so that all hell broke loose.”
And, with hell breaking loose behind us, it’s time for some reasons to ignore rule #8…
Reasons to ignore him:
Bram Stoker, Dracula
Within, stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere...
His face was a strong — a very strong — aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.
Hitherto I had noticed the backs of his hands as they lay on his knees in the firelight, and they had seemed rather white and fine. But seeing them now close to me, I could not but notice that they were rather coarse, broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point.
When you think of Dracula, perhaps you think of his eerily autonomous shadow in the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola film, or (better still) of the Simpsons parody of his eerily autonomous shadow in the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola film. You probably don’t think of his ‘long white moustache’, and yet that’s almost the first image given to us in Bram Stoker’s lengthy description of the Count. Generally, the original Stoker version of the Count seems to be far hairier than the glabrous figure which crept into the popular imagination post-Nosferatu. Stoker’s Count Dracula seems like the type of man who’d benefit from getting a nose, ear and eyebrow trimmer in his Christmas stocking: in addition to the ‘heavy moustache’, he has ‘very massive’ eyebrows and even ‘hairs in the centre of [his] palm.’
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
The low arched door then opened, and the face came out. It was quite as cadaverous as it had looked in the window, though in the grain of it there was that tinge of red which is sometimes to be observed in the skins of red-haired people. It belonged to a red-haired person — a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older — whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand, which particularly attracted my attention, as he stood at the pony’s head, rubbing his chin with it, and looking up at us in the chaise.
Elmore Leonard should have hated Dickens, who seems to break at least two or three of Leonard’s ten rules per chapter. And yet Martin Amis once described Leonard as ‘the Dickens of Detroit’. In this excerpt from David Copperfield, the real Dickens (Dickens of Devonshire Terrace, for anyone in the mood to keep the alliteration going) introduces the supremely creepy Uriah Heep, ‘a youth of fifteen’ with skeletal hands and a pale, eyelashless face. Heep, for all his sycophantic attempts to appear ‘umble’, is up to good, blackmailing Mr. Wickfield and scheming to marry Agnes. This particular ‘detailed description’ plays an integral part in making Heep one of Dickens’ most memorable characters.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore, and which was of a splendour in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.
The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam; and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes.
Hester Prynne, the heroine of Hawthorne’s early American classic, eventually agrees to be buried under a tombstone bearing a bright red ‘A’ for adulteress — perhaps the seventeenth-century woman Puritan equivalent of fighting for your rights in a SlutWalk. Hester, seduced by Dimmesdale before the narrative begins, manages to combine power and passivity. In the ‘detailed description’ here, she wears her scarlet letter with ‘perfect elegance’, while her glossy hair ‘[throws] off the sunshine with a gleam’ in a way that makes it hard not to picture a L’Oréal advert. Again, the first description defines the character and sets the tone for the novel to follow…
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Just as he looked back at her, she also turned her head. Her brilliant gray eyes, looking almost black under the long lashes, rested on his face with a friendly, attentive look, as if she recognized him; and instantly she turned to seek some one in the throng.
Quick as this glance was, Vronsky had time to perceive the dignified vivacity which played in her face and fluttered between her shining eyes, and the scarcely perceptible smile parting her rosy lips. There seemed to be in her whole person such a superfluity of life that, in spite of her will, it expressed itself now in the lightning of her eyes, now in her smile. She demurely veiled the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in her scarcely perceptible smile.
Vronsky went into the carriage. His mother, a dried-up old lady with black eyes and little curls, screwed up her face as she looked at him…
Edging out Hester Prynne and Emma Bovary for the (purely hypothetical) title of nineteenth-century literature’s best-known adulteress, Anna Karenina dazzles Vronsky with her very first glance. In a review of War and Peace, Orlando Figes identifies repetition as ‘perhaps the most distinctive single feature of [Tolstoy’s] style’, and it’s the repetition of ‘eyes’ that stands out in this detailed description of Anna K. Emma Bovary’s eyes change colour through the course of Flaubert’s novel, and Anna Karenina’s are almost equally deceptive, ‘gray… looking almost black under the long lashes.’ The second paragraph returns again and again, following Vronsky’s gaze, to those eyes: ‘her shining eyes’, ‘the lightning of her eyes’, ‘the light in her eyes.’ And then back, for the sake of contrast, to Vronsky’s mother, ‘a dried-up old lady with black eyes’.
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
He had to be more or less scraped out, Mario, like the meat of an oyster from a womb to whose sides he’d been found spiderishly clinging, tiny and unobtrusive, attached by cords of sinew at both feet and a hand, the other fist stuck to his face by the same material. He was a complete surprise and terribly premature, and withered, and he spent the next many weeks waggling his withered and contractured arms up at the Pyrex ceilings of incubators, being fed by tubes and monitored by wires and cupped in sterile palms, his head cradled by a thumb.
Detailed descriptions didn’t die with Queen Victoria, of course. Admittedly, you’re more likely to find a length descriptive passage in one of the nineteenth-century’s ‘large, loose, baggy monsters’ (Henry James, referring specifically to War and Peace and The Three Musketeers in the preface to The Tragic Muse), but here’s an excerpt from Infinite Jest, a large, loose, baggy monster for Generation X. Mario Incandenza (analysed in more detail at this link) is one of the novel’s most memorable characters: a ‘withered Saurian homodontic’ who nevertheless manages to ‘float’ in a way that his severely depressed brother Hal can only envy. This particular description, of the foetal Mario ‘spiderishly clinging’ to the womb, makes you (well, it certainly makes me) wish David Foster Wallace was still around to go on breaking every rule in the book…