March 24, 2012

Moving the story on

I'm reading a long short-story by The Great Elmore Leonard at the moment - a continuation of his stories about Carl Webster, the Hot Kid, who is some kind of federal agent. The series started before WWII, but the current story is set towards the end of it, with Carl investigating the alleged suicide of a German prisoner-of-war in a camp in the US.

One of the reasons Elmore Leonard is so great is because he doesn't hang around. He gives you just enough physical description of locations and people so that you have a general idea of where you are, but he lets the dialogue do the rest. This is a scene where Carl is interviewing a waitress who has met a German P.O.W. who continually escapes his prison but then gives himself up when, it seems, he gets bored. Carl spends a good part of the story investigating this prisoner, Jurgen, because he feels there's something going on that he doesn't yet understand. Norma, the waitress, describes the moments before Jurgen was last arrested in her cafe:

"Before the MPs came in he said, 'Come here, closer,' motioning to me. I leaned my arms on the counter right in front of him, and he reached over and pretended to pull a coin out of my ear, a dime, and gave it to me, with a nice smile you could see in his eyes."
"Wanting you to trust him."
"He said, 'Thank you, Norma, for the coffee.' He said my name."
"It's on your uniform."
"I know, but he took the trouble to say it, 'Thank you, Norma,' making it sound natural, like we'd known each other a while, or maybe were even pretty close at one time."
Carl said, "You got all that out of 'Thank you, Norma?' He was giving you his ten cent magic trick."
"With the smile," Norma said.
"I've seen the smile. He's sure of himself, isn't he? But without sounding cocky. He doesn't put on any airs. He tell you anything about himself?"
"He wanted to know about me, if I lived alone. He didn't ask if I was married, only do I live alone."
"Wants to know if you're available."
There are a couple of typical Leonard tricks in this section. First, he has characters describe other characters' personality: 
"He's sure of himself, isn't he? But without sounding cocky..."
This enables Leonard to create the personalities of his characters without him having to show it himself, because he's showing their impact on yet other characters. At the same time it demonstrates the insight of Carl and Norma - that they recognise what Jurgen's doing - and also helps Carl build a bridge to Norma, and gain her trust, because he's agreeing with her and showing that he's noticed the same personality traits as she has.

This willingness of his characters to show empathy in order to build friendship is also evident in two other phrases:
"Wanting you to trust him."
"Wants to know if you're available."
Leonard omits the third-person pronoun - "He wants to know if you're available" - which demonstrates that the comment is also an interjection, intended to help Norma tell her story, to move on because Carl understands exactly what she's saying. As you're reading Leonard's books, this technique means that you're constantly racing ahead as the characters talk - the story becomes as much about what the characters say as it is about the events that take place.

The final point I notice as a writer is that when the characters are not egging each other on with these short interjections, they don't always answer the questions they're asked:

"... He tell you anything about himself?"
"He wanted to know about me, if I lived alone... "
It's far more engaging if questions aren't answered directly. Here, Norma doesn't say whether Jurgen told her anything about himself ... but her response seems more like a considered reply, as if there's an implicit, "No, but he wanted to know about me ... " In his prose Leonard constantly moves the conversation on by having characters almost ignore what's been said to them, but what they do in fact say has been prompted somehow by the other speaker:

Carl said, "What do you hear from Teddy?"
She paused, "You know Teddy or you know of Teddy?"
"The day we met," Carl said, "he had a guy hit me in the gut with a baseball bat. The next day he wanted to hire me. I know Teddy."
Instead of answering the question, Carl describes the first day he met Teddy - we get characterization, personality, an interesting event, and then he says, "I know Teddy." That's why he's The Great Elmore Leonard.

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