Denis Johnson & Elmore Leonard

Robert McKee said it well—dialogue (in books and on film) is not conversation. “Real conversation is full of awkward pauses, poor word choices and phrasing, non sequiturs, pointless repetitions; it seldom makes a point or achieves closure. It’s what psychologists call ‘keeping the channel open.’ Talk is how we develop and change relationships.”

McKee points out that screen dialogue requires compression and economy. Screen dialogue must say the maximum in the fewest possible words. “Each exchange of dialogue must turn the beats of the scene in one direction or another across the changing behaviors, without repetition.”

Finally, he urges that all dialogue sound like talk “using an informal and natural vocabulary, complete with contracts, slang, even, if necessary, profanity.”

Which brings me to Denis Johnson and Elmore Leonard. I just read “Road Dogs” and “Nobody Move” within a few weeks of each other and I’d like to raise a modest question: how long will this clipped, highly-polished and completely unrealistic super-stylized approach to dialogue last?

I know it’s a fine line. Good dialogue is in the ear of the beholder. I’ll take James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler. There’s something clean and straightforward with Cain and Chandler; they don’t look like they’re trying. They are just telling you a story.

There is something wearing and tiring about reading dialogue that’s oblique, where every line or retort takes things in a new direction, where you can hear the writer trying to get cute and clever and quirky rather than impart substance.

“Nobody Move” is a light year from the depth and complexity of “Tree of Smoke.” You have to admire the sheer versatility. Hats off to that. “Tree of Smoke” like Joseph Conrad combined with Charles Dickens, “Nobody Move” like Elmore Leonard mashed up with Dashiell Hammett. And yes, apparently Johnson studied Raymond Chandler when he attended the Iowa Writers Workshop. “Nobody Move” works if you like deciphering information from quirky dialogue and spare narrative. Your hand will not be held in terms of figuring out who’s scamming whom.

Example #1 from “Nobody Move:”

“My idea of a health trip is switching to menthols and getting a tan,” he said. “I don’t like push-ups, sit-ups, ex cetera. Et cetera, I mean.” He’d been corrected in this several times, but always forgot.

“You’re cute enough,” she said. “but you got a sissy body.”

“Didn’t you know that?”


“That it’s et cetera, not ex cetera.”

“Yeah, man, I did. I just didn’t feel like embarrassing you,” she said, and headed for the bathroom.

Example #2, “Nobody Move:”

“I wasn’t talking.”

“You were before.”

“Where to?”

“Shut up.”

“Where are we going, Luntz?”

“Turn left up here. Left. What do you smoke?” As they accelerated onto the highway, he reached into Juarez’s shirt pocket. “Lites. Crap.”

“No, they’re good. Really.”

“Low-tar. Silk shirt. Got any money?”

Writing coach Chris Roerden puts it this way: “…dialogue can move rapidly without ill effect, provided it is not so abbreviated that the meaning gets muddled. However, rapid-fire dialogue that goes on too long does carry the risk of becoming tedious to read.”

“Nobody Move” is a thicket of f-bombs, tangled sheets, motels, bars, cigarettes, lipstick, pay phones, two Cadillacs, .357 Magnums, shotguns, duffel bags and pages and pages of that clipped dialogue that is ready for a screenplay and has precious little to do with the way people really talk. A direct answer is rare.

Dare I say anything somewhat critical of the master, Elmore Leonard?  I enjoy this genre, read lots of it and I go way back with Elmore. I started reading him with “Fifty-Two Pickup.”  (A great book.) I haven’t read every last title but he’s very reliable for great dialogue. In fact, it’s required that if you review Elmore Leonard, you have to use the two words together, “great dialogue.” He’s also good for terrific plots with vivid, distinct characters.

But not much happens in “Road Dogs,” another thicket of profanities and hustlers. If you don’t know these characters from previous books, you may be even less interested or less dialed-in to what’s going on.

Elmore Leonard once said: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

As one reader, I’m starting to hear the writer and lose the characters. It’s getting old, at least with these two entries.

Both “Nobody Move” and “Road Dogs” are for Johnson and Leonard completists only.


5 responses to “Denis Johnson & Elmore Leonard

  1. Leila Joiner

    Okay, I confess to being addicted to Johnson’s writing, no matter what form it takes. But if you want great dialogue, you can’t do much better than David Mamet. Last night I watched the DVD of Mamet’s Redbelt, and was blown away, once again.

  2. Mamet is terrific — so much meaning and weight in each line. Richard Price too.

  3. Coming from you, the man who introduced me to Elmore twenty years ago, this is strong stuff. And strong lit crit. I’m in the middle of Nobody Move…and your comments make me think of it differently. You’re right that these are fast-paced smart-assy dialogues…but that’s what they are–dialogues, not conversations. David Foster Wallace used a nifty device to suggest silence in the midst of a dialogue, and it works perfectly. I think I’ll use it here.


  4. I noticed this dialogue pattern in Lush Life by Richard Price. It was four police officers talking but I couldn’t tell that until later and couldn’t follow the exchanges. But the author is highly praised for his writing and dialogue. I didn’t finish the book. I’ll read Road Dogs out of loyalty though and see what I think.

  5. Love to know what you think when you finish Road Dogs. For some reason with Richard Price, I don’t mind this style so much … or at least it doesn’ t jump out at me as a problem. I think the reason is Price keeps things focused mostly around one character (I know Lush Life had multiple points of view) but the character development is so strong you end up being more engaged in the dialogue. Tricky. And, still, Road Dogs from a writer who is 83? It’s far better than 90 percent of the stuff that gets published.

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