Elmore Leonard Writing at his Typewriter.

The Rhythm of Writing Crime Fiction

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” These famous words from Elmore Leonard sum up the style of one of the most influential crime fiction writers of our time. In Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, he even goes on to say “I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”

This emphasis on rhythm could also be also traced through the works of James Ellroy. Both authors’ works show distinct voices that are stylized yet grounded, creating a cadence to their writing that has defined a genre. Whether done consciously or not, each of them created a rhythm within their writing by using the following principles.

Write How People Like to Think They Talk

Leonard doesn’t write how people talk. He writes how people like to think they talk. Yes, his dialog is naturalistic. But his characters also have distinctive and decisive speech patterns that are beyond the way most real people speak.

His characters often have long scenes with extensive dialog where the conversation slowly but confidently meanders. The dialog takes detours and side streets so that, as Quentin Tarantino says, “a character is slowly revealed.”

It’s the confidence of the meandering dailog that sets Leonard’s characters apart from the speech of a real person. A real person will “ir” and “um” their way through a sentence, change topics twice, and then forget what they were talking about. But a Leonard character will purposefully take the conversation on a long walk around the park just for effect, making the payoff greater when they ultimately get where they always knew they were going.

Cut the Fluff

Since the 90s, James Ellroy has become known for his succinct style. His concise sentences throw the reader into the action. Details hitting them with the same immediacy that they hit the characters.

This style serves Ellroy’s narratives perfectly, but it was famously conceived out of necessity more than as a stylistic choice. As the story’s told, Ellroy’s editors wanted him to cut his 1990’s novel L.A. Confidential by 100 pages. As a response, Ellroy cut all unnecessary connective words, allowing him to maintain all of his subplots and scenes, simply by shortening his sentences.

To the delight of fans, the style stuck, most prominently displayed on White Jazz, American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s a Rover.

What’s Your Rhythm?

What do you think it takes to make the rhythm of a crime fiction novel work? What authors do you think do it best? Let us know in the comments below.

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