Making It Up as I Go Along
The author of such classics as Get Shorty and Out of Sight advises writers:
the best ideas come from the most unlikely places By ELMORE LEONARD
At the time I begin writing a novel, the last thing I want to
do is follow a plot outline. To know too much at the start takes the
pleasure out of discovering what the book is about.
I think of characters who will carry a story. The plot comes out of
the characters, their attitudes. How they talk describes who they are.
Dialogue, in fact, is the element that keeps the story moving. Char-
acters are judged as they appear. Anyone who can’t hold up his or
her end of a conversation is liable to be shelved, or maybe shot.
In 1995 my researcher, Gregg Sutter,
handed me a photo of a deputy U.S.
marshal standing in front of the Miami
federal courthouse, a pump-action
shotgun held upright against her hip.
“She’s a book,” I said to Gregg.
But first I auditioned her in a short
story. The marshal becomes Karen
Sisco. We watch her fall for a charter-fishing-boat skipper who turns out to
be a part-time bank robber with a big
ego. Karen takes care of business—no
emotional harm done, she’s cool—and I
begin thinking about Karen for a book.
While I was looking at ways to introduce her, six convicts broke out
of Glades Correctional Institution in
Palm Beach County. I got details from
Jim Born, a Florida Department of Law
Enforcement agent, now a novelist
himself. Jim describes how the six—all
Cubans—tunneled out, and it gave me a
direction for the book. Put Karen there,
in the middle of the escape.
In Out of Sight, she arrives at Glades
on business as convicts are coming out
of the ground, sirens wailing, spotlights
sweeping the area. Karen gets out of
DON’ T BE BORING
rule: “Try to leave
out the part that
readers tend to skip.”
her car, opens the trunk to grab a shotgun, and a convict shoves her inside.
He gets in with her, and Karen meets
Jack Foley. These two will be what the
book is about. Jack’s buddy gets behind
the wheel, and they take off.
For the trunk scene to work, it has to
be positive, Foley and Karen natural,
even funny without being cute. Karen
says, “I’m not much of a hostage if no one
knows I’m here.” Foley says, “You aren’t
a hostage, you’re my zoo-zoo, my treat
after five months of servitude.”
They go on like that, pressed togeth-
er in the dark, chatting, disagreeing,
but enjoying it. What they talk about
reminds them of movies. Karen delivers
Faye Dunaway’s key line to Robert Red-
ford in Three Days of the Condor: “Have I