Don’t Put Your Reader to Sleep

Napkin Dad - Elmore Leonard Quote

A famous quip from Elmore Leonard. But take note…it’s more than just dry humor! It’s the best advice for good writing. Unnecessary backstory? Character’s long and involved dreams? Excessive description? Leave it out.

Cartoon courtesy of “The Napkin Dad”

Marty Coleman, Photographer and Artist

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See Marty Coleman’s photography

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Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  4. Susan on July 14, 2011 at 5:06 PM

    I think Rachelle is correct. I was talking about this with my adult daughter this afternoon because we are in the process of writing a book together.

    Although novels of the past were extremely descriptive, they had a strong reason to write in that manner.

    People depended on description because many did not have opportunities to venture out into the world. The only world they knew was the small area in which they were born and raised.

    There were no televisions, radios or massive media we have in place today.

    They relied on elaborate descriptions of a poetic nature in order to explain various far away places.

    Life moves faster for all of us in today’s world. We can rent a movie, watch a TV show or travel to these places. We no longer need the heavy details or we’ll get bored if they become excessive.

    That’s why we need to make sure that we do not get bogged down with too much description or we’ll lose the reader.

  5. Anita on July 14, 2011 at 12:43 PM

    When I saw the Napkin Dad in this post, I thought surely that I’d stumbled upon the author of “Napkins – Lunch Bag Notes form Dad,” a book that I enjoyed reading and that inspired me to put notes (on index cards) in my children’s lunches, too.

    When I pulled the book off my shelf, I found that Courtney Garton is the author of the book that I read, and not Marty Coleman.

    Interesting…can they be the same person? Hmmm… 🙂

  6. Lanny on July 14, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    Oh, this advice is so timely! Maybe it’s just that folks are so hurried or so “fast-twitch oriented” electronically, but I don’t think today’s reader will tolerate seven different descriptions of the shade by the window or the hibiscus plant outside. Page-turning action seems to be the rule. Obviously, a fictional work can’t be all that, but we need to shed a lot of our excessive verbiage.
    PS: Nice new photo, Rachel.

  7. Catherine Johnson on July 14, 2011 at 8:37 AM

    I wish I could be found like that sometimes 🙂 Great picture, great lesson.

  8. Neil Larkins on July 14, 2011 at 12:02 AM

    I’m in trouble. This means my novel wip must read: “If only…’Oh, no. Who will I be this time?'” Kinda short but I guess it’ll work. Leaves people wanting a sequel.

  9. Vanessa K. Eccles on July 13, 2011 at 4:17 PM

    That’s cute. Love it!

  10. Michelle DeRusha on July 13, 2011 at 3:49 PM

    This made me laugh, namely because I remember the day my BFF called me to report on how her reading of my early manuscript was going. “So?????” I asked her. “How do you like it????” Her response: “Welllllll, I put it down and I’m having trouble picking it back up again.”


    Turns out, all my long sections on Biblical exegesis and “instruction” were’t doing it for her. “Stick to the stories. I love the personal stories, but you lose me with all the Bible analysis,” she advised. And in the end, that’s exactly what I did!

    • Joe on July 14, 2011 at 7:23 AM


      I’m having that exact issue, now, with a book I’m writing (non-fiction).

      By nature, I tend to over-explain. To compensate, in the early drafts of this book, I left out all biblical exegesis and just said what I had to say.

      The feedback from reviewers said I was assuming everyone knows as much on the topic as I do, and it needs more background.

      So, I added a prelude giving the scriptural background. It seems to work, but I am now concerned readers will want to skip the prelude.

  11. Angie Dicken on July 13, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    I understand, but I look at classics like The Great Gatsby and Jane Eyre, and their great detail and description is what intrigued me most when I read them. How do we know when is too much?

    • Rachelle Gardner on July 13, 2011 at 3:32 PM

      Angie, thanks for the comment — it gave me an idea for a blog post! Lots of people say things like that. “But what about Charlotte Bronte? What about Fitzgerald? You’d probably reject THEM if they came across your desk, too.”

      Yep, I just might. This is not 1925 nor is it 1847. This is 2011 and the trends today are different – readers want something different. In addition, neither Bronte nor Fitzgerald were competing with television, video games, the world wide web or BLOGS to get someone’s attention. A reader today is a different animal than a reader 100 years ago.

      • Angie Dicken on July 13, 2011 at 8:04 PM

        Thanks Rachelle! Makes sense. Good thing to keep in mind during my edits! 🙂

  12. Tony McFadden on July 13, 2011 at 12:38 PM

    I agree. Every scene needs to have a mission. If the mission isn’t obvious, cut it. The simple act of knowing what the mission of the scene is before you write it automatically drives the story forward.

  13. Larry Shallenberger on July 13, 2011 at 12:31 PM


    Don’t write the gun on the mantle unless you intend it to go off. I think this is true both for novels and “live” learning experiences.

  14. Michelle Knox on July 13, 2011 at 12:30 PM

    Very sound advice that an aspiring novelist like myself certainly takes to heart.

  15. JP Kurzitza on July 13, 2011 at 12:07 PM


  16. marion on July 13, 2011 at 11:13 AM

    [I think my comment got eaten.]
    Working on this now, as I get stuck into revision–together with tightening up the plot and sharpening focus.

    It’s the tightrope between establishing setting, mood, etc. & inducing yawns.

    But I know which bits are real somnolence-inducers (including some “dialog”.) Maybe I should label those bits “Cure for Insomnia”!

  17. marion on July 13, 2011 at 11:06 AM

    This is my main target as I’m getting into revision–plus tightening up the story.
    It’s the tightrope between establishing setting, mood, etc. and putting your readers to sleep.
    But I think I really know the soporific sections, that somehow just go on and on (“dialog” or not). Maybe I should label them: “Cure for insomnia”!

  18. Barbara Watson on July 13, 2011 at 10:51 AM

    I find that the books I enjoy the most are the ones I read aloud to my kids. Other than loving middle grade, what I’ve learned about this is this: I’m a fast reader and a skimmer. Even when I love a story. So when I’m forced to slow down (which can’t be escaped when reading aloud), the beauty of words, their poetic qualities, and thus, the story’s beauty shines.

  19. Gwen Stewart on July 13, 2011 at 10:29 AM

    I wholeheartedly agree. I find descriptions boring….but then, I’m the most auditory person I know, so my books are heavy on dialogue and action, shorter on description and backstory. Sometimes to a fault: I have to work hard on visuals.

    I just downloaded “11 Steps to Getting Published” by Mary Demuth (oh dear, I think I bungled that title…but I’m close). She talks about “writing nekkid”, and her examples are SO worthwhile. Reminds me of my earliest writing: loaded with adjectives and adverbs, all flowery. Less is definitely more!

  20. Les Edgerton on July 13, 2011 at 9:53 AM

    No biggie, but I keep seeing that quote attributed to Elmore Leonard, but I believe it was Harry Crews who first said it, many, many years ago.

  21. Katie Ganshert on July 13, 2011 at 8:46 AM

    That is definitely some stellar advice!

  22. otin on July 13, 2011 at 7:00 AM

    I so agree with that. I had to rewrite the beginning of my first novel because it was too slow and boring. I chopped off ten pages by cutting down on the descriptions and it reads so much better now.

  23. Jackie Ley on July 13, 2011 at 5:52 AM

    The Elmore Leonard quote is one of my favourites too. It probably reinforces the need for getting some objective feedback on a novel once it’s finished. It’s very difficult for a writer to judge if they’ve lost pace and interest in places, or whether they’ve read and edited the darn thing so many times, all the suspense has evaporated.

  24. Marji Laine on July 13, 2011 at 1:50 AM

    Growing up, I devoured the books of a well-known mystery writer. Seriously could not get enough of them, but I would skim through whole pages full of bubbling creeks and the mist on the fields of wheat to “get to the good stuff.”

    In retrospect, the poetry of her descriptions made her writing beautiful and probably popular for the time period. My purpose for reading, though, was the mystery.

    In today’s writing, it’s important to have poetic beauty, but in little bite-sized morsels. Today’s readers still want to “get to the good stuff.”

    The keywords in your post are excessive, unnecessary, involved. It’s not that there is no places for back story or description, but that they be reduced to the details that that are and allow the story to grow large around them.

    Cute cartoon and great topic!

  25. Becky Povich on July 13, 2011 at 1:17 AM

    Hi Rachelle! I thought I left a comment, but guess not. (hopefully, you won’t have two from me!) This is my first visit and I’ll definitely be back. Love the Elmore Leonard quote! It’s one of my favorites!

  26. Darla on July 13, 2011 at 12:21 AM

    I don’t fully agree. It can mean a lot to the story and character development. In excess, yuck, but it has value. A lot of (good) fantasy has these.

    • Kristin Laughtin on July 13, 2011 at 5:35 PM

      The trick is to work in that character and story information in a way that won’t bore readers.

      • Mike Koch on July 13, 2011 at 10:52 PM

        Great post idea and I agree you Kristin. If we don’t blend the back stories into the manuscript then it becomes a lecture, an information dump,and a stagnant part of the book.

  27. Michelle Dennis Evans on July 13, 2011 at 12:09 AM

    Very cool. 😀
    Love it.