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Lessons from Michael Connelly - What to Leave Out

Biff Barnes

Elmore Leonard said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” That’s easier said than done. Well-written genre novels are often described as “page-turners.” Learning how to build and maintain momentum means choosing what to leave out, because that keeps the readers turning pages.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia under Creative Commons

I love a good mystery. Nobody writes them better than Michael Connelly. The Gods of Guilt, the latest in his Michael Haller (The Lincoln Lawyer) series, is a wonderful example of omitting what’s unnecessary to maintain the novel’s pace.

Consider the overall timing: this story begins in November, when Haller takes on a new client accused of murder; he and his staff review the case and come to believe the client may be innocent. The pace picks up as they begin an investigation in pursuit of evidence that will clear him. Then they develop a theory of what happened, which promises to bring them into conflict with dangerous people. In April, Haller makes a breakthrough. All of the pieces of his case come together and he knows he can win a not guilty verdict.

However, the case doesn’t get to court until June 17th. Then the prosecution takes eight days to present its case. It’s here that Connelly demonstrates his skill in maintaining momentum. After Haller’s case comes together in April, he skips forward in time, to the dramatic moment when the defense begins to present its case. We learn only what we need to know about those intervening ten weeks in a few paragraphs of narrative summary and a bit of interior monologue, later in the book.

Photo courtesy of Good Reads

It’s almost impossible to put the book down once the defense begins its case. Less skilled and confident writers than Connelly might have felt the need to set things up with an account of the defense team’s ongoing preparations for the trial. Connelly demonstrated that it would have been a mistake. As well-known literary agent Donald Maas explained in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:

So fatal is the business of “setting up” something in a novel that I believe the very idea should be banned. “Setup” is by definition, not story. It always drags. Always. Leave it out. Find another way.”

Reading The Gods of Guilt will give you a good lesson in “another way.” Sometimes you can examine a book as role model, not to study what is there, but what isn’t. Remember, you want to keep those pages turning!