Writing 101: The Power of Unadorned Good Quotes

By Jack Limpert

51tf4fn-oQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a novel by George V. Higgins, got good reviews, sold well, and then became a very good movie.  Higgins, a journalist turned lawyer and prosecutor, knew how criminals, cops, and prosecutors talked and the novel was full of dialogue.

Here’s a sample from the final chapter. Clark is Foster Clark, the lawyer for Jackie Brown, the defendant in a gunrunning case. Clark is talking with one of the prosecutors on the case.

“I was wondering if we could work something out,” Clark said. “I haven’t really had a chance to talk with him, but I was wondering.”

“So talk to him,” the prosecutor said. “Find out where he stands and call me.”

“Suppose he talks,” Clark said, “what’re you going to recommend?”

“Look,” the prosecutor said, “you know I can’t answer that. I never know for sure what the boss is going to want me to do. So why kid each other. My guess, my guess would be we ask for some jail if he pleads, and a lot of jail if he doesn’t.”

“Good Christ,” Clark said, “you guys want to put the world in jail. This is a young kid. He doesn’t have a record. He didn’t try to hurt anybody. He’s never been in court before in his life. He doesn’t even have a goddamned traffic ticket, for God’s sake.”

“I know that,” the prosecutor said. “I also know he was driving a car that cost four grand and he’s twenty-seven years old and we can’t find a place he ever worked. He’s a nice clean-cut gun dealer, is what he is, and if he wanted to, he could probably make half the hoods and forty percent of the bikies in this district. But he doesn’t want to do that. Okay, he’s a stand-up guy. Stand-up guys do time.”

“So he’s got to talk,” Clark said.

“Nope,” the prosecutor said, “he doesn’t have to do a damned thing except decide which he wants to do more, talk, and make somebody important for us, or go down to Danbury there and get rehabilitated.”

“That’s a pretty touch choice to make,” Clark said.

“He’s a pretty tough kid,” the prosecutor said. “Look, we don’t need to stand here and play the waltz music. You know what you got: you got a mean kid. He’s been lucky up to now; he’s never been caught before. And you know what I got, too: I got him fat. You’ve talked to him. You saw him and you told him it was talk or take the fall, and he told you to go and fuck yourself, or something equally polite. So now you got to try the case, because he won’t plead without a deal that puts him on the street and I don’t make that kind of deal for machine-gun salesmen that don’t want to give me anything.”

Good quotes work equally well in journalism but getting good quotes takes time and lots of reporting. The great magazine stories I edited were full of good quotes and good reporting, and we always  tried to follow the Higgins formula:

People said things—they didn’t state, explain, exclaim, assert, or contend. Said should be a writer’s favorite four-letter word.

Let quotes and dialogue carry the story as much as possible. Many a writer I edited felt they had to help the reader think by adding introductory or background material to a quote.

Whenever possible, give it to the reader straight. Read The Friends of Eddie Coyle and see how well it worked for Higgins.

See Monday’s post for more on how Higgins wrote Eddie Coyle.


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