Don't miss 25+ other authors Margie analyzed, including Jeanne Stein, Lisa Gardner, Harlan Coben, Joseph Finder . . . .    Jump to links below the Dennis Lehane analysis.

Deep Editing Analysis:Book Cover:  Moonlight Mile

MOONLIGHT MILE, Dennis Lehane Photo: Dennis Lehane


Dennis Lehane’s writing carries a cadence-driven lyrical power and fresh street-smart dialogue that make his gritty crime novels bestsellers—and make his book-based movies blockbusters.


If you’ve read the books listed below, the titles will probably elicit a visceral reaction.

Book Cover: Gone Baby Gone


GONE BABY GONE -- Novel, 1998; Movie, 2007 (Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris)

MYSTIC RIVER – Novel, 2001; Movie, 2003 (Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins

SHUTTER ISLAND – Novel, 2003; Movie, 2009 (Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley)

MOONLIGHT MILE – a sequel to GONE BABY GONE -- Novel, 2010; Movie, in developmentBook Cover:  Shutter Island

Dennis Lehane has had nine crime novels and one literary novel (THE GIVEN DAY) published. He was a staff writer for three episodes of David Simon’s, The Wire, he’s adapting his short story Animal Rescue for Fox, he writes screen-plays, short stories, and novels, and teaches creative writing at Eckerd College.

He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Eckerd College, Raymond Carver’s alma mater. Lehane pursued graduate work at Florida International University where he was awarded a Master of Arts in creative writing.

Book Cover:  Mystic RiverEnough about the author? Ready to dig into analyzing Lehane’s writing?

We’ll start with a dialogue example. But I’ll share a quote about dialogue from Lehane first. He grew up in Dorchester, an ethnic hodge-podgey neighborhood in Boston. Most of his books are set in Boston.

“I think everyone has to come to the table with one gift. All the other skills, you’ve got to go out and learn. I always had an ear for dialogue because I came from a place where people spoke very originally. I have a pretty acutely attuned ear.”

All the examples are from MOONLIGHT MILE, released Nov. 2010.

Example: The POV character is angry with Helene, the scuzzy mother of the teenage girl who is missing. Here’s how he characterized Helene earlier: “If it smelled of stupid, Helene just had to be somewhere nearby.”

After the silence went on a bit too long, Helene said, “What’re you thinking?”

“I’m thinking how I’ve never had the impulse to hit a woman in my life, but you get me in an Ike Turner frame of mind.”

She flicked her cigarette into the parking lot. “Like I haven’t heard that before.”

“Where. Is. She.”

“We. Don’t. Know.” Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old, which, in terms of emotional development, wasn’t far off the mark.


Cadence – Read it out loud. You’ll hear the cadence driving the reader through every sentence. No stalling.

Allusion – Rhetorical Device – the reference to his Ike Turner frame of mind.

Clichés – You may know I’m not a fan of clichés.

1. Like I haven’t heard that before.

In this scene, that overused line carried power, strengthened characterization, and made me laugh. I approve using this cliché here.

2. . . . wasn’t far off the mark.

It works. It’s tight. I like the cadence. And I can’t think of a better way to end that sentence. :-))

Period. Infused. Sentences. My way of describing when the author morphs what would have been a normal sentence into sequential single word sentences. Like. This.

“Where. Is. She.”

Lehane shared what I call a Dialogue Cue. He didn’t add a sentence describing how the words were delivered. He showed it structurally. The punctuation indicates that each word is clipped, and that the character speaking is big-time irritated.

He also did something I haven’t seen on the page before, but I’ve heard it in real life. He had one character speak in that clipped style, and had another character respond the same way.

“Where. Is. She.”

“We. Don’t. Know.”

The reader knows the second character is mocking the first. But Lehane doesn’t TELL us. He SHOWS us. Smart. And smart alecky too.  :-)

Facial Expression, Amplified:

Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old, which, in terms of emotional development, wasn’t far off the mark.

Lehane could have stopped with:  Helene bulged her eyes at me.

Lehane could have stopped with: Helene bulged her eyes at me like a twelve-year-old.

Lehane could have stopped with: Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old.

Ah! Adding the word, pissy, adds psychological power. It taps a universal emotion in readers.

Most adults have dealt with a pissy twelve-year-old, a child, neice, nephew, neighbor. Adding ‘pissy’ elicits an internal nod. It ratchets up the tension and tightens the emotional hook.

But Lehane didn’t stop with that strong sentence. He amplified the line and empowered the emotion. Here’s his sentence again:

Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old, which, in terms of emotional development, wasn’t far off the mark.

Kudos to Dennis Lehane!


“The night Cheryl died, Sophie and I were with her until the last breath left her body. We finally leave the hospital, and it’s three in the morning, it’s damp and raw out, and guess who’s waiting in the parking lot.”


She nodded. “He had this look on his face—I’ll never forget it—his mouth was turned down, his forehead furrowed so he looked contrite. But his eyes? Man.”

“They were lit up, huh?”

“Like he’d just won the f***ing Powerball. Two days after the funeral, he showed up here with two state policemen and he took Sophie away.


Incongruent Nonverbals: He looked (looked is in italics) contrite – his mouth turned down, his forehead furrowed. But the emotion in his eyes was not contrite. It was celebratory.

Strong Dialogue: Sounded natural. Long and short sentences. It flows. It all works well.

Power Words: died, last breath, body, raw, contrite, f***ing, Powerball, funeral, policeman

Specificity – in facial expression

Cadence: Read the passage out loud. Train your Cadence Ear.


She and Angie hugged then in that unforced way women can pull off that eludes even those men in the world who are at ease with the bro clench. Sometimes, I give Angie shit about it. I call it the Lifetime Hug or the Oprah, but there was no easy sentiment powering this one, just a recognition, I guess, or an affirmation.

“She deserved you.” Angie said.

Elaine wept silently into her shoulder and Angie held the back of her head and rocked her the way she so often does with our daughter.

“She deserved you.”


Empowered Hug – juxtaposes emotional pain and humor

Amplified Hug -- Lehane devoted 62 words to describe that hug. It deepened characterization. These two women had met maybe ten minutes earlier. Amplifying the hug showed Angie's personality. The way Lehane contrasted gender differences regarding comfort level and styles of hugs also hooked readers.

Deep Emotion – Specificity, Comforting adult like child

Intentional Echo – Dialogue repeated for impact.

Powerful Cadence -- Read it out loud. The cadence carries power too.

Example -- Reaction of teen age girl

Her façade of apathetic cool collapsed and she looked about nine years old. Nine years old and abandoned by her parents at the mall.

Body Language - Lehane TELLS it, he doesn't show her face. But it's written FRESH. That's why it works. The reader conjures an image of a teenage girl with her I-don't-care-apathetic look of teen-coolness collapsing into the look of a nine-year-old who is terrified.

Power Words: façade, apathetic, collapsed, abandoned

Rhetorical Device, Alliteration: cool collapsed

Rhetorical Device, Amplification: Second sentence

Rhetorical Device, Anadiplosis: . . . about nine years old. Nine years old and . . .

CadenceStrong; Read it out loud as is:

Her façade of apathetic cool collapsed and she looked about nine years old. Nine years old and abandoned by her parents at the mall.

Now read it out loud without the last three words:

Her façade of apathetic cool collapsed and she looked about nine years old. Nine years old and abandoned by her parents.

Hear the difference? Now you know why Lehane added those three words -- at the mall. Cadence. Cadence. Cadence.

Example -- Here's another deceptively simple line that carries the power of cadence.

The smile that blew across his face was the kind movie stars give on red carpets—that much wattage, that much charm.

Fresh Writing and  Dynamite Cadence.

Lehane did not write:

He shot her a charming smile.

He gave her a movie-star smile.

He gave her a high-wattage smile.

Lehane didn't write that smile in basic ways, because they're tried and trite. We've all read those smiles. They don't carry interest or power or cadence.

NOTE: If you've taken my 'Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist' course (or ordered the Lecture Packet) -- you know ten million ways to write fresh smiles and other facial expressions, and empower them.  Remember to review those lectures.  :-)

I'll analyze one more example.


She frowned and I could feel both of us trapped inside ourselves, not sure what to do with today’s violence. There was a time we would have been experts at it. She would have tossed me an ice pack on her way to the gym, expected me to be raring to get back to work by the time she got back. Those days were long gone, though, and today’s return to easy bloodshed drove us into our protective shells. Her shell is made of quiet fury and wary disconnection. Mine is made of humor and sarcasm. Together we resemble a comedian failing an anger-management class.


In my EDITS System, all but the first two words would be highlighted YELLOW.

She frowned -- is a facial expression (Red Pen)

It's a POWER INTERNALIZATION - 103 words that are highlighted YELLOW. But it's WORKING YELLOW, compared to YAMMERING YELLOW.  :-)

That paragraph carries power. Be sure your Internalizations carry power too.

News-of-a-difference: Contrasting previous to current behavior. Raises the question, what happened that changed them?

Power Words – trapped, violence, bloodshed, protective, fury, wary disconnection, anger-management

Rhetorical Device, Parallelism: Her shell is made of quiet fury and wary disconnection. Mine is made of humor and sarcasm.

Fresh Writing and Humor. Lehane boosts power with Humor Hits. Most times it's at the end. He leaves you laughing and wanting more.

Backloaded -- Ending with power.

Cadence -- Strong throughout.

Shows dynamic of husband/wife relationship -- Strengthens characterization. Taps universal emotional sets.

NOTE: If you haven't taken one of my deep editing courses, and you're interested, start with Empowering Characters' Emotions. I teach it on-line March 2, 2011.  If you don't want to wait, the Lecture Packets are available through Paypal on my web site.


If you believe other writers would enjoy this Deep Editing Analysis, please share it with them – or cut and paste an example and analysis and post it on your writing loops. Please include my web site,

Thank you!  I appreciate you.

© 2018 Margie Lawson

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