Elmore Leonard

Never open a book with weather.

He’s dead. Stroke killed him, age of 87.  Sorry, I’ve ready messed this up; this is not how Elmore Leonard opened his novels.  Terse, quick snatches of dialogue.  In media res. Wise guys, cops, low-lifes, maybe a con man or sociopath.  Shooting someone’s hard; you shoot the breeze first, working yourself up.

Avoid prologues.

Novels set in Detroit, a lot of the time.  Miami. Hollywood.  Any place on the edge.  Cheap bars, horserace gambling in back. I wrote a play once in which I described Heaven, only I made it an Elmore Leonard heaven, where the onions are fresh pickled, and jazz and Mo-town on the jukebox. When I should have been reading Proust, I read Leonard.  He and Donald Westlake–they didn’t know each other, but they also did–two connoisseurs of great American prose tipped their hats to each other.  He knew how to do stuff.  How to make a great rum punch.  Which guns which guys would carry.  How most fights end in one punch, then the one guy’s broke his hand and the other guy’s broke his nose.

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue

Or just start the new paragraph with quotation marks.  But sometimes you need to clarify who’s speaking–then it’s said.  Not ‘asserted.’  Not ‘grumbled,’ ‘gasped,’ ‘lied.’  John said.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said.’

What he liked about Hollywood were the crooks.  The big studio heads were like top mafiosi–not interesting, because non-dimensional.  He liked small producers, hustlers, guys putting together small packages, maybe a low budget with a TV star and a chick and a script from a drinker that maybe has a little juice.  He had no illusions about the movies based on his own novels.  Called one of them ‘the second-worst movie ever filmed.’  Then they did a sequel, and he said now he’d seen the worst.

Keep your exclamation points under control.

You’re allowed no more than 2 per 100,000 words.  2.

Never use the words ‘suddenly,’ or ‘all hell broke loose.’

Writers who used ‘suddenly’ couldn’t be trusted with exclamation points.

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

He was the great master of American dialogue.  Nobody better, ever, nobody.  He started out writing cowboy books, to make a living.  They’re spare and smart and unsentimental, followed the conventions but not enslaved to them.  Then he turned to cops, contemporary settings.  Then, for fun, he put a cowboy in urban settings.  US Deputy Marshall, Raylan Givens, first in Pronto, then Riding the Rap.  Raylan then got his own TV series, Justified. Leonard was ticked because they didn’t get his hat right.  Leonard’s last published novel, Raylan, is like a series of Raylan Givens short stories, loosely novelized.

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Again, though, nobody created more compelling or rich characters.  Chili Palmer.  Jackie Brown.  Ordell Robbie.  Jack Foley and Karen Sisco.  Often crooks or con artists, with an odd sense of honor.  You’d get a quick detail, a hint.  Raylan likes ice cream.  Chili Palmer never carries a gun. Small stuff.

Don’t go into great detail describing places or things.

Jazz lover.  Tigers’ fan, life-long.  Mike Lupica says, you’d call him and ask when he was free, and he’d say ‘I go til six.’  Had this big writing desk, was at it every day.

Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip

Five greatest movies based on Elmore Leonard novels:

1) Jackie Brown.  The best Tarantino movie IMO, a neglected masterpiece, (and QT loved Leonard–Vincent and Jules are essentially Leonard characters, that’s where QT developed his ear, reading Leonard).

2) Out of Sight, one of the best Soderburgh films, great chemistry between Clooney and J-Lo, fantastic minor characters–Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Don Cheadle.

3) 3:10 to Yuma.  Captures the flavor of Leonard’s Western fiction, with Christian Bale acting circles around Russell Crowe.

4) Get Shorty.  John Travolta is Chili Palmer; best match of character and actor imaginable.  A tremendously funny movie because it never forces anything, just tells the story, relies on character.


Nope.  Couldn’t find one.  Was going to put Be Cool, or The Big Bounce, or Killshot or something, but Leonard didn’t like any of them much, so I’m going with just four. This is Elmore Leonard we’re talking about.  Don’t overdo.

If it sounds like writing, rewrite

One last novel, finished before he died, should come out within a few months.  It breaks my heart to think that’s going to be it.  We’re selfish, we readers–we hate it when the story’s are late, we hate it worse when the writers we love most pass on.

Elmore Leonard quite drinking in ’77, was twice divorced, but finally happily married, won numerous awards, wrote every day of his life, changed my life, changed the lives of more people than anyone could count.  You wanna honor him?  Get back to work.





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