The Mystery Writer: How would Elmore Leonard say it?

Elmore Leonard was once called “The Dickens of Detroit.”

His writing philosophy was simple. He said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

I read Elmore Leonard religiously. His novels possessed every characteristic I liked in a good mystery: humor, suspense, plot twists, strange turns. And storylines that bordered on the bizarre.

I tried to imitate him.

I failed miserably.

He was a once-in-a-lifetime writer. And he’s not with us anymore.

Nobody ever created characters the way Elmore Leonard did. Nobody ever wrote dialogue with the style of Elmore Leonard. Nobody could find humor in the blackest of circumstances like Elmore Leonard. Nobody wrote less and said more than Elmore Leonard.

Nobody, quite simply, wrote novels like Elmore Leonard.

He was an advertising copywriter, but his aim was to write fiction, Westerns in particular. And he was good at it. He wrote 3:10 to Yuma as a fifteen-page short story and watched two adaptions of his work show up bigger than life on the movie screen. He said he was dismayed to realize how easily Hollywood could foul up a simple story.

When the market for western fiction dried up in the early 1960s, Elmore began to write the eccentric contemporary crime novels.

Elmore Leonard’s critics have commended him for his gritty realism and strong dialogue. His characters are odd, bizarre, absurd, and seem to come straight from a carnival freak show. He is probably best known for Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Hombre, and Mr. Majestyk, which, along with 3:10 to Yuma, were all made into motion pictures.

However, he didn’t have a bestseller until he was sixty years old. It was called Glitz. His first published novel, The Big Bounce, had been rejected eighty-four times. Elmore persevered if nothing else. As he said in 1996, “After writing almost anonymously for decades I am what you call an overnight success.”

Elmore Leonard says he didn’t own a computer. He simply ordered fifty unlined yellow pads at a time from a print shop, because, he said, “You don’t have to be orderly about writing without lines. The re-writing is done as I’m writing. Once I get through a scene, and I don’t know what will come next, I type it and try to clean up the presentation. I always hope for about four or five pages by the end of the day. The next day I rewrite it, pick at it, and add things because it is too spare the first time. I add in cigarettes or a drink or something going on. I think writing is rewriting.”

About plot structure, Leonard told an interviewer: “I make the whole thing up as I go along The characters are presented in a situation in the first hundred pages, and then a turn will come. Something’s going to happen. The characters can tell me what they are going to do. Once I know the people, I know what they’re going to do, but they surprise me.”

His heroes were unpredictable. They might solve a crime, and, then again, they might commit one.

Here is the wisdom Elmore Leonard left us with his “Ten Rules of Writing.”


  • Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create an atmosphere and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long..


  • Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.


  • Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled,” “gasped,” “cautioned,” “lied.”


  • Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.” To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”


  • Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.


  • Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly, Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.


  • Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, what do the American and the girl with him “look like?” She had taken off her hat and put it on the table. That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.


  • Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.


  • Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.


Elmore said that his most important rule is one that sums up the ten: “If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.”

Leonard changed during his writing career. He said, “Back in the days when I wrote Westerns, I would begin a sentence: ‘Upon entering the room, he observed …’ It sounds like writing. I don’t do it anymore. I figure out another way for him to enter the room.”

Elmore Leonard has entered another room now. He was hard at work writing his forty-fifth novel when his heart played out, the complications of a stroke. Somebody may finish the story. I’m sure they will. But we will certainly know where Elmore stopped and someone else began.

Nobody could write like Elmore Leonard. He set the standard and then took it with him when he left.

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