The Elmore Leonard Primer for Writers
August 20, 2012
Nobody creates characters like Elmore Leonard. Nobody writes dialogue like Elmore Leonard. Nobody can find humor in the blackest of circumstances like Elmore Leonard. Nobody writes less and says more than Elmore Leonard.
Nobody, quite simply, writes books 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.
As The New York Times reported: “When the market for western fiction dried up in the early ‘60s, he began to rite the eccentric contemporary crime novels that have since enlarged his reputation. The characters have gotten chattier, but it’s mostly the villains In Mr. Leonard’s stark world, people who spend a lot of energy explaining themselves are not to be trusted.”
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.
Elmore Leonard says he doesn’t own a computer. He simply orders 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 drinks, 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.”
- Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create a atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leap ahead, looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
- Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s okay because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says, “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”
- 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.” I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. 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. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
- 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. Notice the way Annie Prouix captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories, Close Range.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. 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, unless you are Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. 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. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
Leonard says that his most important rule is one that sums up the ten: “If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.” Leonard has changed. 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.”