Wednesday, August 21, 2013

R.I.P. Elmore Leonard

Like all writers, I was greatly saddened to learn of Elmore Leonard’s passing yesterday. He was 87. Until a recent stroke, he was writing until the end. His fiction was always so vivid, his stories clever, and most of all his characters jumped off the page. When people ask me for examples of good dialogue I say pick up any Elmore Leonard book.

His work was also filled with humor. He was Quentin Tarantino long before Quentin Tarantino. He was Carl Hiaasen long before Carl Hiaasen.

Many of you were introduced to him late. JUSTIFIED is based on one of his novellas. Two movie adaptations of his novels are worth seeking out – GET SHORTY and OUT OF SIGHT.

At one time he wrote screenplays but got tired of receiving idiot notes.  Can you imagine?  Some studio D-girl, two months out of Sarah Lawrence telling Elmore Leonard what works and what doesn't.  Happily for us, the world of novels beckoned. 

I never met him, just learned from him. In an article for the New York Times he once listed his TEN RULES FOR WRITING. In honor of Mr. Leonard, and because they’re great rules we all should follow, I’m posting them today. If you're not a writer, well -- apply them to life.

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

R.I.P. Elmore Leonard. Thank you for showing us all how it’s done and introducing us to the most interesting characters we've never met. 

32 comments:

RobW said...

I laughed for 2 minutes at rule # 10. Thanks, Ken.

Gene P. said...

One of the best. Reading his material is like reading a how-to book on writing and writing well. His economy with words has always impressed me.

Matt said...

Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite authors.

I always found it interesting that his best work seemed to be after he turned 50. My guess is that he had become financially stable enough he could write what he wanted and not have to worry as much about its success and strangely enough it became more successful.

Get Shorty is maybe the best adaption of a book of all time.

Chicago Pinot said...

Thanks for sharing these tips! The only one I am curious about is #7. When you were writing Cheers, was there ever the thought that a particular line or performer's delivery would be "Too Boston" for the mass audience?

Phillip B said...

My nephew did a tour in Iraq with Marines, and I threw an Elmore Leonard paperback into a care package. To my knowledge the young man had never read a book he was not compelled to read.

A few days later a message came back - "Send more Elmore Leonard."

Anonymous said...

Get Shorty is a must.

Be Cool, however, is a must not.

Hamid said...

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things is exactly what made reading Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring an ordeal and put me off reading the other two (I know it's actually all one novel but I got the first part as a separate book before deciding whether to get the other two. Which I didn't). Page after page of unbearably tedious description of the weather, plant life and geography of the forests.

Elmore Leonard RIP.

Anonymous said...

God Speed Elmore. Thank you for your stories but mostly thank you for Raylon.

Oliver Schmitt said...

R.I.P. Elemore Leonard

Have you read Stephen Kings "On Writing"?
He gives similar advices and praises Leonard for his great dialogues.

The Fan said...

There are good reasons that authors Stephen King and Elmore Leonard rank 1 and 2 in material sold to Hollywood. They are great storytellers. Leonard began his career writing westerns. 3 of his best became movies: Hombre, Valdez is Coming and 3:10 to Yuma - a short story. A short story that has twice been optioned by Hollywood. A sad day.

Mike in Seattle said...

Jackie Brown is Tarantino's best picture, IMO.

emily said...

Please send those ten rules to the writers of "Under The Dome."

Hollywoodaholic said...

And as far as prose, he said, "If it reads like writing, rewrite it." The best writing, just like the best directing doesn't call attention to itself. I just gave the same tip to my son learning to drive, "The best driving is when a passenger doesn't notice it."

Wendy M. Grossman said...

As soon as I read about Elmore Leonard last night, I thought of this blog, which is where I learned of JUSTIFIED. (I can't help hoping he left them enough original material to mine for some more years.)

Some other very successful writers who didn't do much in the way of description of people, places, things: Jane Austen and Agatha Christie.

GET SHORTY was great.

wg

Victor Velasco said...

Re: rule #9 I took not one but two creative writing courses in college, a year apart. Both teachers were different from one another, the methods were different, etc. but there were two instances with both guys that were exactly the same...they both encouraged their students to describe every noun down to the last molecule, and, they both spent time nearly every class, sitting on the edge of a desk, gazing off in middle distance while lamenting on all the rejection notices they received. RIP Mr. Leonard

Mac said...

One of my favourite writers. No messing about - always straight into a cracking story, terrific characters, and so funny. He was, as you say - Tarantino before Tarantino; criminals having left-field conversations about things you'd ever expect, although of course, as soon as you read them they sounded entirely believable. One of these people I'd so love to have met and chatted with, but his books were the next-best thing. What a terrific collection he leaves behind.

DBenson said...

I find myself thinking of "The Elements of Style," the short, no-nonsense bible of clear writing. Over the years the publisher has struggled to plump it up a bit to justify new editions.

skarab said...

thanks for this post, Ken. I've had you bookmarked for ages and thought I should finally take a look. Leonard's list of pointers is hilarious. I'll be back.

I'm also posting a comment on the Natalie Wood post, you'll see why!

D. McEwan said...

Ok, I love prologues, epilogues also. I'm not arguing with his rule, but it's not one I've ever followed. All of my books have prologues, as have some of my stage plays. They appeal to me. I like them in movies also, and plays. I like the formalism of a prologue, three acts and an epilogue.

Stephen King in On Writing also gave his version of rules 3 & 4. I violate them all the time, but always for a comic effect. "YOU GOD-DAMNED, MOTHER-EFFING SON-OF-BITCH!" she whispered demurely. That sort of thing. And I only do it when writing in the first-person, so blame Tallulah. When writing in the third person, in "My" voice, I don't modify "said," though I will occasionally vary the use of "said" with other words, if only from boredom with "said."

I try to avoid using flat-out cliches like "All Hell broke loose." In writing My Lush Life I made a running characteristic of Tallulah's voice that she'd always vary cliches in some way. If she's tempted to say "All Hell broke loose," it would become "Three-quarters of Hell broke loose" or "All Peace broke loose." When going back over and revising material, I'd hunt for unchanged cliche expressions that had slipped in to alter each in some hopefully amusing manner. (And sorry, but part two of my novel in current release is titled "Suddenly, This Summer." The slight gag is absent without it. Blame Tennessee Williams.)

I wish more writers would obey rule #7. The first book I ever owned, given to me the day I was born, was Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories. I had it for years, but I never read into it further than a few pages, because his unrelenting use of patois dialect made it incomprehensible to me. I had to translate every line of dialogue to try, often unsuccessfully, to turn the gibberish on the page into a language I understood.

Rule 8 is a no-brainer. No matter how much you describe a character, the reader will see in their head whomever they see. I describe only that which is needed to further the story.

Rule #9, I'm ambivilent about. Unlike Hamid, I find Tolkien's detailed descriptions of his fantasy world a large part of why I have reread the trilogy 6 or 7 times. He really creates a full fantasy world and puts you into it. The first time I read him, it was the vividness with which he put me into his faux-world that really sold it to me. Also, his geography is always essential to his plots. My current book is set in a fictional town, and its geography also plays into the plot, especially at the climax, so I'm very specific about its geography (I could draw you a map of Alta Caca, CA), though beyond that, I do trust that the reader knows what a California beach town looks like. I don't go into the architecture, for instance, since it's unimportant to the story, except for one structure, The Pay Ten Place Motel, where the arrangement of the building's insides is crucial to the story.

Charles H. Bryan said...

I was re-reading "Fire in the Hole" (the short story on which JUSTIFIED is based) last night and Leonard's style is actually a little jarring - when he says no setting or physical descriptions, he means it.

He knows how people read -- we create those mental images. And I do tend to skip (or scan) over lengthy overly detailed scenes. Unless it's Pynchon. Or Raymond Chandler. Or John D. MacDonald.

Based on some of the DVD extras, he and the cast/crew of JUSTIFIED have a lot of (well deserved) mutual affection.

JR said...

My favorite audiobook - Mr. Paradise, read by Robert Forster. Dialog is fantastic!

Jim S said...

I had the pleasure of hearing Dutch, as he was known to his friends, speak a couple of times over the past few years. What impressed me was how he emphasized the importance of listening. His best stories were about things he observed while being with the Detroit police department, or about just sitting in a bar and hearing how other people talked.

I got to talk to him for about two minutes and even had him sign his latest book "Raylan." Gave it to my dad for Christmas. He loved it and started watching Justifed as a result. He calls it the best show on TV.

I will always remember reading his book "The Switch." It took place in my neck of the woods - Detroit and books didn't do that. He describes a character scoping out the son of the women the two crooks plan on kidnapping playing in a tennis tournement. Leonard doesn't actually describe the tournement, but he uses the internal voice of the character Louis to show what goes on. The voice had a definate editorial point of view. I could see how the kid played and reacted. It was beautiful to read.

I must have read 20 of his books. Better get started on the rest

Hank Gillette said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A Non-Emus said...

I agree, McEwan. With Lord of the Rings, the descriptions were necessary as he created a fictional world. Leonard's stories always took place in familiar settings so there was no need for lengthy descriptions.

Brian said...

Good writing advice. There is nothing worse than reading a novel where the writer drones on and on about the meloncholy dreary clouds, or high cheekbones, or pouty lips etc. To me that that kind of writing sounds amateurish. That's why the opening of "Throw Mama From The Train" has Billy Crystal trying to describe the night.

Cap'n Bob said...

There were over two dozen movies made from Leonard's works. I've read mostly his westerns, and they're outstanding.

Mike said...

Leonard's rules apply to Leonard's style of writing: storytelling through dialogue. Like a script. Don't apply them generally. They wouldn't work for Ray Bradbury.

Hamid said...

Friday question, Ken:

Who's your favourite Bond? A bit of a random question, I know, but I've been on a Bond kick recently and my personal favourite still hasn't changed - Timothy Dalton. Underrated and way ahead of his time in portraying a serious gritty Bond, long before Daniel Craig.

Connery's overrated, which I know some see as sacrilege, but I think the adoration is based on nostalgia and the fact that he was the first. Moore's films were campy fun but not for a second did you believe he was a lethal spy. Lazenby was crap, though his film was rather good. Brosnan was good but ill served by his scripts which were too much in the Moore style. Also ill-served by the most godawful titles and songs, except for Goldeneye. Tomorrow Never Dies, Die Another Day, The World Is Not Enough - seriously, it was like they put a bunch of words into a bag and picked them out at random. And Die Another Day with its horrible CGI and title song/cameo by Madonna was egregious.

Craig is good up to a point but rather wooden and pulls silly faces when fighting, and Skyfall was an empty, clinical feeling film with too many poor attempts at jokes. I think there should be a moratorium on having characters in films say "Welcome to (fill in location)" before or after shooting a villain. I saw it used in about 4 films last year and it's never been a good payoff line to begin with. I cringed when Albert Finney's character shot a bad guy and said "Welcome to Scotland". Really? That's the best they could come up with?

Licence to Kill is still my favourite. A wonderfully steely performance by Dalton, the excellent and gorgeous Carey Lowell as the main Bond girl, and Robert Davi as a three dimensional character and not just a cardboard villain who spouts corny lines. And best of all, action scenes using old school practical effects and not horrible CG which blight so many action films now.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Anthony Lane on Elmore Leonard: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/08/the-dutch-accent-elmore-leonards-talk.html

I wonder if Leonard's reliance on dialog made his work more adaptable?

Phil said...

Like Mike who posted earlier, I thought of Ray Bradbury while chuckling my way through Leonard's ten rules. Rule no. 5 was particularly alien to Ray: "Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose."

Johnny Walker said...

Surprised that JACKIE BROWN isn't getting more love. I believe it was a favourite of Leonard's.

Great tips!

D. McEwan said...

Well, Phil and others, Re: Ray Bradbury: It is certainly true that Ray's rather lush style disobey's Elmore's rules all over the place, but few are they who can pull off a style like Ray's. There is nothing worse in writing than faux-Bradbury prose by someone else who was overly-influenced by Ray. As it is, much as I love Ray (the first professional writer I ever met, back when I was 17, and a life-long inspiration), I also find a little of his prose goes a long way. The idea of reading two Bradbury books consecutively strikes me as impossible, like trying to make a meal of cotton candy. I think the reason he so excelled at short stories is that he's best taken in small doses, not that some of his novels aren't great. His work in the last decade or so of his life I genuinely have a hard tome wading through, like swimming through molasses.

But at his best, you can't help but love Ray.