Updated on October 1, 2016
Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Good Writing
Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) began writing Westerns in the 1950s. From those, he went on to specialized in crime novels and suspense thrillers.
Because of his trademark rhythm and pace, many of his short stories became films. You might recognize Get Shorty (1995, John Travolta and Gene Hackman); Jackie Brown (1997, Pam Grier,) and Out of Sight (1999, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez).
He also wrote scripts for television.
That’s how I became acquainted with the writer’s work through U. S. Marshal Raylan Givens, star of the television series Justified.Trigger-happy Marshal Raylan exemplifies the author’s use of the Western theme inside crime fiction.
The character first appeared in Leonard’s novel PRONTO (1993), again in RIDING THE RAP (1995), and RAYLAN (2012). He resurfaced as the main character of the short story “Fire in the Hole” (2012) which screenwriters used as the basis for the television series.
If you’ve watched the series, you’ll remember Raylan’s Stetson Open Road. It’s said that Leonard was particularly keen that the producers of the TV show get Raylan’s hat right, an indication of the hat’s importance in Raylan’s characterization.
Btw, Leonard won the 2010 Peabody Award for Justified.
As a writer, Leonard was skilled at gritty, realistic dialogue and a master of the tight scene. He gave the reader immediate access to a character’s thoughts, what we call deep POV today.
The thing that impresses me most about Mr. Leonard is, unlike most genre writers, he is taken seriously by the literary crowd.
In his 2007 book, he offered 10 tricks for good writing:
- Never open a book with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
He then summed those ten rules into one:
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Personally, I like his summation best. What about you?