The great American writer Elmore Leonard died this morning. He was 87.
He was a constant inspiration, a sharp, no-bullshit storyteller with a fondness for his characters and for the way people—cops and crooks alike—talk. He wrote beautiful, terse, evocative prose. He was not one to waste words.
“I don’t like a lot of description. I like to judge for myself what a character looks like from the way he talks. I picked up on that immediately. I thought, That’s the way to go, just keep the characters talking and the reader will discover what they look like. When you are developing your style you avoid weaknesses. I am not good at describing things so I stay away from it. And if anyone is going to describe anything at all, it’s going to be from the point of view of the character, because then I can use his voice and his attitude will be revealed in the way he describes what he sees. I want to remain completely out of it. I don’t want the reader to be aware of me as the writer.” —Elmore Leonard (1925-2013), from Como Conversazione: Criminal Conversations in the Winter 2002 issue of the Paris Review.
If you've never read Leonard's essay on writing, do yourself a favor, huh?
3. 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 to get the dictionary.
4. 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."
5. 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.
Over at the Atlantic dig this from Elmore (and stick around to watch the video):
THE DAY VICTOR turned twenty he rode three bulls, big ones, a good 1,800 pounds each—Cyclone, Spanish Fly, and Bulldozer—rode all their bucks and twists, Victor's free hand waving the air until the buzzer honked at eight seconds for each ride, not one of the bulls able to throw him. He rolled off their rumps, stumbled, keeping his feet, and walked to the gate not bothering to look at the bulls, see if they still wanted to kill him. He won Top Bull Rider, 4,000 dollars and a new saddle at the All-Indian National Rodeo in Palm Springs. It came to … Jesus, like 200 dollars a second. That afternoon Victorio Colorado, the name he went by in the program, was the man.
He left the rodeo grounds as Victor to celebrate with two Mojave boys, Nachee and Billy Cosa, brought along from Arizona when the boss, Kyle McCoy, moved his business to Indio, near Palm Springs. The Mojave boys handled Kyle's fighting bulls, bringing them from the pens to the chute where Victor, a Mimbreño Apache, would slip aboard from the fence, wrap his hand in the bull rope tight as he could get it, and believe he was ready to ride. He'd take a breath, say "Let me out of here," and the gate would swing open and a ton of pissed-off bull would come flying out.
"His mind made up," he told the Mojave boys at Mi Nidito in Palm Springs, "to kill anybody's on his back. See, he behaves in the chute. What he's doing, he's saving his dirty tricks till he has room to buck you off and stomp you, kick out your teeth."
Check out this old American Film article on him:
We talk about director Barry Sonnenfeld's 1995 version of "Get Shorty," the first truly successful (in both creative and commercial terms) Leonard adaptation after a long fallow period. The conversation quickly turns to how the creative team on the sequel, "Be Cool," got wrong so much of what Sonnenfeld and writer Scott Frank got right.
"I told Barry Sonnenfeld, ‘When somebody delivers a funny line, don't cut to someone else laughing or nudging or grinning, because they're all serious,'" he recalls. "And he knew that. But then when they shot the sequel, they forgot all about that, and everybody's laughing all the way through. There's a guy named Cedric the Entertainer (in the cast). Well, I can't have a guy named Cedric the Entertainer in one of my stories!"
I love the last line of his novel, Swag.
"Stick said, 'Frank, why don't you shut the fuck up?'"
Elmore lived to 87 and never stopped working. I hope he knew how much pleasure he gave so many of us. We can mourn his passing but let's also celebrate his lasting achievement. I'd like to think he'd want it that way.