Remembering Elmore Leonard: His 10 rules for being a good writer
The bestselling crime novelist, whose works included Get Shorty and Out of Sight, was a master of writing engaging fiction
On Tuesday morning, crime novelist Elmore Leonard died of complications from a stroke. He was 87.
As a writer, Leonard produced a long series of bestselling short stories and novels that also proved ripe for adaptation, spawning commercial and critical hits like Out of Sight, Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma, and the ongoing FX drama Justified. But despite his Hollywood success — and occasional forays into screenwriting — he remained a literary writer to the end; in 2012, he published a new novel called Raylan and the short story "Ice Man" for The Atlantic.
In 2001, The New York Times invited Leonard to share his advice for writing, and he responded with a list of 10 rules that he said "help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story." But despite Leonard's modesty — "If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules," he said — his rules are a master class in pragmatic, applicable advice for fiction writers. Here, in Elmore Leonard's own words, some rules for writing fiction:
1. Never open a book with weather.If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
2. Avoid prologues.They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. 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 O.K. 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. . . . figure out what the guy's thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That's nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don't have to read it. I don't want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.''
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.
And watch Leonard discuss his writing process in the video below: