Elmore Leonard and leaving the boring stuff out

Elmore Leonard died. So I pulled one of his books off the shelf. Turned to a random page. This is “Riding the Rap,” page 94:

Reverend Dawn was saying, “You met this other woman.”

“That’s right, in Miami Beach.”

“You and she are close,” Reverend Dawn said. “I’ll go so far as to say intimate.”

Raylan wasn’t sure that was still true.

“You shared a frightening experience. …”

She waited, but Raylan didn’t help her.

“That part isn’t too clear, but there’s someone else, a man. He stands in the way of you and this woman planning a life together.”

Raylan said, “That’s pretty good.”

“He’s an older man.”

Raylan waited.

“But not her father.”

“You don’t see him, huh?”

“Not too clearly.”

“I’m surprised,” Raylan said. “He was here just the other day, Friday afternoon.”


The first thing about Elmore Leonard is, nobody wrote dialog better. His novels are full of people flirting, threatening, feeling each other out with words. This is real life. We spend more time talking than doing. Or the talking leads up to the doing. In Elmore Leonard books, every conversation has a point. But it doesn’t sound like characters talking. It sounds like people.

The second thing about Elmore Leonard is, everybody in his books has a certain charm. You get to know the bad guys, and sometimes you get to like them, right up until the moment they kill somebody else you liked better. The heroes are not always heroic. Some of them smoke weed and screw around and dance just this side of the law. But they always want a better life, and chasing after it puts them in the path of the bad guys.

The third thing about Elmore Leonard is, he would have been done with all this description long before now. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” he said. That is a hell of a lot harder than it sounds.


Page 200:

Louis looked up. Three hundred yards away a foursome was teeing off. Time to leave. He said to the blindfolded man, “You coming with us. Hear? So don’t give us no trouble. Stand up.”

Bobby put his piece in the man’s face and cocked it. He said, “You give me any more shit, you dead.”

They brought him through the trees to the car, taped his hands behind him quick, put him in the trunk and got out of there.

Up to Royal Poinciana and across the bridge to West Palm.

Louis said, “We should’ve wore the ski masks.”

Bobby said it again, “Fuck the ski mask.” Like saying he didn’t care the man had seen them.

Louis had to ask himself what he thought about that. What it meant.


No other author had more good movies made out of his books. “Out of Sight,” “Get Shorty,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Jackie Brown,” “Mr. Majestyk,” “52 Pick-Up.” That doesn’t even include “Justified,” which to my mind is the best show on television. It’s based on a short story and two books featuring U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. (That’s the Raylan quoted up above.) The writers on “Justified” all have bracelets that say WWED. What Would Elmore Do?

What Elmore did, when “Justified” became a hit, was write another Raylan Givens novel. He was no dummy.

He wrote 45 books, dozens of short stories, plus screenplays and essays and magazine articles and book reviews. Millions of words. And you might read them for days before you find a flowery descriptive passage, a wandering adverb or a boring character. That’s not just skill. That’s the daily willpower, over 60-some years of professional writing, to rewrite and cut and rewrite and cut until the only parts left are the parts readers want to read.You can know all the writing tricks. But to make the tricks come alive takes more work than most writers are willing to do. Elmore Leonard always did the work.


Page 326:

“You’re not gonna testify against me?”

Sounding like she wanted to be sure about it.

Raylan shook his head. “Why put you in prison? This place is bad enough.”

“Then why can’t we go to bed?”

He said, “I’m getting out of here before I do something foolish.”

She said, “What’s wrong with being foolish sometimes?”

It was a good question.


4 thoughts on “Elmore Leonard and leaving the boring stuff out

  1. Pingback: This is how Elmore Leonard wrote only stuff that readers want to read. - Brandon Sneed : Brandon Sneed

  2. Tommy, come to Care Ring’s annual HOPE FOR COMMUNITY HEALTH Luncheon on 10-1-13 at The Westin Charlotte, 12 noon. I’ll mail you an invite. Meet Charlottean, Dr. Hayes Woollen, a Care Ring board member and receive a complimentary copy of his book, Fuel Your Body, Feed Your Mind (Lose Weight, Reverse Aging, Improve Your Mind, and Reduce Inflammation!). Champion our Healthy Habits community initiative – and let’s improve our health together!

  3. AMEN, Ronnie! Totally agree with you…

  4. Great article, Tommy. You’re no slouch, either.

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