Murphy’s Law – Remembering Elmore Leonard

Joel Murphy

Joel Murphy

When I started this site eight years ago, my very first column was about the rise of nerd culture and how, thanks to comic book movies and things like the Harry Potter series and Lord of the Rings, being a nerd had suddenly become mainstream.

The opening line of that column was as follows: “Elmore Leonard had it all wrong. These days, it seems like everyone is going out of their way to do anything but Be Cool.”

Now obviously, I was going for the easy pun there. But I also knew that Leonard was the right name to invoke since his stories and characters were the personification of cool. Leonard specialized in rich, gripping stories filled with memorable characters. He used sparse language and beautifully-composed dialogue to tell those stories.

Leonard died yesterday at the age of 87. While he certainly lived a full life, it is hard not to feel like we were robbed of a great writer. His mind was still sharp and he was still producing quality work, like the novel Raylan, which came out just last December. (The book focused on Raylan Givens, the character Leonard created in the short story “Fire in the Hole,” which was adapted into the FX show Justified.)

Even if you never picked up one of his novels, chances are you are familiar with Leonard’s work. In total, 26 of his novels were adapted into either films or television series. In addition to Justified, the films Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, Be Cool and 3:10 to Yuma were all based on Leonard’s stories. He was someone who enjoyed having his films adapted. At times, he co-wrote the screenplays for his film adaptations. He wrote Be Cool, which is a novel focused around the film industry, in part because he loved John Travolta’s portrayal of Chili Palmer in Get Shorty. Leonard was an executive producer on Justified and stories from Raylan were incorporated into last season’s plotlines.

Earlier this year, we lost two actors who made careers playing cool wiseguys – James Gandolfini and Dennis Farina. Both appeared in the film adaptation of Get Shorty. Farina, unsurprisingly, played a wiseguy named Ray “Bones” Barboni, who was the chief rival of the film’s protagonist Chili Palmer. Gandolfini played a stuntman who moonlighted as a heavy named Bear. It was the first on-screen role I ever saw Gandolfini in and it’s still my second favorite part of his next to Tony Soprano.

Obviously, I’m a nerd at heart. I love that we live in a world where comic book movies and epic sci-fi tales are big business. It’s nice to see Hollywood tap into (and squeeze every last drop of money out of) the things I grew up loving.

But who doesn’t long to be cool? Whenever I watch Justified, it makes me wish I could pull off wearing a cowboy hat the way Raylan Givens does. Reading one of Leonard’s books makes you long to have witty conversations or to outsmart your rival in a dramatic fashion.

Leonard specialized in writing swaggering, brilliant heroes who were always in control of the situation … until they weren’t. There was a vulnerability to his heroes, a fatal flaw that got them in hot water and kept them from being too invincible. It made them feel human, relatable.

Similarly, there was always more than meets the eye going on with his villains. They weren’t mustache twirlers. They were complex and had rich backstories and clear, understandable motives.

Leonard wrote a list of his 10 rules for writing for the New York Times back in 2001. I recommend reading the whole article, but if you just want the rules, they are as follows:

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” …
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.

… My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

They are simple, straightforward rules for anyone hoping to emulate the style and the success of Leonard. But they won’t teach you how to be Elmore Leonard … because frankly you can’t be him.

Leonard was one of a kind. And he was cooler than you’ll ever be.

He will be missed.

Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. Follow Joel on Twitter @FreeMisterClark or email him at murphyslaw@hobotrashcan.com.

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