Elmore Leonard Will Never Die

Elmore Leonard

I woke up to plenty of well wishes and one very sad bit of news on my birthday. Elmore Leonard, celebrated crime author, has died. He wasn’t a young man at 87, but he was so prolific you felt like he might just keep writing forever, churning out great books filled with sizzling dialogue and even sharper characters. The man just plain knew how to write.

I was reading Leonard’s “Tishomingo Blues” when I moved out to Los Angeles in August of 2003. My dad and I split the driving that trip, and when I wasn’t at the wheel I was devouring the story of a high diver, a murder at a casino, Civil War reenacters and gangsters (at least that’s how I remember it). Don Cheadle was supposed to make his directorial debut on the film adaptation, also playing a fast talking gangster with Matthew McConaughey as the lead, but financing never came together and the project fell apart. But I loved the book anyway, and it marked my first true foray into Leonard’s writing.

By that time I was familiar with Leonard from his many Hollywood forays, starting (for me) with “Get Shorty,” and then “Jackie Brown” and “Out of Sight.” The latter remains one of my all-time favorite movies, a perfect blend of writing, acting, editing and direction. So much fun to watch, and hits so many notes. It’s a Hollywood movie in the way that so many aren’t.

As of today, I’ve read just a few other Leonard novels, but his influence on me has only grown. “Justified” remains one of the three best shows I watch on TV (and, short disclaimer, after a DVR glitch mid-way through the second episode of Season 4, I have yet to watch this last season, but I have it all here waiting for me). Even though showrunner Graham Yost and his staff made some changes to Raylan Givens and the original “Fire in the Hole” short the series is based on, it remains a perfectly Leonard-ian show and the characters introduced would be at home in any of Leonard’s other works.

I’m not a historian, and I didn’t know the man, so I won’t belabor the point any further. Elmore Leonard was a damn fine writer, and his loss is a big one. But he leaves behind an impressive legacy and a stellar body of work. There’s a lot to live up to for all of his fans pursuing creative endeavors, and we all need to try a little harder now knowing that he won’t be there to pick up the slack.

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Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing
(see full version here)

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”…he admonished gravely.

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.” – Elmore Leonard

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‘Justified’

Justified, based on a short story/character from master novelist Elmore Leonard and developed for TV by Graham (Speed, Boomtown) Yost, was a show I got excited about as I do nearly everything on FX.  That interest grew when I found out it was based on Leonard and they showed the first trailer.  The same happened again when the posters started to hit, and gave just the right vibe (along with smart design) for my taste.

I really enjoyed the pilot, but it stopped short of great.  It had all the elements needed to create a proper show engine: likable and iconic protagonist, Timothy Olyphant in that role, great introduction to him, great title sequence and theme song, and a very interesting antagonist with a complexity not often seen on television in the form of Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder.  It just didn’t reach the levels I was expecting from the trailer.  And then the second episode rolled around…

The structure wasn’t what I was expecting from the show, or had come to expect from the 13-episode seasons of other FX shows.  Bryan Hill went all Tony Stark and built a paradigm for the elite television shows, and for the most part it’s the model on which all of FX’s shows are structured.  Justified went a different way.  It was more episodic, so that anyone could tune in at any time and understand what was going on, and even if they didn’t could still enjoy Raylan catching the “villain of the week.”

For lack of a better description, I feared Justified was turning into a USA show.  There’s nothing wrong with them – they are infinitely watchable – but they don’t possess the same depth as what outlets like FX, AMC, HBO, and Showtime are putting out.  FX is all about characters in increasingly convoluted situations and gravitas and darkness, yet Justified felt light(er).

I stuck with the show because it was enjoyable and this is the off-season for most TV; I couldn’t be happier that I did.  It got better just about every week, and the overarching story grew incrementally until it felt like there were minimal episodic elements and the creators had been building to an intense finale from the opening scene of the pilot.  They had pulled a bait-and-switch, and a welcome one at that.

The first season finale aired last night and was a thing of beauty.  I can’t get into much for fear of spoilers – I know way too many of you didn’t watch this show – but if you want payoffs it has them.  If you want to know what Season 2 will feel like and still be not at all sure… they’ve planted the seeds to keep you wondering.

I mentioned this on twitter previously, but I’ll go into it again with a bit more space.  Justified has hands-down the best character introductions and economical character development of anything in recent memory.  No one is built by talking about them when they’re offscreen.  Characters do.  One of the first lessons I learned about dramatic writing is that action is character.  When a character shows up on Justified, they do things that actually define.  Things that are true to their character and let you know exactly who you’re dealing with.  It’s not a world inhabited by stereotypes or even archetypes; these are living, breathing, believable characters.  I’ve known for a few weeks that I’ll rewatch the show to figure out exactly how they pull this off.  It’s a rare concoction of clever writing and excellent casting and performances, I’d imagine.

To sum up, Justified is an excellent show. It spends most of the first season in watchable/good mode, but as it ramps up to its end approaching greatness.  It certainly seems poised to make that leap next season, especially with… Sorry, almost tossed out a spoiler there.  Do yourself a favor and check it out.  It’s got the goods.

You can see the promo trailer HERE.

And here’s a quick look from New York Magazine about building a better hero, using the show as a case study.