Leonard redefined crime writing, specializing in the fringe characters and the oddballs in circumstances spinning out of their control. If you read at all, you've probably read some of his stuff. Freaky Deaky. The Hot Kid. Get Shorty. Maximum Bob. Maybe his best skill, beyond his off-kilter stories and amazing characters, was his ear for dialogue. Pick up any of his books, even the not really great ones like Be Cool. The dialogue crackles with authenticity. That's the way people talk.
In the movie version of Get Shorty, the screenwriter had rewritten some dialogue in the scene where Chili Palmer (played by John Travolta) goes to the coat check and finds his jacket has been taken by his nemesis, Ray Barboni. Travolta knew that the key to a character like Chili Palmer was not just what he says, but how he says it. So he got the exact working from Leonard's novel and told the director, "This is what I'm saying, not that."
The screenwriter thought Chili should say, "Where's my coat? You'd better find it. It cost $400."
The way Elmore Leonard wrote it – and the way Travolta delivered it – was this:
"You see a black leather jacket, fingertip length, has lapels like a suitcoat? You don't, you owe me three seventy nine. You get the coat back or you give me the three seventy nine my wife paid for it at Alexanders."
You see the difference? The first example is information. The second is character.
Leonard is well known for his 10 Rules for Writing. In his honor, I'll quote them here.
- Never open a book with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
- Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.