When you get stuck, just write like Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard


I have to admit right up front that I haven’t read a great deal of Elmore Leonard’s work. But every time I pick up one of his books, I kick myself for not spending more time with him.

When I read a Leonard book, I get the sense that somehow I’m on the inside of an inside joke. It is as if he can draw the reader in and create  a special place for him in a strange universe where things shouldn’t happen as they do, but happen that way anyway.

Elmore Leonard is one of only a handful of writers who can say a great deal with a few words.  The thing is that the words, though perhaps ordinary, sound extraordinary when he sticks them together.

A year or two ago I picked up a copy of his book Road Dogs in a bargain bin at Books a Million, a regional bookstore chain in this part of the country.  The book has stayed on my reading stand ever since, refusing to part ways with me.  I read a few pages and set it down, wait a while, and repeat the exercise.

I suppose I just don’t want to finish it too soon.

In this occasional series,we look at a few paragraphs of writing from renowned wordsmiths in an attempt to learn something from their styles that may impact us as we try to put words on paper.

Road Dogs cover

Here are the first three paragraphs of Road Dogs.

They put Foley and the Cuban together in the back seat of the van and took them from the Palm Beach County jail on Gun Club to Glades Correctional, the old redbrick prison at the south end of Lade Okeechobee.  Neither one said a word during the ride that took most of an hour, both of them handcuffed and shackled.

They were returning Jack Foley to do his thirty years after busting out for a week, Foley’s mind on a woman who made intense love to him one night in Detroit, pulled a Sig Sauer .38 the next night, shot him and sent him back to Florida

The Cuban, a little guy about fifty with dyed hair pulled back in a ponytail, was being transferred to Glades from the state prison at Starke, five years down, two and a half to go of a second-degree murder conviction.  The Cuban was thinking about a woman he believed he loved, this woman who could read  minds.

What a set up. Is there anyone who could read that and not want to learn more about Foley and the Cuban and the woman who could read minds?

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  • Elmore Leonard is the one writer that makes it look easy. His words, chapters, and stories seem to flow easily as though he is sitting there beside you and telling you the story. And the only writer I knew who has a more fascinating array of characters than Elmore Leonard is some barefoot writer in East Texas who calls himself Stephen Woodfin.

    • Thanks, Caleb. Who wants to hang out with ordinary people?

  • I just left a message on Triberr and noticed that Caleb says the same, Elmore makes it look easy. Thanks for a great post. Looks like I’ll have to make time to check out some of your stuff too Stephen. (Carl Hiassun’s pretty cool too)

    • Peter, thanks for the comment. It’s like a friend of mine says, “Just because he makes it look easy, doesn’t mean it’s easy.” If you do get a chance to check out any of my work, I’d love to hear what you have to say about it. Regards, SW

  • This post aptly demonstrates that readers’ tastes are so individual. I don’t like Elmore, but A Cup of Tea by Amy Ephron does it for me. She packs so much meaning into a few little words. Beautiful writing.

    • Darlene, I agree, we each have our unique tastes and there is no argument in such matters.

  • Elmore writes like Willie Mays played centerfield.

  • mojobone

    When asked for examples of great dialog writing, I always point up Elmore Leonard. I’ve often noted that like Asimov, Stephen King is a crap writer, but a gifted storyteller; Elmore is gifted at both.

    • Mojo, and that’s a tough combination to beat. Thanks for the comment.

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