Get Shorty and the 10 Rules of Writing
Elmore Leonard, who died at the age of 87, was one of the most visual writers America has produced. It’s no wonder that 26 of his novels and short stories have been adapted for the screen. He had a deceptively simple style that brought his characters to life without a lot of “hooptedoodle”, John Steinbeck’s word for the parts in a story that you can safely skip and still follow the plot.
In a 2001 article in the New York Times, Leonard shared his “10 Rules of Writing”, in which he advised writers to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. “If it sounds like writing,” he said, “I rewrite it.”
That’s Rule #10, but the other 9 make just as much sense. I think they’re essential reading for any writer, keeping in mind that rules are made to be broken. Leonard himself gave examples of writers who successfully broke several of his rules. Take prologues, for instance: “There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ‘I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.'”
Get Shorty, published in 1990, was made into a movie in 1995, starring John Travolta, Rene Russo, Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito. In 2017 it was adapted into a TV series of the same name. It’s about a mobster in love with the movies; besides being the most successful of all his adaptations, Get Shorty is a great example of Leonard’s rules and the ways in which they can, occasionally, be broken.
Ernesto “Chili” Palmer is a Miami loan shark – a “shylock” – who’s decided to get out of the business. Before he can do that, though, Chili has to collect a debt owed to a thug named Ray Barboni, otherwise knows as Ray Bones. Chili and Bones have a backstory: twelve years earlier Ray walked off with Chili’s jacket. Chili went after him, punched him in the face and got his jacket back. Later on, during another encounter, Chili grazed Ray’s skull with a bullet. Ray, who has never forgiven him, or got over being pissed, is owed $10,000 by a drycleaner named Leo Devoe who supposedly died in a plane crash. When Chili tries to get the money from the drycleaner’s widow, Faye, she tells him Devoe faked his death – he was never on the plane and he scammed $300,000 in insurance money from the airline. He was supposed to split the money with Faye but instead he headed to Las Vegas where he’s living the high life at the gambling casinos. Faye and Chili make a deal: he’ll head west, find Devoe, get the money (if there’s any left) and then split it between them.
The trip to Vegas turns out to be only partly successful: Chili does find Devoe and gets the money, but then gambles and loses most of it. While there, he picks up another job, collecting money from a B-movie producer named Harry Zimm who owes money to the casino. Chili heads to Hollywood and tracks down Zimm at the house of Karen Flores, his former girlfriend. Karen’s an actress who once starred in Zimm’s low-budget horror flicks but hasn’t appeared in anything for several years. Zimm, it turns out, has a screenplay for a “proper” movie, if he can only raise the money. He wants Michael Weir – the “Shorty” of the title – to star in it, and is hoping that Karen, who once lived with Weir, will put in a good word for him.
By now Chili has his own idea for a movie: the drycleaner who fakes his death, scams the airline, and flees to Vegas, one step ahead of a shylock. Harry likes the idea, but it’s Karen who catches on that this isn’t fiction – the story is true and Chili Palmer is the shylock.
There are enough twists and subplots in Get Shorty to fuel half a dozen movies, so I’ll just say that in the end the good guys, Chili, Karen, and Faye, come out on top, and the worst bad guy, a well-dressed thug named Bo Catlett, gets what he deserves.
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, applied to Get Shorty
1. Never open a book with weather:
If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.
Here’s how Get Shorty begins:
“When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off. One his wife had given him for Christmas a year ago, before they moved down here”.
2. Avoid prologues:
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.
Yep, no prologue.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue:
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
Whether his characters are angry, sad, frustrated or bored, Leonard never uses a verb other than “said”. And it works.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”:
… he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.
Love it. And yes, no adverbs in Get Shorty.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control:
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
But here’s the exception: If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
I couldn’t find a single exclamation point in Get Shorty. Take this scene early on where Chili tracks down Ray Bones, the one who walked off with his jacket:
“He put on his black leather gloves going up the stairs to the third floor, knocked on the door three times, waited, pulling the right-hand glove on tight, and when Ray Bones opened the door Chili nailed him. One punch, not seeing any need to throw the left. He got his coat from a chair in the sitting room, looked at Ray Bones bent over holding his nose and mouth, blood all over his hands, his shirt, and walked out. Didn’t say one word to him”.
Does the scene have drama? Yes. Does the scene (pardon the pun) have punch? Yes. Does it use exclamation marks to do so? Nope. No exclamation marks. None needed.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”:
This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly:
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.
Once again, I agree. When I first started writing Harrow Road, I used a lot of 19th century cockney dialect and found it got in the way. The exception is if you’re Frank McCourt and you’re writing Angela’s Ashes. I’m not and I wasn’t.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters:
In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
When it comes to description, Leonard, of necessity, breaks his own rule. Chili Palmer has short black hair and dark eyes, is well-built and good looking. Michael Weir is surprisingly short, Harry Zimm is fat, and when it comes to Bo Catlett we get him described right down to his socks:
“Seated now in the Delta terminal . . . Catlett had on his dove-gray double-breasted Armani with the nice long roll lapel. He had on a light-blue shirt with a pearl-gray necktie and pearl cufflinks. He had on light-blue hose and dark-brown Cole-Haan loafers, spit-shined. The loafers matched the attache case next to him on the row of seats”.
This is a gangster who, like Chili, wants to be a Hollywood producer. And he dresses for the part.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things:
You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
This doesn’t mean don’t use description, just don’t let it interfere with the story. Here’s how Chili views Karen Flores, the first time he sees her: “He liked her hair, the way it was now, thick and dark, hanging down close to one eye. He noticed how thin her neck was and took a few more pounds off, got her down to around ninety-five. He figured she was now up in her thirties, but hadn’t lost any of her looks to speak of”.
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.