Thursday, October 3, 2013

How to write like Elmore Leonard:
Gunsights (1979)

2002 edition
Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing have been circulated widely on the Internet, but they are more obfuscation than revelation about the art and craft of writing fiction. Reading one of his westerns, Gunsights (1979), you can begin to glean what makes his novels so good.

In this novel, two men are on opposite sides of a conflict between a mining company and a scattering of settlers on an Arizona mountainside: Apaches, Mexicans, and former 10th Cavalry regulars. The two central characters were at one time friends and partners, and the novel begins in Sonora with their retrieval of an Apache chief and a white girl.

While there, they are involved in the shooting of a gang who have been after the same chief to collect a large bounty. Now one of the two former partners is employed by the mining company attempting to drive the settlers out of their homes. The other is an Indian agent, defending them.

This could be a set-up for a conventional western novel, the two men now enemies—one of them turned villain as he works for the mining company, the other heroically serving the cause of justice until there’s a final shootout. Well, that’s not what happens. It’s much better, and here are some reasons:

Strong characters. Leonard’s characters are not the usual stock characters found in traditional westerns. You cannot anticipate what they are going to do or say. That’s because they are smarter than you and me, and their intelligence is mostly intuitive.

1979 edition
Characters in this novel get into trouble when they think too much. It may only be a split-second thought before firing a gun, and the delay makes the difference between life and death. The ones who survive act when the feeling is right and wade in without knowing what’s coming next, just trusting their instincts. Thus, when they act, we are likely to be surprised by what they do.

Part of their strength as characters is their age. They are not youths as is often the case in conventional westerns. Bren Early and Dana Moon, the two central characters, are in their 30s. They have already grown up.

Plot. Characters like this drive a plot. Leonard plays with this idea by casting a group of newspaper reporters who have come to Arizona for a particular story. For them, the “plot” they are after is the conventional one—an armed confrontation between two men who used to be friends and partners.

But the two men refuse to cooperate because they are not enemies and have other priorities. For one thing, they don’t want to be bothered. For another, they have a mutual enemy in a third man from that incident south of the border a dozen years ago—a man they thought was dead. Looking for the plot they expect to develop, the news reporters continually miss what’s going on under their noses.

Villains. Leonard’s villains eventually die because they are ignorant. They can be brutally cold-blooded and therefore scary, but confronting a foe who isn’t afraid of them, they are at a disadvantage. If that foe is smart enough to outwit them, they are stymied. And if they are dumb enough to make a stupid mistake, like pay too little regard to a woman with a shotgun, they are dead men.

The conventional western often uses vengeance as the motivation for the main character’s actions. And the villain is finally avenged for some horrible misdeed. In Leonard’s novel, revenge is what’s driving the villain. He wants payback for a nasty gunshot wound that narrowly killed him and left him with a disfigured face.

1985 edition
Third-person narration. Part of the strength of the novel is Leonard’s choice to tell it in third-person. The narrator is thus a skilled storyteller rather than one of the novel’s characters. He knows how to pay close attention, unlike most of the newspaper reporters with their preconceived notions. Leonard's narrator is more like Maurice Dumas, the young reporter from Chicago. Open-minded and polite, he finds people willing to be interviewed because he asks questions that aren’t already slanted to a predetermined answer.

Multiple point-of-view characters. Third-person narration also gives Leonard the chance to tell his story through the eyes and ears of several characters, and he uses a least a dozen of them. The effect is to achieve the degree of distance we get in movies, which rarely stick with a single character. It allows the narrator to be in more than one place at the same time. And we don’t have to rely on second and third hand reports of action, which can be tedious by comparison with witnessing it first hand.

Multiple points of view allow for a type of suspense where we know more than any of the characters knows individually. Alfred Hitchcock liked to use the example of letting the audience know there’s a bomb about to go off in a scene, while the characters there are unaware of it. Without our knowledge of the bomb, there’s no suspense. All we have is surprise when it goes off.

In this novel, Moon and Early, leading their separate lives, are plagued by men trying to kill them for reasons neither can comprehend. The narrator has let us in, however, on why they are being hunted down. Thus tension builds as another scene begins to look like one of them is about to be ambushed.

2013 edition
Multiple points of view can also be used to withhold information from the reader, as Leonard does by having one of his central characters, Dana Moon, disappear for a while. We only get vague reports of him and fevered speculation by the newspaper reporters. Suspense builds as the eager reader is left in the dark about what he’s up to.

Humor. With intelligence comes wit and irony, and moments of humor have a way of unexpectedly and pleasurably relieving tension. One man on the hunt for Moon tells the news reporters of a close encounter with him. He awoke one morning to find Moon standing over him with a shotgun pointed at his face. When a reporter can’t believe that Moon didn’t say a word, the man puts a gun to the reporter’s nose and says, “You want me to explain things to you or do you get the picture?”

There’s not a lot of humor in this novel, but every 20-30 pages you may find yourself cracking a smile. A surprise at the height of the confrontation in the last chapter had me laughing out loud.

Women. Leonard’s women in the novel are strong as the men and just as smart. And he’s not afraid to put them together with their men to show the quality of intimacy between them. Here the newlyweds Moon and Kate get to know each other. She says:

“You ever do it outside?”

Moon pretended he had to think to recall and Kate said, “I want to do it outside when we get home.”

“I built us a bed.”

“We’ll use the bed. I want to do it different places. Try different other ways.”

Moon looked at this girl lying next to him, amazed. “What other way is there?”

Dialogue. Maybe the most distinctive feature of Leonard’s writing is his dialogue. It’s typically razor sharp and economical. Characters don’t waste words. You don’t get polite pleasantries, idle small talk, or repetition. There’s typically something at stake and a good supply of subtext. Characters mean more than what they say.

Wrapping up. This is still just scratching the surface. To give the subject its due, what makes a story Leonardesque is probably indefinable. But theres no question that Leonard has much to teach about storytelling and westerns. He left us with some gems to study and learn from.

Gunsights is currently available in paper and ebook formats at amazon and Barnes&Noble and at Powell’s Books and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Further reading:

Coming up: Arthur Paterson, The Better Man (1890)


  1. Just ordered GUNSIGHTS. This sounds as much a teaching manual as it is a story. The characters, and their motivation, sound unique.

  2. Great post. Informative. And it challenges us to be better writers.

  3. A very thorough analysis of a good book and a great writer, Ron. Thanks. I agree with James.

  4. Ron, thanks for an excellent review of this western by Elmore Leonard. It tells me a great deal about what to expect from a Leonard western since I haven't read any so far. I agree he gave a lot of importance to dialogue and I'd like to see how he worked it into a western whose appeal often lies in description of characters and places.

  5. Nice job, Ron. And I agree with Tom that Leonard's novel, (almost any of them) are teaching manuals.

  6. I always enjoyed Leonard's short stories for the very reasons you mention in this review. His great use of dialogue, brush strokes of scene and great characters. I will put this book on my list to read. Thanks for the insights. Doris

  7. Elmore Leonard and Gordon Sherriffs. Good stuff, Ron.

  8. Looking forward to reading more Leonard.