I recently re-read “Three-Ten to Yuma” and Elmore Leonard punched me in the face again with the strength of his writing. (Commissions earned from links.)
Leonard writes so well that every time I read him, I wonder why I even try. His writing reaches artistic levels of perfection that only a few authors have ever achieved. His sentences flow and his dialogue astonishes me, no matter how many times I read him.
“Three-Ten to Yuma” contains such power, even as a 23-page short story, that the classic Western continues to sell well today, and Hollywood has TWICE made it into a movie. How can such a short account reach such acclaim? (Especially given it was hastily written as a short story for a magazine, and this is back when Leonard woke up each morning at 5 a.m. to write a few lines before working his full-time job and caring for his kids and family at night.)
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I regularly try to study it to improve my own writing. And I thought we’d re-visit some of the writing and dialogue from this flawless tale in the hopes that it brings you half as much joy as it brought me.
In the story, lawman Paul Scallen is taking a high-profile criminal (Jimmy Kidd) to stand trial. All Scallen, the sole marshal, has to do is get Scallen, the murdering fugitive, to a train in just a few hours.
He’s only a few blocks away, but seven men from Scallen’s gang stand between the lawman and the train.
I won’t give more of the story away, but here’s some of the crisp, sharp writing, which grabs you.
“Nobody’s going to blame you with the odds stacked seven to one,” Kidd said. “You know your wife’s not going to complain.”
“You should have been a lawyer, Jim,” Scallen replied.
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