Talk to Clay Writers Jan. 17, 2018
When the literary historians of the year 3000 write about the fiction of our time, I believe they will consider our use of the present tense to be its most distinctive—and, perhaps, problematic—feature. Whereas present-tense narration was once rare, it is now so common as to be commonplace. In 1987, Robie Macauley and George Lanning dubbed it “the most frequent cliché of technique in the new fiction,” and since then, it’s appeared with even greater frequency. Although there are signs that its use is diminishing among established writers, it’s becoming the default choice for many younger writers.
—By David Jauss
Recently, I asked one of my talented undergraduate students why she wrote all of her stories in the present tense. “The past tense makes a story seem kind of ‘19th-century,’ don’t you think?” Why, I wondered, did a tense that has served authors since the very inception of fiction suddenly lose favor? What made the past tense passé? And why was the present tense now omnipresent?
The best writers almost always seem to know, either consciously or intuitively, when to use present tense. Many of us, however, do not. Present tense has become something of a fad, and we often use it even when past tense would serve the story better. Whatever the causes for the prevalence of the present tense in today’s fiction, it is important that we understand its advantages and disadvantages so we can better decide when to employ it.
ADVANTAGES OF PRESENT TENSE
1. Present tense has more “immediacy” than past tense. Past-tense narration is of course “immediate” in a way, since the events of the characters’ past are happening in the reader’s present. But the immediacy of the present tense also allows us to convey a character’s change as it happens, not after the fact. In present tense, we are there with the narrator step by step as he changes, and hence the story’s climax can be both more immediate and intense.
2. Present tense can contribute to the characterization of a work’s protagonist. As Joyce Cary said, he chose the present tense for his novel Mister Johnson because its title character lives in the present and he wanted his readers to be “carried unreflecting on the stream of events,” just as Mister Johnson is. “As Johnson swims gaily on the surface of life, so I wanted the reader to swim, as all of us swim, with more or less courage and skill, for our lives,” Cary said. Many of the most successful present-tense novels and stories deal with characters who, like Johnson, are “boxed in the present.”
3. The present tense can reflect not only a character’s nature but a work’s theme. One major theme of Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love is “the presentness of the past,” and therefore the use of the present tense when narrating past events makes excellent sense. Whereas the character Charlie Baxter fears the erasure of the past, his friend Bradley feels the present is, at times, less present than the past and therefore more subject to erasure. “The past soaks into you,” he says, “because the present is missing almost entirely.”
In Bradley’s view, the past is eternally present in memory. As he says, “That day was here and then it was gone, but I remember it, so it exists here somewhere, and somewhere all those events are still happening and still going on forever.” Bradley does more than merely state his view that past events continue to happen in the present; he demonstrates it. At one point, after two young lovers, Chloé and Oscar, have been housesitting for him, he hears the sounds of their lovemaking coming from the basement. He goes to investigate the source of the sounds, and once there, he says, “I felt the two of them passing by me, felt the memory of their having been physically present there. …” And then the narrative, appropriately, shifts to present tense: “I follow them up the stairs. I watch them go into the kitchen and observe them making a dinner of hamburgers and potato chips. They recover their senses by talking and listening to the radio. I watch them feed each other. This is love in the present tense. …”
4. Present tense simplifies our handling of tenses. Whereas past-tense stories often contain the majority of our language’s 12 tenses, most present-tense stories employ only four—the simple present, the present progressive, and a smattering of the simple past and the simple future—and many consist almost entirely of the simple present tense. Using fewer tenses reduces our ability to convey the full complexity of time relationships, of course, but there’s something to be said for this kind of simplicity. For example, when we’re writing in present tense, we can simply shift into the simple past when a flashback starts and then return to the present when it’s finished.
DISADVANTAGES OF PRESENT TENSE
1. Present tense restricts our ability to manipulate time. Altering chronological order and varying duration both work against the primary purpose of present tense, which is to create the feeling that something’s happening now. It seems natural to alter the chronology of events in past tense, when the narrator is looking back from an indeterminate present at many past times, but it seems unnatural to do it in present tense, when the narrator is speaking from and about a specific present.
2. It is more difficult to create complex characters using present tense. While it is certainly possible to create complex characters in present-tense fiction, it’s more difficult to do so without natural access to the basic techniques that allow us to manipulate order and duration. These techniques allow us to convey our character’s subjective experience of time and thereby achieve more psychological depth and realism. They also help us complicate a character by placing her in a larger temporal context. The more we know about a character’s past, for example, the more we can understand her present. Without the kind of context flashbacks provide, our characters tend to become relatively simple, even generic.
3. The present tense can diminish suspense. Because present-tense narrators do not know what is going to happen, they are unable to create the kind of suspense that arises from knowledge of upcoming events. The narrator of Doctor Faustus provides a good example of this kind of suspense: “The truth is simply that I fix my eye in advance with fear and dread, yes, with horror on certain things which I shall sooner or later have to tell. …” Carolyn Chute, author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, laments that we have to sacrifice this particular kind of suspense when we use present tense. What we gain in immediacy, she says, we lose in tension. Present-tense fiction can create another kind of suspense, of course—the kind we feel when no one knows the outcome—but not this kind.
4. The use of present tense encourages us to include trivial events that serve no plot function simply because such events would actually happen in the naturalistic sequence of time. As a result, a present-tense story sometimes seems, in the words of Macauley and Lanning, “less the work of an author than an unedited film.” Take, for example, Kate McCorkle’s slice-of-life story “The Last Parakeet,” in which for no apparent reason we watch the “Today” show with the narrator while she eats a bowl of Rice Krispies. The principle of selection can be applied more readily, and ruthlessly, in past tense.
This piece is excerpted from On Writing Fiction by David Jauss.
Most novels are written in third-person past tense: “He raced through the dark alley, the footsteps getting louder behind him.” First-person is another option: “As I slammed down the phone in disgust, I heard the doorbell ring.”
While first-person viewpoint can be ideal for a short story, writing a novel-length story in first-person is riskier. New fiction writers sometimes opt to write their novel in first-person, as they think this will be easier. But writing a novel effectively and compellingly in first-person is a lot more difficult than it appears, for a number of reasons. As novelist David Morrell points out, “If the first person were as easy as it seems, all stories would be written from that viewpoint.”
Some of the advantages to writing your novel in first-person are:
1. It mirrors real life – we experience life around us only from our own point of view – we don’t know what other people are thinking.
2. There’s a direct connection from the narrator to the reader, so this POV can create an immediate sense of intimacy and believability.
3. The narrator-character’s voice comes through more clearly, as it is expressed directly.
4. It’s easier to portray the POV character’s personality and world-view, as they’re doing all the talking.
Some of the disadvantages of using first-person point of view and narration are:
1. It’s difficult to dramatize scenes where the viewpoint character is not present. Your POV character won’t know what’s going on in other locations.
2. Too many sentences begin with “I” or have “I” in them. Can quickly become repetitious, tedious, and even annoying to the reader.
3. In the opening, the reader is often left wondering who “I” is. Be sure to mention your first-person narrator’s name in the first paragraph or two, or certainly on the first page. A dialogue with someone else helps the reader figure out who this “I” is.
4. Working in a physical description of your protagonist can be a bit tricky, when we’re in her point of view, and the looking in the mirror thing has been a bit overdone.
5. The reader may tire of the same voice and point of view predominating throughout the novel. Not enough variation in style and personality.
6. We may also get too much of the first-person narrator-character’s opinions on people and events around him, and long for a little variety. How do the other characters see things?
7. There’s a danger of too much introspection, interior monologue, and explaining things – in other words, “telling.” Be sure to balance this with plenty of action and dialogue –“showing”– which will help the pacing and move the story forward more easily.
8. The viewpoint character has to be really interesting, with a distinctive, compelling voice, as we’re “in his head” for the whole novel.
9. With all those “I”s and “me”s, there’s a danger of the writer putting too much of himself into the novel.
First-person narration is ideal for a short story, and can work really well in the hands of a skilled novelist (for example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James are three notable examples), but is difficult for aspiring authors to pull off successfully, especially for a whole novel. As Morrell points out, “the first person is only as interesting as the character telling the story.”
To work, your narrator-character needs to have a unique voice and personality, with lots of attitude. As James Scott Bell says, “There must be something about the voice of the narrator that makes her worth listening to—a worldview, a slant, something more than just a plain vanilla rendition of the facts.” On the other hand, don’t make your narrator-character too weird, as that could get grating or annoying after a while, too.
Even then, as David Morrell states: At its worst, when using first-person narration or POV, “The sentences can become a litany of I did this and I did that and I did something else, until the reader is overwhelmed with egotism and closes the pages.” So it’s important to vary the sentence structure to avoid a lot of sentences starting with “I”, “the egotistical I-I-I that makes many first-person stories wearying.” (Morrell)
Many successful novelists also feel that first-person narration encourages too much telling and introspection and analysis, rather than showing and action. As Morrell says, “One of the several liabilities of the first person is its tendency to encourage a writer to jabber away….”
In The Successful Novelist, Morrell discusses how he personally found first-person narration very suitable for short stories, “but I tried at least six of my novels in the first person, each time giving up in frustration once I got deeply into the story.” He found it hard to overcome “the obvious liability of the first person, the nagging, narcissistic I-I-I of it.”
Morrell concludes, “Having been through this turmoil, I think I’ll stick to using the first person only in short stories, while reserving the third person for my novels.”
As an alternative to using one first-person narrator for a whole novel, one could choose to use first-person viewpoint for different characters, giving each character their own chapters, told directly by them, from their viewpoint. In this case, it’s important to make sure that each character speaks with a unique, distinctive voice, with plenty of attitude of their own. Or you could even have your protagonist’s viewpoint in the first-person, then portray other characters in the third-person, in their own chapters.
If you’ve written or started a book in first-person, try rewriting a chapter or two in third-person. Leave it for a few days, then reread the third-person attempt and see if you like the added freedom and variety of voice and viewpoint a little better. Or give both versions to a trusted friend or critique group and see which approach they prefer.
Resources: How to Write a Damn Good Thriller, by James N. Frey; The Successful Novelist, by David Morrell; Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell.
1. It is accessible.
Many authors claim that this style of writing is accessible as they can use their voice for narration, which means that they will have an immediate connection to their creations. As for the narrators, they will have a better understanding of the characters who might otherwise they have to imagine, giving them a strong starting point for the story. Generally, accessibility comes automatically with this style.
2. It will put readers inside the narrator’s mind.
Immediately, narration places readers inside the narrator’s head, allowing for an intimate portrayal of emotions and other thoughts—the narrator will be able to communicate effectively how every moment feels and deliver sight, smell, sound, touch and taste all through his prism. His love, hopes, fears and despair will be brought to the readers directly with maximum impact. He can also put across the motivations of the main character, and his reactions to situations will be effectively imparted, creating a strong sense of empathy in the readers.
3. It is direct.
The directness in first person narration will make the author’s work so easy that he would often repeat it. For example, “Interview with the Vampire” has used character Louis as first person narrator, which made the novel ran itself off speedily that the author duplicated such a feat with “The Vampire Lestat”, which sees the vampire Lestat as the first-person protagonist this time.
4. It provides clear identity to the text.
By writing in first person, an author will be able to deliver an entire story in his narrator’s voice, which can give a clear identity to the text and submerge readers further into a world he is creating. He can also hide expositions within a stream of consciousness and turn them into musings and thoughts.
5. It makes it easier for the narrator to say whatever he wants.
One great advantage of first person narration is that a narrator can say whatever he wants, which is impossible with third-person narration, and he can be completely excused for this because it can be part of his character. Also, the narrator would not even have to be the writer’s protagonist, though he would be the protagonist in his story. Taking for example a narration of the life of Christ—Jesus would be the protagonist and Satan the antagonist, while Judas would be the lead character and narrator in his own story arc.
List of Disadvantages of First Person Narration
1. It is limited to a single story thread.
While Stephen King agrees that first person narration is used by many new and established writers, he prefers third-person narration as this allows him to work on a large canvas, which is limited in first person narration. It would be difficult for an author who uses first person to move through a number of sub-plots and various narrative threads. Its disadvantage of being limited to a single story thread will also make descriptions of the characters and the narrator problematic if the story is stuck with only a single pair of eyes.
2. It would risk making the narrative self-indulgent in the narrator’s emotions.
This style of writing would risk narrative becoming self-indulgent in the emotions of the narrator, as it will see constant self-referencing and extreme emotional responses, which can drown out the story making it become too much. Unlike in passive narration, the narrator would be in the scene, but would not be doing too much, just watching the other characters with no feelings or reactions.
3. It tends to be biased.
Since this type of writing is told from the perspective of only a single narrator, the story would naturally become biased by the filter of the character who tells the story, creating the literary problem that is known as “unreliable narrator”, which entails that the storyteller is either purposefully distorting the truth or having their own understanding of the characters and events.
4. It narrows the experience.
First person narration would limit reader experience, as the readers would only experience the narrator’s side of the story. It also restricts the writer, as he can only reveal what the narrator would see and think, considering that this character should always be on stage or observing it. As previously implied, this style would make it difficult to add a subplot to a story, as readers cannot entirely see into the minds of other characters. Moreover, the sub-plots would need to involve the narrator or switch narrators to another first-person perspective, which is not truly feasible.
5. It would be difficult to describe the narrator.
Describing a narrator would be almost impossible within a first person narration, unless there would be a scene where he needs to describe the way how they look, which is not advised in writing, as it is referred to as a terrible cliché and even completely unnecessary. Considering that the narrator tends to have less understanding of the story’s big picture, the writer needs to be careful of not giving him too much awareness or knowledge, while sufficiently hinting that readers will be able to surmise the overall plot at a certain point in time, which is difficult to pull off.
6. It would make it difficult for the narrator to capture the character.
To be successful, this style of writing should embody the way the narrator speaks, and some dialects would make the piece difficult to read. This means that the writer should ensure the narrator capture the character and carefully plan how he talks to the reader, which can be difficult.
So, there you have it! Based on the advantages and disadvantages listed above, would you go for first person narration when writing a story, or not?
WHEN THE PAST IS PRESENT,
WHEN YESTERYEAR IS TODAY,
WHEN HISTORICAL TALES AREN’T:
IS YOUR VERB TENSE
SLIPPING INTO DARKNESS?
Novels and short stories may be told in various points of view and told using present tense and past tense. Some will use a mixture as the author tries to set off a particular scene or action. Denson, a self-described “cranky speaker, and reader, and writer,” argues all narratives essentially take place in the past. As. You. Read. This. Sentence. Each. Word. Began. In. The. Present. And. Slipped. Quickly. Into. The. Past.
PITFALLS—A careless writer can slip easily into errors involving tone shifts, repeating disputed “myths,” and severe anachronisms.
A rule for scriptwriters:
· Read 20 or 30 books on a historical subject.
· Set them aside and don’t look at them again.
· Just write the story and script.
Getting across historical information:
· Avoid copying chunks from encyclopedias, etc.
· Weave any facts into the narrative itself.
· Research what characters would have for their meals.
HOW TO RESEARCH—A writer wants to get things right, but a web search or getting books from the library may not do the job.
· How do you tell what your characters would have had for breakfast?
· How many meals did they have?
· How did they travel?
· Where did they spend the night on overnight trips?
· What did they dress?
· What kind of footwear?
“IT’S ALIVE! IT’S ALIVE”— We should cry that as Dr. Frankenstein did.
· It’s not enough to push cardboard characters around a narrative chessboard. A narrative may unfold, but, if done ineptly, it may be as dry as an old high school history book.
· Neither the writer nor the reader wants to be looking at a metaphorical book/iPad.
· Writer and reader want to be sucked into a holo-tale, in which characters interact.
The speaker’s novels that easily fall into the category of historical fiction include The Case of the Anniversary Libation (pre-Civil War featuring a former slave narrator and Sen. Judah P. Benjamin), McGregor and the Lost Tribe (1770s to 1830s, Scots and Southern Indians), the five books in the Mowbray series (1908 to 1940 so far), Clare and the Country People and Other Stories (1870 to 1970 or so), The Waldentown Express: How Four Fools Save a Town (1970-92), and The Rainbow Ranch (1870s).
Thanks to his father’s jobs at newspapers and as a U.S. Navy photographer, the speaker was born in Jasper, Alabama, and has lived in places across the South. He settled in Jacksonville during what he calls the reign of “Saint Richard the Reluctant Confessor.”
Talks to Ponte Vedra Beach Writers' group (FWA) April 16, 2016 and Nocatee Writers (FWA) June 6, 2016
Developing a Unique Writing Voice http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/voice-in-writing-developing-a-unique-writing-voice
What makes fiction good? To a great extent, it’s the voice http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/06/what-makes-fiction-good-its-mostly-the-voice/276742/
Developing style and voice in fiction writing http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/blog/2010/10/08/developing-style-and-voice-in-fiction-writing/
The above “Voice” is different from the grammatical “active voice vs. passive voice.” See this aspect discussed at http://writers.stackexchange.com/questions/11057/fiction-novels-active-vs-passive-voice and at Grammar Girl’s site http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/active-voice-versus-passive-voice
Point of View (POV)
1st Person – See Tara Harper’s website at http://tarakharper.com/k_frstpr.htm for a discussion of the pluses and minuses for 1st-3rd POV. Also see discussion in Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First-person_narrative
1st Person omniscient (rare, often with bardic tone)
2nd Person (rare, to near non-existent)
3rd Person active
3rd Person observing
3rd Person acting/observing
3rd Person omniscient (godlike narrator; knows all)
Prejudice against first person POV.
Defaults / disciplines / restrictions
Warner Bros. cartoonist, writer, and director laid out the following rules or defaults for the Roadrunner-Wile E. Coyote cartoons http://mentalfloss.com/article/62035/chuck-jones-rules-writing-road-runner-cartoons . However, long-time Jones collaborator Michael Maltese said he'd never heard of the rules.
1. The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going "meep, meep."
2. No outside force can harm the Coyote -- only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products. Trains and trucks were the exception from time to time.
3. The Coyote could stop anytime -- if he were not a fanatic.
4. No dialogue ever, except "meep, meep" and yowling in pain.
5. The Road Runner must stay on the road -- for no other reason than that he's a roadrunner.
6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters -- the southwest American desert.
7. All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote's greatest enemy.
9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
10. The audience's sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.
The Final Polish: Should You Simonize It or Turtlewax It?
If you wish to Polish your prose (referring to the country), then work in references to Chopin and Paderewski, and phrases like “Nie ma za co” (You're welcome) and “Proszę” (Please).
In an essay on poetry, metaphors, and figures of speech, Robert Frost noted that each figure of speech had a breaking point. (It could only be used so much.)
Looking at waxing and polishing cars, we encounter a problem. Very old paint may have deteriorated or oxified to the extent that it needs to be scraped off. Very new paint may not have dried sufficiently to be polished rigorously.
Old prose may have become outdated. To exaggerate, the writer may need to scratch out dresses with bustles and insert, say, tube dresses. Very new prose may not be ready for polishing of a final draft.
Remarks are aimed primarily at the long form of prose: novellas, novels, memoirs, or non-fiction works.
Proofreading: Not everyone can be a good proofreader, and practically no one can do a first-rate job of proofing his or her long work. Why? The writer will “see” on the page what he or she intended, what was in the writer’s mind. Some adjustments can help the writer catch problems, including some of these:
· Print it out with larger print than you would normally use.
· Go to “view” in your word processing program and enlarge the words until they take up the entire screen. I set my pages to 6 inches by 9 inches (the size of the book that will be published by Amazon’s Create Space). Then I use “zoom” to magnify the type 360 or 370%. That ends up essentially giving me a sentence each time.
· Do a spellcheck, even though it won’t recognize many proper names and special words. Your w.p. dictionary may highlight “clipboard” as a misspelling; it may have “clip” in its dictionary and “board” in it, but not “clipboard.” Go ahead and add the word to your dictionary. Do this repeatedly. Your grammar checker style is likely to be close to worthless, but use it any way. Hit “ignore” when it wants you to change something that’s perfectly all right. However, don’t go so fast that you end up ignoring a serious problem.
· Check for specificity and avoid generalities. Abe Lincoln will help us here with an exercise to demonstrate that we often look but don’t see.
· In no particular order, go through your final manuscript looking for the following:
a. Words that you overuse. If you refer to a bank teller as a “curmudgeon” and then use the word for a doctor, a professor, and a minor league shortstop, then use a different word for the last three individuals.
b. Remove hackneyed language and clichés.
c. Remove excessive use of indefinite words (it, them, they, thing, anything/one, someone/thing, etc.). Put a solid name in place of each.
d. Make sure each sentences is in proper sequence. Notice this sentence: “I’ll change that in the final draft,” he said when he came into the room and read the report. Flip it around.
e. Make sure the parts that are together that belong together. Remember the old joke, “Throw the baby down some diapers”?
f. Check for uniformity in numbering, abbreviations, etc. Don’t say, “The police arrested 6 people in Bugtussle, Ala.” and then “The police arrested four people in Climax, Georgia.”
g. For a major incident in your narrative, make sure you have given the reader at least two warnings that something might occur (say, the falling of a bridge).
h. Don’t pull rabbits out of a hat. That is (similar to “g” above) don’t have a character produce a gun or whatever at a crucial moment.
i. Check characters’ names. If you have characters named “Miller,” “Mueller,” “Millard,” and “Milton,” you will confuse the reader. Change the names to something like this: Miller, Baker, Johnson, and Stark.
j. Go through the manuscript just looking for specific problems: first, your protagonist and any description; next, other major characters; how they sound in dialogue; descriptions of locales.
Howard Denson firstname.lastname@example.org
Bring ’Em Back Alive:
In Search of the Deadly -Ing Openings
By HOWARD DENSON
Over a period of twenty years, when novel contest manuscripts hit my desk at the now defunct Florida First Coast Writers’ Festival, I eventually made a startling discovery – one that was reinforced by my search through submissions to a critique service that I coordinated.
Often a competent manuscript did not merit being in the Top 10 or Top 5 of a contest, even though it had an interesting story-line and sentences that were grammatically correct.
In such cases, a reader will frown because an entry could have been better, despite its fresh perspective and narrative excitement. Yet something may have been a little off. In short, it may have suffered from what I will call the Newspaper Prose Syndrome--which may paralyze the language required of fictional narratives.
This insight came to me in a flash, when I realized that these near-miss manuscripts almost always overuse introductory participial phrases (present participial or -ing phrases), as in this clichéd line from Antlers in the Treetops by Hoogoose D. Moose:
Coming into the room and clicking on the light, Sam Stagmore said, “Hold it, Louie. Reach for that moose-horn, and you’re a dead man.”
Novice writers may have three or four such constructions on each typed page of, say, 300 words, for a grand total of 900 in an entire 300-page manuscript.
Notice the problems in Hoogoose’s sentence: The main verb is said, while the important actions (coming and clicking) are almost throw-aways. The combination deadens the writing.
On the other hand, a published fictional work will generally flip the sentence around and emphasize a human subject and a verb, besides omitting the "he said" dialogue tag:
Sam Stagmore stepped into the room and clicked on the light. “Hold it, Louie. Reach for that moose horn, and you’re a dead man.”
Even worse, the -ing phrases may cause the writers to dangle their participles, as in this throat-cutter:
Having soured in the refrigerator, Sam Stagmore poured out the milk and grumbled, “I wanted a whiskey sour, but all I get is sour milk.”
Journalists often use the -ing construction in stories focusing on crimes, the Middle East, healthcare reform, or political campaigns. It enables reporters to pack a lot of information into a small amount of space, so the reader may come across the structure three or four times in a story of six to ten column inches:
Opening his campaign for the U.S. Senate before 4,000 cheering supporters, state Rep. Buford Hustings pledged, if elected, he would not support any new taxes on fuel or farm products.
The -ing opening is used in about a third or fourth of the leads of stories from the Associated Press or a New York Times wire service.
When I suggested to friends that novelists and short story writers avoid participial openings, they scoffed and suggested I was reading too many novels written at a Dick-and-Jane level. (Would that D&J-level novel feature lines similar to these? “Look, Jane, look. See the spot of blood run down his shirt.”) I tested my hypothesis by reading Stephen Fry’s Making History and Elmore Leonard’s Glitz. (Fry is the talented actor who plays Jeeves to Hugh Laurie’s Bertie Wooster in episodes of the BBC’s Jeeves and Bertie; he played Peter in Peter’s Friend and was the insane general in the Blackadder series. The recently deceased Elmore Leonard needs no introduction to Americans.)
Fry’s novel used only nine -ing sentence beginnings in its 553 pages (three of them came on one page). When Fry does use the construction, the sentence goes like this:
Holding the paper by the edges[,] I go outside and hold it against the sun.
That line makes me grumble because it uses both “holding” and “hold” in the same short sentence.
By contrast, Leonard’s novel had about fourteen -ing openings (about one in every seventeen pages). However, Leonard also uses dozens of deliberate fragments using -ing forms:
Iris talking to the man with the cane, Vincent. Gesturing, posing. Iris lying next to him on a towel. Standing behind him, her hands in his hair to read his book. Kissing him. Walking with him. . . .
Leonard relies on frequent -ing phrases as stage directions for dialogue:
Trying to tell Jackie she was petrified, getting physical about it now. “You know how I feel. How can you even ask me to do something’s going to make me ill?”
Since someone will claim that the “avoid -ing rule” only applies to “good reads,” not to really good literary novels, I thought it would be prudent to review the winners of a major literary prize for a decade, perhaps the Nobel Prize, the U.K.’s Man Booker Prize, or our own Pulitzer Prize. I settled on the Pulitzer because the books would probably be more available in our libraries and bookstores. Any decade from, say, the 1950s onward would have been fine, but I settled on the 1990s. Actually, my review focused only on the first thirty pages (for samplings of 10,500+ words, depending on the size of the book and type).
In 1990, Oscar Hijuelos won the Pulitzer for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and knocked the -ing theory for a loop with nine present participial phrases in its first thirty pages. At that rate, he probably would have used over 120 -ing openings in his 404-page novel. Mambo Kings at times reads like an article from Esquire or Downbeat, so perhaps the journalistic flavor affects the sentence patterns.
John Updike in 1991’s Rabbit At Rest defied the theory in its opening sentence of 63 words:
Standing amid the tan, excited post-Christmas crowd at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, Rabbit Angstrom has a funny feeling that what he has come to meet, what’s floating in unseen about to land, is not his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Pru and their two children but something more ominous and intimately his: his own death, shaped vaguely like an airplane.
However, Updike only used two other -ing openings in his first thirty pages.
In 1992, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres did not have any sentences opening with -ing phrases in her first thirty pages. On the other hand, the reader will find a PAST participial phrase or two:
Compared to our sisterhood, every other relationship was marked by some sort of absence. . . .
The past participial opening is even rarer than the -ing one, as we will see later.
In 1993, the fiction winner was a collection of short stories by Robert Olen Butler. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain had only one -ing opening--the same number that appeared in Phillip Roth’s winner for 1998, American Pastoral.
The reader will find two -ing openings in Richard Ford’s 1996 winner, Independence Day.
Three openings with -ing appeared in 1994’s winner, E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.
Carol Shields used four present participial openings in The Stone Diaries in 1995, as did 1997’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser and 1999’s The Hours by Michael Cunningham.
When you average them, you find that the Pulitzer winners use almost three -ing openings in their first thirty pages (one every ten pages). That is a sign to aspiring writers to re-examine their manuscripts. They won’t need to remove every –ing construction, but they should strive to get closer to a moderate to minimal use of the deadly opening.
An imp suggested that perhaps recent prize-winners may have been too quirky or artsy in style, so it was prudent to re-examine all of the pages of three fine examples of style and significant writing: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis, and Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson before Dying. These three books include two Pulitzer Prize winners and the winner of a National Book Award.
Harper Lee used twenty-five present participial openings in 277 pages (an average of 1 every 11.08 pages). In 233 pages, Peter Taylor had twenty such openings (1 every 11.65 pages).
In 253 pages, Ernest Gaines had twenty-one of the openings (1 every 12.04 pages).
One-time Monty Python writer and actor Michael Palin used only 16 -ing beginnings in the 280 pages of his novel, Hemingway’s Chair (1 every 17.5 pages).
As this project went on, I was also concluding that a decade of Pulitzer Prize writing justified this assessment: A prize-winning author is someone who writes in fragments. There were far too many incomplete sentences for me to bother counting.
On the other hand, I noticed an absence or scarcity of several other formations: past participial openings, infinitive phrase openings, adjectival openings, and even the use of gerunds as subjects.
For example, Palin used only three past participle openings (1 per 93.3 pages) and only two infinitive phrase openings (1:140 pages).
Former Jacksonville Riverside resident David Poyer is a careful writer with a fine sense of style, and he tends to use more -ing openings than Lee, Taylor, Gaines, or Palin. Three of his novels vary in his usage of -ing beginnings. The Only Thing to Fear, his World War II novel about Franklin Roosevelt, young John Kennedy, and Nazi spies, had 81 -ing beginnings in 414 pages (1 per 5.1 pages). Similarly, Thunder on the Mountain, a riveting tale of mining field strikes in the 1930s, had 79 -ing beginnings in 372 pages (1 per 4.7 pages). China Sea, a story of the Modern Navy and pirates, had 53 such openings in 337 pages (1 per 6.3 pages). Poyer was sparing in use his of past participle or adjectival openings: China Sea, 8 in 337 pages; Thunder on the Mountain, 8 in 372 pages; and Only Thing to Fear, 4 in 414 pages.
The search for gerunds as subjects reveals 5 in 280 pages in Hemingway’s Chair; 3 in 337 pages in China Sea; 3 in 372 pages in Thunder on the Mountain.
Are there some principles to which we can point?
* Instead of the -ing opening, writers will generally use a subordinate clause that has a definite actor and a verb, as in Jane Smiley’s book:
Because the intersection was on this tiny rise, you could see our buildings, a mile distant, at the southern edge of the farm.
* Writers prefer strong subjects and verbs, as in Ford’s Independence Day, even with this comma splice:
The heat closes in, a metal smell clocks through the nostrils. Already the first clouds of a summer T-storm lurk on the mountain horizons, and it’s hotter where they live than where we live.
* Writers probably avoid the participial opening because it creates a mental whiplash. Readers have to go through the -ing beginning, reach the subject of the main part of the sentence, then backtrack mentally to re-process the opening now that they know who is performing the action. Yes, I know that the German language is built on such whiplashes.
* When writers do use the -ing opening for a sentence, they make sure that the preceding sentence has the same subject, to avoid this whiplash. (Readers open Updike’s book knowing it is going to be another novel involving Rabbit Angstrom.)
* Writers may use the -ing beginnings when they try to create a sense of suspended, on-going action.
* Writers may use the -ing beginnings when the sentences sound better that way.
* Writers, of course, do not set out with a formula for -ing openings any more than a music composer feels compelled to use a certain amount of quarter notes.
What should you do with this information? Perhaps nothing, if you have been careful in your writing. If you are being regularly published, then you may have developed a style that has developed a loyal readership.
On the other hand, if you are being rejected and then notice that you are having three or four participial openings per page or paragraph, you may want to rewrite many of your structures.
Teachers of English may wish to discourage their students from using present or past participial openings. Not only would the new approach discourage misplaced modifiers, it probably would make the students’ writing more readable.8
Novels, Short Fiction Collections Winning the Pulitzer Award
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
9 in the 1st 30 pages
Rabbit At Rest
3 in the 1st 30 pages
A Thousand Acres
0 in the 1st 30 pages
Robert Olen Butler.
A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
1 in the 1st 30 pages
E. Annie Proulx
The Shipping News
3 in the 1st 30 pages
The Stone Diaries
4 in the 1st 30 pages
2 in the 1st 30 pages
Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer
4 in the 1st 30 pages
1 in the 1st 30 pages
4 in the 1st 30 pages
Assorted Novels by Fine Writers
To Kill a Mockingbird
25 in 277 pp (1:11.08)
14 in 251 pp (1:17.9)
A Summons to Memphis
20 in 233 pp (1: 11.65)
A Lesson Before Dying
21 in 253 pp (1:12.04)
16 in 280 pp (1: 17.5)
The Only Thing to Fear
81 in 414 pp (1:5.1)
9 in 553 pp (1:61.4)
Thunder on the Mountain
79 in 372 pp (1:4.7)
53 in 337 pp (1:6.3)
This discussion has been given in various forms to the Oktoberfest for Writers, North Campus of Florida Community College at Jacksonville, Oct. 6, 2000; to the Florida Conference on Communications in Community Colleges, Seaturtle, Atlantic Beach, Sept. 28, 2000; Clay County Writers, Orange Park Library, Sept. 18, 2013.
How would you fix each of these sentences?
1. Having reviewed brochures from all over North America, the decision was hard. Should he settle in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, or Deerfield Beach, Florida?
2. Sighing and breathing raggedly amid her asthmatic coughs, she took a hit on the inhaler and sat down to rest.
3. Reaching a bit farther back, one can recall Thomas Eagleton of Missouri throwing the 1972 McGovern ticket into total chaos when it was revealed he was treated with shock therapy for depression and possibly an alcoholic.
4. Moments after Chekhov told his wife that he was about to die, he picked up a glass of champagne and said, “It’s a long time since I drank champagne.” After finishing the glass, he laid down on his bed and died.
5. Even the most straight-laced reporters sometimes envy the fun the scandal sheet folks must have, chasing scoops at all costs.
6. It’s understandable that UT fans and pundits looking for an easy punching bag would wail on [Lane] Kiffin, but he didn’t choke a player or stick him in a dark shed.
7. The main purpose of this survey was to find out what the youth of Park View do do, and where they do it, how many nights they do it, and if they find it easy to meet people in town to do it with.
8. After Reggie got up, he got a quick shower before going downstairs. He got through his breakfast and got to the bus stop in time to get the bus to the campus. He got to his anthropology class a minute before the professor got to his desk.
9. Trouble brings tribulations, and each trial creates adversity and animosity among loved ones.
10. A lot of people attended the game at [some locale: the Gator Bowl, the Lee High stadium, or the Fletcher High gym].
A Séance of Mystery/Crime Writers
Presented by Howard Denson Dec. 13, 2014
In the beginning was…
The big leap forward
10 Commandments of Detective Fiction
Detection Club’s Oath
Agatha Christie’s Plot Devices
Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel
Character Through Description in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, 1930
Mario Puzo’s Ten Rules for Writing a Best-Selling Novel
Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards for Best Novels
Mystery Writing Lessons (from P.D. James)
And P.D. James’ tips in The Guardian
Highlights from Writing Crime Fiction by H.R.F. Keating
In the beginning was . . .
You can take entire college courses entitled something like “The Detective/Crime Story in Literature.” The Book of Genesis features a couple stealing a forbidden fruit and then the crime being discovered. That Great Detective was omniscient, so the cards were stacked against the couple. Ditto for brother killing brother. In the story of Susanna and the Elders, two old men see the virtuous wife bathing in her garden and threaten to tell everyone she was promiscuous unless she has sex with them. She calls their bluff, and they get her arrested and sentenced to death by stoning. A young man, however, believes in her innocence and suggests that the two lechers be cross-examined separately. When it is revealed that their stories differ wildly, she is acquitted, and the lechers are put to death.
In “Oedipus Rex,” we have a city suffering because of plagues, crop failures, and a general malaise. The courageous king sends his brother-in-law to the seer at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and learns that the land is cursed because the previous king had been murdered. Oedipus vows to track down the killer, and, like Sherlock, Columbo, or Archie Goodwin for Nero Wolfe, he asks question, after question, to seek out the truth regardless of where it takes him.
In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare’s young Danish prince is told by a ghost, supposedly of his father, that Old Hamlet had been murdered by his brother, Claudius, who now wears the crown. A man of thought and not of action, Hamlet has to figure out if the ghost is for real or if it’s the devil in disguise trying to provoke him into unjustly killing the king and, thus, damning himself for eternity. By the end of the play, Hamlet himself is dying of poisoning, but he has restored the kingdom to its rightful balance, just as Oedipus had done when he revealed himself as King Laius’ killer.
As John Cawelti and others have noted, the Detective Story explores when the natural order has been disturbed and violated, and the Detective’s goal is to set it right.
Besides the Old Testament stories in the Bible, we may find detectives (or detectors) in other literature. In the One Thousand and One Nights collection of tales, “Three Apples” features a crime that must be solved within three days or it’s death to the “detective.” Chinese literature features tales featuring Judges Bao or Dee. For centuries, these generally did not make much of an impact among readers of popular fiction in the West. From the Western perspective, we find that Edgar Allan Poe gets credit for being the father of the modern detective story. One online encyclopedia says:
Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin [oɡyst dypɛ̃] is a fictional detective created by Edgar Allan Poe. Dupin made his first appearance in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), widely considered the first detective fiction story. He reappears in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844).
Dupin is not a professional detective and his motivations for solving the mysteries throughout the three stories change. Using what Poe termed “ratiocination”, Dupin combines his considerable intellect with creative imagination, even putting himself in the mind of the criminal. His talents are strong enough that he appears able to read the mind of his companion, the unnamed narrator of all three stories.
Poe created the Dupin character before the word detective had been coined. The character laid the groundwork for fictitious detectives to come, including Sherlock Holmes, and established most of the common elements of the detective fiction genre.
The big leap forward…
The next big step in the development of detective fiction involved Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The scientific method not only influenced other fictional detectives; it also transformed criminal investigation itself. Before Holmes, the police typically questioned some suspects, selected one of them as the likely perpetrator of the crime, and then beat the hell out of him until he signed a confession. (Check out the two-part documentary about modern forensics and the Holmes method in “How Sherlock Changed the World.”) Besides Poe’s Dupin, Conan Doyle was s inspired by Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh for whom he had worked as a clerk. However, Bell told Doyle, "You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it." Holmes was also influenced by[several French law enforcement figures in real life or fiction, including Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq, a fictional detective employed by the French Sûreté.
Doyle wrote fifty-six short stories and four novels about Holmes’ cases (and alludes to many others in the tales themselves). This body of work constitutes “the Canon,” but it doesn’t mean that others didn’t attempt to write Holmes’ stories and novels.
Holmes and Watson are now in the public domain, but, when Auguste Derleth could not get Doyle’s permission to continue with Holmes stories, he created his own Holmes-iverse, featuring Solar Pons, Dr. Lyndon Parker, landlady Mrs. Johnson; apartment 7B Praed Street instead of 221B Baker Street. Derleth’s many Solar Pons novels and stories (more than Doyle wrote about Holmes) have been called a pastiche, which in writing is a piece that imitates or emulates another piece of writing. (Pastiche comes from the Italian, pasticcio, meaning “pie crush” or something blended.)
When Doyle was writing, Sherlock inspired various “rivals,” to use the term popularized by Hugh Greene in his book and TV series back in the Seventies. Notice these Great Detectives:
The Ripening Rubies
Professional jeweler Bernard Sutton
The Case of Laker, Absconded; and other tales
Horace Dorrington, crooked private detective; Jonathan Pride; Martin Hewitt
The Duchess of Wiltshire’s Diamonds
Gentleman thief Simon Carne/Klimo
The Affair of the ‘Avanlanche Bicycle and Tyre Co. Ltd,’
The Assyrian Rejuvenator; The Submarine Boat
L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace
William Le Queux
The Secret of the Fox Hunter
Duckworth Drew of the Secret Service
The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway
The Old Man in the Corner
R. Austin Freeman, inventor of the inverted detective story (the Colombo pattern)
The Moabite Cipher
Forensic detective Dr. John Thorndyke; con artist Romney Pringle
The Woman in the Big Hat; other tales
Polly Burton from The Old Man in the Corner stories; Lady Molly of Scotland Yard
William Hope Hodgson
The Horse of the Invisible
Carnacki, the ghost hunter
The Game Played in the Dark
Blind detective Max Carrados
Other authors and detectives featured on the Rivals of Sherlock Holmes series include:
The 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction
A convert to Roman Catholicism (and a priest), Ronald Knox became an important writer for his church, but today aspiring writers best know him for his compilation of the 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction. His rules reflected what was tedious and hackneyed in the 1920s. He was a mystery writer himself and belonged to the Detection Club, a society whose members included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, G. K. Chesterson, and E. C. Bentley. Knox’s novels include: The Viaduct Murder, Double Cross Purposes, Still Dead. The presidents of the Detection Club have been G. K. Chesterton (1930-1936), E.C. Bentley (1936-1949), Dorothy L. Sayers (1949-1957), Agatha Christie (1957-1976), Lord Gorell (1957-1963), Julian Symons (1976-1985), H.R.F. Keating (1985-2000), and Simon Brett (2000–present).
The Detection Club’s Oath
Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?
The admonition used to be that you HAD to obey the laws, but over the years most of the rules became outdated.
Agatha Christie - Plot Devices
There are many layers in Agatha Christie’s mysteries - so many complexities, clues and red herrings - that try as hard as you can to get to the conclusion before the detective, very few people actually succeed.
Agatha Christie rarely fails to stun the reader with the final solution.
Why is that, and what plot devices does she use to keep the reader guessing?
Clues and Red Herrings
Clues and red herrings were Agatha Christie’s greatest device for misleading and confusing the reader. The key to solving the murder is to determine what is a real clue, and what is a red herring.
Quite often the vital clues are given at the beginning of the book, but they are so underplayed that it is easy to miss them amongst all the other clues and red herrings which are presented.
One of the researchers on The Agatha Christie Code (see Method) also pointed out that Agatha quite often uses the word “interesting” before a clue which is of little relevance, but then omits the word when writing about a clue which is vital to the plot.
Christie’s red herrings are sometimes linked to unrelated minor crimes, which the reader is lead to believe might be connected.
It is vital for a good murder mystery story that the murderer approaches unnoticed, both to the victim and to the reader trying to solve the case.
Quite often, it is the least likely suspect whom Agatha Christie has as her murderer. Often a watertight alibi leads the reader to believe that the suspect is completely innocent, only to have the alibi disproved at the last minute.
At other times, it is an individual whom you would expect to be completely above suspicion, such as a policeman or detective. In other of her crime novels, Agatha has the murderer being a child, the narrator, or even all of the possible suspects.
The disguise is frequently used in Agatha Christie’s mystery stories; she used both characters who altered their physical identity, and those who adopted a completely fake identity.
The murderer would often pick an identity which was beyond suspicion, in order to set up the ultimate murder or to stalk their prey. In some cases, a character disappears completely and then comes back in a different guise.
In others crime stories, the murderer impersonates a long lost family member to gain the trust of others.
In some of Agatha Christie’s earlier novels, characters often feel that a suspect looks familiar, and Agatha uses this to indicate that the individual might be in disguise. In later novels, however, she becomes more subtle when she uses this device.
However, there is frequent debate about the credibility of such devices – sometimes a wig or a false beard has everyone involved convinced that the character is someone completely different.
The Locked Room
In the “Closed Community” or “Locked Room” scenarios, Agatha Christie carefully limits the number of suspects by having them confined - such as in a country mansion, train or on an airplane. This way Agatha restricts the number of people who could be the murderer.
This device allows the readers to play detective for themselves – the murderer is one of the people present, but who is it?
Christie is careful not to cheat her readers in these scenarios - all the evidence is there, and there isn’t another suspect turning up at the last minute.
The Discredited Witness
A witness has on occasion revealed the name of the murderer or a vital clue early on in the novel, only for the witness to be discounted as unreliable, and so no-one listens to them.
Make sure you pay strict attention to even the most un-credible witness.
Servants and Domestics
At a time when many large houses still had a team of domestic staff to keep the place running, there were often servants in the background of Agatha’s stories. These servants were usually seen and not heard, and therefore usually ignored. However, their evidence is often vital because they overhear and see things that others might not simply because they melt into the background.
However, it is interesting to note that Christie’s murderers were rarely from the domestic staff; unless, of course, the murderer was in disguise as a servant.
Agatha did on occasion, though, break the rules and have the murderer be a servant – after all, who better to commit the ultimate crime than someone who blends in to the background?
Agatha Christie’s detectives often seem blessed with a sense of intuition, although the theory never really comes out of thin air. It is usually an initial intuitive insight which focuses the detective onto a possible suspect, despite any alibis that he or she may have. Quite often a discovery is made as a result of a random occurrence or something unconnected.
The style of intuition varies with each of Agatha’s detectives. Miss Marple’s intuition is often more about the psychology of people – the understanding of human nature helps her to solve the crime. She often comments on how an individual reminds her of others she knows, and how those people would behave.
The most obvious and consistent plot device is that Agatha Christie doesn’t reveal the whole truth until the end of the book, keeping the reader hooked and absorbed until the end. Until that final piece of the jigsaw is in place, the whole picture isn’t revealed.
There will undoubtedly be fake revelations along the way, causing you to believe that it’s all over, but invariably there are a couple more chapters to go, so perhaps the whole truth hasn’t properly been revealed yet?
There are numerous other plot devices used in Agatha Christie’s novels, too many to mention here.
In some books, attempted murders or actual murders are used as a device by the suspect for masking the real murder. In others, the murderer makes it appear that they are the intended victim. In another, the murderer stages his/her own death, so excluding themselves from the list of final suspects.
Agatha Christie also used a fake murder to provide an opportunity for the real murder to occur after a body had already been discovered and the police called.
In cases where there are two conspirators acting together to commit a murder, Agatha often ensures we don’t suspect both of them, by leading us to believe that they hate each other; although be warned because Christie has also used this device as a red herring.
Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel
Below are Raymond Chandler’s ten commandments for writing a detective novel:
1) It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement. [Final resolution; outcome]
2) It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
3) It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
4) It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
5) It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
6) It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
7) The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
8) It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
9) It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
10) It must be honest with the reader.
Characterization Through Description
in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, 1930
By REBA WHITE WILLIAMS
Dashiell Hammett has been rightfully praised for his characters, which, according to The New York Times, are “as sharply and economically defined as any in American action” (back cover, The Maltese Falcon). Indeed, his “importance as a writer lies in part in his skill in characterization” (Hammett, Books and Authors 2).
A page-by-page analysis of The Maltese Falcon reveals that in this book, Hammett achieved his much-admired characterization through detailed physical descriptions. Many authors use physical details in defining their characters, but rarely to the extent that Hammett does in The Maltese Falcon.
”How-to” books on writing list rules for creating believable and interesting characters through action, sympathy for the characters, giving characters a flaw, original dialogue, and avoiding stereotypes, clichés and one-dimensional characters, etc. The list can go on for pages, with little space devoted to the role of physical description. (See, for example, Orson Scott Carl, who in Characters & Viewpoint, writes that “It’s no accident that I’ve listed physical appearance last. Far too many writers especially beginners think that a physical description of a character is characterization” [Carl 13].)
But Hammett demonstrates that believable and fascinating characters can be created almost exclusively by physical description. Hammett’s characters can be so engrossing, the reader doesn’t notice a lack of attention to setting, or the fact that the many characters, several of whom are very talkative, can only be identified by the content of their speech. No attempt is made to differentiate voices.
The more important the character, the greater the space Hammett devotes to the description of that character. On page one of The Maltese Falcon, the first seven lines are a detailed description of the hero, Sam Spade, summed up by, “He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.” (The phrase “blonde Satan” or other variations, such as “wooden Satan,” are repeated later in the book.)
Hammett uses five lines on page two to describe Spade’s secretary, Effie Perine: “a lanky sunburned girl” with “a shiny, boyish face…” The author slips in Spade’s age (past thirty) on page five, and adds a paragraph to his description of Spade on page two: “He was quite six feet tall. The steep rounded slope of his shoulders made his body seem almost conical—no broader than it was thick.” But most of page two is devoted to the description of a new client, Miss Wonderly, aka Miss LeBlanc and Brigid O’Shaughnessy:
She advanced slowly, with tentative steps, looking at Spade with cobalt-blue eyes that were both shy and probing.
She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that has been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made. (2)
When next we encounter her, Miss Wonderly has become Miss LeBlanc, and wears “a belted green crepe silk dress…her dark red hair, parted on the left side, swept back in loose waves over her right temple, was somewhat tousled….she seemed smaller, very young and oppressed” (30-32).
Then, as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, “she had put on a satin gown of the blue shade called Artoise that season, with chalcedony shoulder-straps, and her stockings and slippers were Artoise” (54). Brigid O’Shaughnessy, as Spade’s lover and with other roles to play, is the second most important character in the book, as is suggested by the amount of space devoted to her description. (He later refers again to her eyes: “Her eyes were cobalt-blue prayers” .)
Hammett devotes little space to describing the unimportant—or perhaps soon-to-be- banished—characters. His partner, Miles Archer, is dismissed on page five with three terse lines: “solidly built, wide in the shoulder, thick in the neck, with a jovial heavy-jawed red face…”
Iva, Miles Archer’s widow, with whom Spade has been having an affair, but of whom he now says, “I wish to Christ I’d never seen her” (25), is described as “a blonde woman of a few more years than thirty. Her facial prettiness was perhaps five years past its best moment. Her body for all its sturdiness was finely modeled and exquisite. She wore black clothes from hat to shoes” (22-23).
Floyd Thursby (described by Miss Wonderly) “is thirty-five…as tall as you and either naturally dark or quite sunburned. His hair is dark, too, and he has thick eyebrows” (6).
Detective Sargent Tom Polhaus, for whom Spade apparently feels friendly contempt, is “a barrel-bellied tall man with shrewd small eyes, a thick mouth, and carelessly shaven dark jowls” (12). (Hammett uses the “barrel-bellied” phrase again when referring to Polhaus.)
Police Lieutenant Dundy, whom Spade dislikes, is “a compactly built man with a round head under short-cut grizzled hair and a square face behind a short-cut grizzled mustache” (15).
District Attorney Bryan is “a blonde man of medium stature, perhaps forty-five years old with aggressive blue eyes behind black-ribboned nose glasses, the over-large mouth of an orator, and a wide-dimpled chin” (144).
…was a small-boned dark man of medium height. His hair was black and smooth and very glossy. His features were Levantine. [He is subsequently cited several times as The Levantine.] A square-cut ruby, its sides paralleled by four baguette diamonds, gleamed against the deep green of his cravat. His black coat, cut tight to narrow shoulders, flared a little over slightly plump hips. His trousers fitted his round legs more snugly than was the current fashion. The uppers of his patent-leather shoes were hidden by fawn spats. He held a black derby hat in a chamois-gloved hand and came towards Spade with short, mincing, bobbing steps. The fragrance of chypre came with him. (42)
Caspar Gutman, AKA the fat man:
The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around them, were dark and sleek. Dark ringlets thinly covered his broad scalp. He wore a black cutaway coat, black vest, black satin ascot tie holding a pinkish pearl, striped grey worsted trousers, and patent-leather shoes. (104)
Wilbur Cook, Gutman’s secretary, is “…an undersized youth of twenty or twenty one” (52, 54, 59).
He stood in the doorway with his soft hat crushed between his head and the top of the door-frame; he was nearly seven feet tall. A black overcoat cut long and straight and like a sheath, buttoned from throat to knees, exaggerated his leanness. His shoulders stuck out, high, thin, angular. His bony face—weather-coarsened, age-lined—was the color of wet sand and was wet with sweat on cheeks and chin. His eyes were dark and bloodshot and mad above lower lids that hung down to show pink inner membrane. (156)
In addition to the law enforcers, the villains, and those scheduled to be banished, like Iva—Hammett includes an astonishing number of bit players, all of whom are given a brief description. In the order in which they appear:
· At St. Marks Hotel: “a redhaired dandy” at the desk (27)
· Also at St. Mark’s: Mr. Freed, “a plump young-middle-aged man in dark clothes” (27)
· At the law firm, Wise, Merican & Wise: “The red-haired girl at the switchboard” (40) and Sid Wise, “a small olive-skinned man with a tired oval face under thin dark hair dotted with dandruff” (41)
· Luke, the house detective at the Hotel Belvedere: “a middle aged man of medium height, round and sallow of face, compactly built, tidily dressed in dark clothes” (95)
· Rhea Gutman, daughter of the Fat Man, “a brown-haired smallish girl” (134)
Dashiell Hammett’s approach to characterization would be difficult to emulate, and might not be acceptable to today’s readers, editors, etc., who would probably prefer less description, and more “other” in defining a character. In writing classes, I have been told to scatter bits of the description of a character, rather than clumping them together as Hammett does. Perhaps that is the way today’s reader likes to see a description. Be that as it may, almost any writer can benefit from studying Hammett’s descriptions, and learning how to define a character in a few colorful lines His descriptions—especially those of his villains—are adept and original.
Some of today’s writing teachers and authors of “How-to” books urge writers to reduce the numbers of characters in a book to a minimum, and to omit names and descriptions of “bit players.” But those small flashes of description add variety and texture to Hammett’s book.
In a class on mystery writing, I analyzed Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar, a book I love, and learned that she included seven major and forty-five minor characters in Brat Farrar. Like Hammett, she named each one, and added a brief description. For me, this type of writing is more interesting than the unnamed “bit players” in many contemporary novels.
Mario Puzo’s ten rules
for writing a best-selling novel.
1. Never write in the first person.
2. Never show your stuff to anybody (you’ll get inhibited).
3. Never talk about what you will do until you’ve written it.
4. Rewriting is the whole secret to writing.
5. Never sell your book to the movies before it is published.
6. Never let a personal quarrel ruin a day’s writing.
7. What others see as moodiness is really concentration. It’s the key to writing.
8. A writer’s life should be a tranquil life. Read a lot and see movies.
9. To learn: First, read style books. Then, read novels.
10. Never trust anyone but yourself (especially your critics).
Mystery Writers of America’s
Edgar Awards for Best Novels
1951 Thomas Walsh, Nightmare in Manhattan
1952 Mary McMullen, Strangle Hold
1953 William Campbell Gault, Don’t Cry For Me
1954 Charlotte Jay, Beat Not the Bones
1955 Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
1956 Margaret Millar, Beast in View
1957 Charlotte Armstrong, A Dram of Poison
1958 Ed Lacy, Room to Swing
1959 Stanley Ellin, The Eighth Circle
1960 Celia Fremlin, The Hours Before Dawn
1961 Julian Symons, The Progress of a Crime
1962 J. J. Marric, Gideon’s Fire
1963 Ellis Peters, Death and the Joyful Woman
1964 Eric Ambler, The Light of Day
1965 John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
1966 Adam Hall, The Quiller Memorandum
1967 Nicolas Freeling, King of the Rainy Country
1968 Donald E. Westlake, God Save the Mark
1969 Jeffery Hudson (Michael Crichton’s nom-de-plume), A Case of Need
1970 Dick Francis, Forfeit
1971 Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman
1972 Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal
1973 Warren Kiefer, The Lingala Code
1974 Tony Hillerman, Dance Hall of the Dead
1975 Jon Cleary, Peter’s Pence
1976 Brian Garfield, Hopscotch
1977 Robert B. Parker, Promised Land
1978 William Hallahan, Catch Me: Kill Me
1979 Ken Follett, Eye of the Needle
1980 Arthur Maling, The Rheingold Route 
1981 Dick Francis, Whip Hand
1982 William Bayer, Peregrine
1983 Rick Boyer, Billinsgate Shoal
1984 Elmore Leonard, LaBrava
1985 Ross Thomas, Briarpatch
1986 L. R. Wright, The Suspect
1987 Barbara Vine, A Dark-Adapted Eye
1988 Aaron Elkins, Old Bones
1989 Stuart M. Kaminsky, A Cold Red Sunrise
1990 James Lee Burke, Black Cherry Blues
1991 Julie Smith, New Orleans Mourning
1992 Lawrence Block, A Dance at the Slaughterhouse
1993 Margaret Maron, Bootlegger’s Daughter
1994 Minette Walters, The Sculptress
1995 Mary Willis Walker, The Red Scream
1996 Dick Francis, Come to Grief
1997 Thomas H. Cook, The Chatham School Affair
1998 James Lee Burke, Cimarron Rose
1999 Robert Clark, Mr. White’s Confession
2000 Jan Burke, Bones
2001 Joe R. Lansdale, The Bottoms
2002 T. Jefferson Parker, Silent Joe
2003 S. J. Rozan, Winter and Night
2004 Ian Rankin, Resurrection Men
2005 T. Jefferson Parker, California Girl
2006 Jess Walter, Citizen Vince
2007 Jason Goodwin, The Janissary Tree
2008 John Hart, Down River
2009 C. J. Box, Blue Heaven
2010 John Hart, The Last Child
2011 Steve Hamilton, The Lock Artist
2012 Mo Hayder, Gone
2013 Dennis Lehane, Live by Night
2014 William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace
Mystery Writing Lessons
From the Official Website of P.D. James (http://www.randomhouse.com/features/pdjames/mysterywriting.html)
What’s the difference between writing a straight novel and writing mystery? According to P.D. James, not much. “A first class mystery should also be a first class novel,” she says. However, if you aspire to write great mysteries, there are important conventions, and who better to learn them from than a master? Keep reading to find out what P.D. James’ best advice is.
1. Center your mystery.
“No matter what, there should indeed be a mystery at the heart of the novel,” says James. “Usually, there is a murder, a closed circle of suspects with means, motive and opportunity for the crime and a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it.”
She also emphasizes the importance of structure. “I always know the end of the mystery before I begin to write. Tension should be held within the novel and there should be no longueurs of boring interrogation.
2. Study reality.
Once you’ve plotted your novel, the next step is to make it come to life, and James admits it is “more difficult (comparatively) to combine a credible puzzle with a setting which comes alive, an underlying theme and distinguished writing.”
What’s the solution? “You must go through life with all your senses open to experiences, good and bad,” she says. “Empathize with other people, and believe that nothing which happens to a true writer is ever wasted.”
3. Create compelling characters.
Most of all, the characters are important. You want them to be “rather more than stereotypes. The characters should be real human beings, each of whom comes alive for the reader, not pasteboard people to be knocked down in the final chapter.”
4. Research, research, research.
In addition to paying attention to real-life, a huge part of the writer’s job is to research. Often times, this is the best way to make your characters real--by finding out the facts they would usually know. James does her research personally, and it usually takes months. “I revisit the scene, get advice from experts, and usually consult both the police and the forensic science laboratory.”
5. Follow the “fair-play rule.”
James always makes sure that information available to the detective is available to the reader. “By the end of the book, the reader should have been able to arrive at the real solution from clues inserted into the novel.” Of course, she also admits that you can provide these clues with “deceptive cunning but essential fairness.”
It may seem a cliché, but you have to read in order to write. First, find your favorite authors. James particularly admires and says she has learnt from a diverse collection including Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins, Dorothy L Sayers, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.
“Read the good prose, and learn from it,” she says. “And the tools of your craft are words,” she says. “Try always to enlarge your vocabulary through reading. This is not in order to use complex or pretentious phrases, but to have available precisely the right word for every sentence.”
7. ...And write.
When asked if she gets writer’s block, James said, “No, I have never experienced writer’s block, although I sometimes have to wait a long time before I receive inspiration for the next book.” So don’t think of yourself as blocked. Use your time between inspirations wisely, and practice the craft by short pieces. Create exercises to complete or take a class. “By writing prose and learn from the experience, you will develop your own style.”
8. Follow a schedule.
Here’s how James says she works:
“I get up early, make tea and settle down to about two hours writing. I have no special room, require only a comfortable chair, table or desk at the right height, and sufficient space for my dictionary and research material. I do, however, need to be completely alone. When my secretary arrives I dictate to her what I have written. She puts it on the computer and prints it out for editing and correcting.”
Even though you might prefer getting a late start and typing for hours on a computer in a coffee shop, James proves that success relies on treating writing as a structured job. Just make sure you have a method you can stick to.
And P.D. James’ tips in The Guardian
5 Bits of Writing Advice
Highlights from Writing Crime Fiction
by H.R.F. Keating
Keating says: “There is, [P.D. James] said, always a mysterious death at its [the simple detective story] heart. There is always a closed circle of suspects (so there can be no question of someone unconnected with the setting coming in from outside and doing the deed as might well happen in real life) and each of these suspects has to have a credible motive as well as reasonable opportunity of committing the crime and reasonable access to the means with which it was committed.”
He refers to what a real-life spymaster, J.C. Masterman, said about the structure of a mystery:
“He has his sleuth say once that to commit a murder, you need four aces. Spades (the opportunity), Hearts (a motive), Diamonds (the capability of killing), and Clubs (the capability of committing this particular crime).”
Keating gives several tips for concealing clues. He notes that, when Agatha Christie introduced a clue, another character (Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot) would say, “Interesting.” But when a truly important clue was introduced, perhaps several pages later, nothing would be said to emphasize its importance. He had also noticed a story about psychology experiments. If people are told to look for a particular object in a series, they are usually unable to tell what preceded or followed the object. In fact, you may recall the video in which people are told to count the number of passes of a basketball. The viewers triumphantly said, “Twelve” (or whatever), but they didn’t notice that a man in a gorilla suit had walked across the screen.
In the chapter on “The Modern Variations,” Keating discusses the following:
1. The inverted story – As in “Columbo,” we know who done it and how, but the narrative focuses on how the detective figures it out.
2. The backgrounder – Find a different setting to tell your tale, but make sure it’s a setting that will keep your interest.
3. The how-dun-it – “You replace, in other words, the who-did-it tug with the how-on-earth-was-it-done tug.”
4. The why-dun-it – The killer is not evident, but the narrative reveals character and inconsistencies until eventually the sleuth is able to identify the miscreant.
5. The detective novel – In a detective story, you basically have a narrative that finds the key to a puzzle. In a detective novel, you have a richer creation. It attempts to do what, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald did in The Great Gatsby or Herman Melville did in Moby-Dick. It explores character, setting, social issues, and, oh, solves a crime.
6. The crime novel – This can be based on a real-life crime: say, the killing of Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother or the Jack the Ripper killings. Keating advises staying away from crimes that are too recent.
7. Police procedurals – Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct is the best example of this genre.
8. The suspense novel – This skirts very close to thrillers at time, but exponents include Dick Francis, Celia Fremlin, Ursula Curtiss, and Margaret Millar.
There are other categories of fiction dealing with detectives, crimes, and the like. Read Keating’s very brief for those and many other tips.
Let’s close with three bits of useful advice:
1. When you are describing an action sequence (think of James Bond skiing down a mountain or Sherlock going at Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls), novelist Graham Greene advises that you should never use figures of speech (metaphors, similes, etc.). They simply slow things down. Use everyday words, and the sentences themselves will take care of making the section interesting.
2. Writers of mysteries often advise neophytes (and themselves) to write backwards. First, write out exactly what happened when the crime was committed. The advantage of this is that it fixes itself in your head. (Of course, as you write the story and make any changes, you can easily adjust your murder narrative.) Next, write out the alibi for the killer. You don’t want to start fumbling around when a police officer asks a question of an acquaintance of the deceased. That would ruin the sport.
“In bed, Inspector, with my spouse.” And nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, you’re too stupid to be able to figure out that I killed the old bat.