The Kind of Style That Turns Readers Into Fans

by James Scott Bell

john-d-macdonald-typingThe late, great John D. MacDonald (author of the Travis McGee series, but even more enjoyable for me, a string of paperback originals in the 1950s) had a philosophy of writing. It’s found in the introduction to his short story collection, The Good Old Stuff:

First, there has to be a strong sense of story. I want to be intrigued by wondering what is going to happen next. I want the people that I read about to be in difficulties–emotional, moral, spiritual, whatever, and I want to live with them while they’re finding their way out of these difficulties.

Second, I want the writer to make me suspend my disbelief. I want to be in some other place and scene of the writer’s devising.

Next, I want him to have a bit of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases that really sing. And I like an attitude of wryness, realism, the sense of inevitability. I think that writing–good writing–should be like listening to music, where you identify the themes, you see what the composer is doing with those themes, and then, just when you think you have him properly identified, and his methods identified, then he will put in a little quirk, a little twist, that will be so unexpected that you read it with a sense of glee, a sense of joy, because of its aptness, even though it may be a very dire and bloody part of the book.

So I want story, wit, music, wryness, color, and a sense of reality in what I read, and I try to get it in what I write.

Isn’t that a nice credo for a writer? And JDM did put all that in what he wrote. Especially unobtrusive poetry, which is why he is still read today when most PBO writers have vanished into the mist.

Now, when it comes to style, we all have preferences. I know Isaac Asimov once explained that he developed a very plain style so he could just get on with telling the story. Maybe that’s the reason I haven’t read a lot of Asimov.

Ah, but Ray Bradbury! Now there’s a stylist. Check out Dandelion Wine or Something Wicked This Way Comes if you want to see what I mean.

imagesRecently I came across a pulp writer whose work I was unfamiliar with. Howard Browne wrote a series of mysteries under the pseudonym John Evans. They featured Chicago PI Paul Pine. Browne’s model was clearly (and, I believe, admittedly) Raymond Chandler. While Chandler stands alone in the pantheon of stylists, I enjoyed Browne’s unobtrusive poetry. Here are some samples from Halo for Satan (1948):

   I shoved open the front door and went into a gloomy hall filled with last year’s air.

   It wasn’t much of a room. About large enough to play solitaire if you held the cards close to your chest.

   Her right hand was pointing a small blue-steel automatic at the sweet roll I’d had for breakfast.

   “Hello there,” I said brightly. It took a little while to get the words out because they had to come all the way up from the cuffs of my trousers.

   There was a faded housecoat wrapped primly around her shapeless body and a lacy pink dustcap sat drunkenly on graying hair that probably had already been combed once that month.

 Describing his office building:

   It was sandwiched between two modern skyscrapers that seemed forever to be trying to edge away from their neighbor. It had a deep lobby, narrow and dim, paneled in gray and white imitation marble, a pair of secondhand bird cages masquerading as elevators and a sullen air of decay. The upper halls smelled like a Kansas hayloft after two weeks of rain, and my fellow tenants ran the type of businesses that attracted more process servers than customers.

Delightful, eh? Well, I think so!

So how can you find your own unobtrusive poetry? A couple of tips:

First, notice things. I mean, notice them through the eyes of your POV character. Take time. Look around at the scene. Watch things happen in the theater of your mind. Make a list of what is seen.

Second, take several stabs at description. Experiment. Use up a whole page (or more if you’re really cooking) and have fun. I guarantee you’ll find some gold which you’ve tickled so she comes out laughing (a line of unobtrusive poetry from the film Treasure of the Sierra Madre).

You might also want to review my checklists for setting description and description of characters.

Now it’s your turn. Share some examples of style that you really like, or tell us about an authors who you love to read for the language.

43 thoughts on “The Kind of Style That Turns Readers Into Fans

  1. I just love that stuff, Jim. JDM was right, it gives you a distinct tingle when you run across it. It don’t see it as much anymore with modern writers, but some achieve it. Robert Parker was very good with this, as was Ross MacDonald. Stephen King can also pull it off when he’s of a mind to. They all, to some degree, use simile and metaphor and take the pretension out of description, and it’s a great technique. Thanks for this one.

    • Some good names there, Stephen.

      Did you know that Ross Macdonald originally used John Ross Macdonald as his pen name? (Real name Kenneth Millar…who I met). This did not please John D. After some sharp letters, Millar dropped the “John.”

  2. Brilliant and helpful! Thank you for this post, Jim!
    I always thought I hated long descriptions, but then I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Signature of All Things”, which has sometimes many pages of description in a row. And they simply kept me glued to my Kindle. I wondered how this could have happened until an article in “Writer’s Digest” a couple of years ago explained it to me. The secret is that great descriptions sound as discoveries not as teachings or retelling.
    The excerpts and the subtly poetic language in the excerpts by Howard Browne, you shown us here, do make the descriptions in these excerpts sound new and fresh, that is as true discoveries.

  3. I have been reading your Some People Are Dead. There is no big story arc, no LOCK system and so I’ve been wondering why I can’t put it down. Is it the unobtrusive poetry? The sense that the writer is having fun with it? There seems to be something myserious about good writing that blows away the theories. Or maybe you have a logical explanation. Maybe Some People Are Dead wasn’t as improvised as it feels. I’d be curious to read a JSB novel,written as a pantser.

    • Thanks for the good word, Nancy. Yes, I was having fun, and since it’s short non-fiction–part essay, part memoir, parts unknown–there was no need for arcs or structure. it was all about the joy of the reflections before me.

      By the way, for anyone reading this comment who is interested in SOME PEOPLE ARE DEAD, the book is free today for Kindle:

  4. Great stuff by Browne. I imagine the cover was very racy for 1948. Was the content?

    The author who most astounds me with his style and use of language is James Lee Burke. His setting and character descriptions are genius.
    A living American master imo.
    Neat post – thanks!

    • Ah yes, Burke is a master.

      Halo for Satan was very enjoyable. Again, his models were Chandler and Hammett, and while it doesn’t rise to that level, it was more entertaining (because of the style) than many others from that era.

  5. Those examples had me laughing aloud on a Sunday morning. Great post, Jim. You inspire me.

    Asimov is not for me either. A very prolific writer friend of mine (who’s written over 200 books for various publishers & under multiple pen names) explained that he kept his writing neutral. Paraphrasing. He didn’t want to inject any particular style that would make his writing distinguishable so he could “just tell the story.” Yet his big aspiration was to be a NYT bestseller. What you’ve posted here goes against his view but would give him a shot at recognition with a more distinctive voice.

    • There are a couple of genre writers (from back in the day) who also had a “neutral” style that doesn’t have me wanting to re-read them.

      Then there’s someone like Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake). A Stark novel is stripped down but definitely not neutral! As hard boiled as a forty minute egg.

      Style is the intersection of art, craft, voice, heart. Which is what makes the subject so fascinating.

    • In fear of being banished from TKZ, I love Asimov and read and re-read his books, especially is Robot series.

      While I can appreciate the “poetry” (I’m reading “Blood on the Tracks” now, and the language is rich and deep, and kudos to Barbara Nickless), often it makes me too aware of the writing instead of the story. I want to get lost in the story, not the language.

      But if it’s done well, which isn’t easy to do, I’ll feel the story without stopping to think about the prose. When I read your examples part of me says “I wish I could do that” and another part says “tell the story.”

  6. Wow, wonderful post, Jim. Thanks for addressing this subject. I feel like I’m getting an MFA, here at TKZ, thanks to you and the other regular contributors.

    A week or two ago, in response to my questions about literary techniques, you referred me back to your book VOICE: THE SECRET POWER TO GREAT WRITING. You also mentioned WORD PAINTING, by Rebecca McClanahan. I’m working my way through that book now, as well as reading THE LIARS’ CLUB (Mary Karr) – recommended by you and listed at the end of VOICE.

    WORD PAINTING is helping me understand how to make description fresh and interesting. Your post today says it succinctly.

    Mary Karr’s voice and style in THE LIARS’ CLUB is hilarious and makes the memoir a real page turner. I’m eager to read some of Howard Browne’s books.

    Your discussions of setting and character description from your August posts were very helpful and worth reading again.

    Thanks for all your teaching!

  7. I should know this but I’m blanking out–what does PBO stand for?

    While I may not lean toward pulp fiction, the stylistic nature of the examples is definitely attention grabbing. That to me is one of the main draws of writing. We may struggle with style (or any other aspect of writing for that matter) but creating a body of work that has a certain recognizable stamp on it, that makes it uniquely your own is one of the most rewarding things about writing. No matter how long it takes you to develop your own style.

    This is a great post to come back and re-read on those days when you’re trying to slog through and need to be reminded of what you’re working so hard to achieve.

    • Sorry for the lingo, BK. PBO stands for Paperback original. The explosion of mass market paperbacks post WWII gave hundreds of pulp writers new life. They produced work that came, went and stayed as paperbacks. The better ones, like JDM and Ross Macdonald and others, eventually went on to hardcover.

      • Oh, how I wish that somehow you could lecture the English teachers, professors, and college instructors of America on this very topic.

        Many–okay, most or all of them–are busy teaching and instructing their students to cut, cut, cut those excess words from their early writings, the compositions, the essays, the position, papers, and the rest of those.

        When I was in college, I was the editor of our literary magazine for two years. One year, I think the first, we had a student who instinctively wrote breath-taking prose without even thinking about it. She gave me a short story in the hallway one day and asked if I would consider it.

        Oh, my word, Mr. Scott. The story was magic, brushed to life with nuance and vocabulary that would It out-kinged Kingsolver, was a little ahead of the English bard, in my view.

        She had been afraid to give it to me. One of our college teachers had given her a A for content and a overall grade of C because, in the teacher’s opinion, it was too wordy, a little too obtuse for average readers.

        Of course we published it. It was wonderful, drew many comments in my writing classes and even in student center conversations. But her entire writing life was damaged by the teacher’s comments. To my knowledge, she has never written more. I am convinced she would have become someone we would be talking about here on TKZ.

        If there is justice in the universe–and I believe in Heaven–that teacher is in Paradise, in the publishing department, writing blurbs for the dust jackets of the works of the Evangels, the saints, and the saved sinners, and each blurb is returned to him with the comment, “Needs more work.”

  8. I’ve Been lurking here for several months, but you’ve drawn me out with this post about one of my all-time favorite authors. There was something about the style with which John D. knit his words that brought places and emotions to life. When I moved cross-country I had to leave behind my entire McGee collection. I still regret that decision. One day I will replenish my bookshelves with every one of those colorful books. And then I’ll settle in to follow McGee’s adventures from beginning to end. Thanks for the glimpse into MacDonald’s writing philosophy.

    • Glad to have you here, Suzanne. I must recommend his 50s work to you as well. My personal favorite is one that’s not even a crime novel: Cancel All Our Vows. Some others I especially like:

      The End of the Night
      The Brass Cupcake
      Soft Tough
      The Executioners

  9. I just finished, The Book Thief, a YA novel. The author, Markus Zusak had a very unique voice and his descriptions of dying were the most unusual I have ever read.

    Since my favorite genre is memoir, I will say that The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr was one of my favorites. And, All Over But the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg. They each have a completely different voice and yet both had me captured to the very last page with both their narrative and descriptions.

    • That’s the thing, isn’t it, Annie? Uniqueness. And yet evocative. Karr and Bragg fit that nicely.

      Also, let me recommend William Saroyan, mostly forgotten these days (he was the inspiration for SOME PEOPLE ARE DEAD, esp. his book OBITUARIES). He wrote a series of memoirs in the 50s and 60s that have a mesmerizing quality. Even though he had a somewhat troubled life, you can tell he found his joy in writing. It was life to him.

  10. At the other end of the spectrum–but not quite Asimov–is Jim Thompson. His descriptions are shockingly spare, and are always tied at the neck with action. It keeps the story moving, moving, moving, giving the reader a vibrant, active picture of his world. A different kind of poetry. But joy is definitely lacking.

  11. I so look forward to Sunday morning, those moments before I realize Monday is just around the corner. Right in the middle of each Sunday morning is a short essay by James Scott Bell and a good cup of coffee. I settle in and push everything else away.

    Today, as I read the names of MacDonald and Bradbury and Chandler, not to forget Hammett and Woolrich and Cain and Jim Thompson and the movies of Hichcock and Ford, I relived reading their work when I was a teenager. They were in the middle of my life. Thanks for reminding me of those wonderful moments.

    • Well thanks, Brian. That good cup of joe sounds good. And thanks for mentioning Woolrich. He wanted to be a great literary writer and thought his pulp stuff was junk. It actually made him one of the immortals.

  12. I became a fan of Lisa Alther all the way back in the 1980s. She only wrote a few novels in quick succession and then slowed to a trickle. Some newer non-fiction is out there, but it is her body of work from the 1970s, including “Original Sins” and “Bedrock” that define her.

    But Kinflicks towers because of the off-hand self-deprecating humor and some of the best awkward sex scenes ever written.

    Written in alternate POV, the 1st POV being the present and the 3rd person being the past as she reconciles the impending death of her mother, are both brilliant.

    As for description, I can’t think of anything that tops her catching sight of herself in the mirror under the harsh glare of the bathroom lights and saying:

    “I looked like the ‘before’ picture in a cream rinse ad.”

    The brutal humor in that book and Original Sins really shaped a lot of my comedic voice.

  13. This is exactly why I am enjoying my first Jim Harrison novel. (Hadn’t read him before. What a mistake). Now, the plot is a little slow and like John McD, he loves to take us down side roads of digressions. But man, I am just so loving his style. Maybe it’s because it is not flashy or overdone or self-conscious. Just every so often, he comes up with a really lovely image or a metaphor that makes me go, “Oh yeah, I can see that!” Or he inserts some roaringly funny way of expressing himself (or his character does). I guess the best compliment I can give him is that he makes me want to be a better writer.

  14. Oh, my favorite writer who fulfills JDM’s expectations is Sibella Giorello. She writes mystery/suspense books with extraordinary plots … complex, translucent, gritty, struggling characters … and (best of all) genius alchemy in her wording. Here are some of my favorite excerpts from her latest release – The Waves Break Gray:

    “Across the water the mountains cupped the setting sun, as if rock alone could hold back time.”

    “We stood here by her grave, the depression like an open hand, waiting for someone to drop answers into it.”

    “I reached the meadow where wind combed through the brittle grass. Her grave lay open, the yellow police tape already sagging and faded. I set the shovels down and took off my pack. The wind sounded like someone asking for quiet. Sh-sh-shhh. As if the open grave was a cradle.”

    (On grief):
    “This empty van felt crowded with pain. Violent death was throwing down all its layers of grief. Shock, denial. Anger. Depression. Shards of it poking up without warning, like cut glass riding on a river of despair, slicing open veins only to deposit more pain. It had been seven years since my dad’s murder, and that river was still coming at me, even as well-intentioned people said things like time heals all wounds. It was a lie. With violent death—unjustified death, sudden death—time turned into a delta. Time laid down pain upon pain, until all of it hardened into bedrock, into the foundational knowledge that the world was fallen fallen fallen.”

    “He walked stiffly, his posture curved forward, like a man shielding his own broken heart.”

    (On the main character’s extraordinary intuition that helps her solve “impossible” crimes):

    “Crime scenes had their own atmospheric delivery system. Things beyond the facts. Above the details. Things sensed, absorbed, perceived. I kept my eyes closed until …”

    (I’ll let you read the rest!) After I read her first book, The Stones Cry Out, I immediately bought every single book of hers to this day. In my mind, no one else writes as perfectly as she does. 🙂

    • I stumbled across _Stone and Sand_, by Giorello, on Smashwords. Have read four or five since. Raleigh is fun. And, yes, the descriptions are great. I didn’t get the feeling that the “young Raleigh” stories would only please YA readers. On the other hand, even the stories of Raleigh as an adult are unusually “clean cut.” It’s like a PG-13 version of Raleigh’s world. Not sure if that’s a negative or not.

  15. Wow.

    That was fabulous. I’m going to try and find some of his work. I have a feeling I’d finish a book of his in one sitting. (Though he might not have chosen the title, it too, is great. I laughed out loud).

    The one writer I love most for the sheer enjoyment of her prose is Flannery O’Connor, especially her short stories.

    • Flannery O’Connor, yes indeed. Who once said, “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.”

  16. I studied with Howard Browne for a year back in my early days of writing. He was not a kind man to newbies — and that’s what most of us were, although the sweet young things fared better than most. Made me so angry I was determined to show him. And so I have. I continue to write and edit, my writers are successfully selling. And he’s dead. That fact brings on a smile now and then.

    • Ha, he would not be the first writer who did not have the teaching touch. OTOH, you have someone like Dwight Swain, PBO writer, who became a superb teacher.

      Those who can do, but cannot teach, should not…teach.

  17. Jim, I’ve enjoyed the work of MacDonald for many years. It bothers me, however, that lots of the writers whose work speaks to me are now gone–JDM, Ross Thomas, Don Westlake, and others. Hope your health is good (and let’s see more of the Sister Justicia stories).

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