Thrillers Bring the Light

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

 As if things weren’t bad enough.

We’re struggling through this national shutdown and all the dire consequences thereof, and along comes exactly what we don’t need: The murder hornet!

Yes, this unsightly wasp with its ugly orange head and relatively large body mass, has arrived on our shores intent on killing innocent little honey bees and, indeed, the occasional human.

But just when we think we are in the midst of a Stephen King nightmare, along comes a hero, a savior, a defender of all that is good and decent and pure: the praying mantis!

How appropriate that the vanquisher of a grotesque insect villain should turn out to be an insect of another sort—one that humbly supplicates to the Creator before chomping the brains of its adversary.

That’s entomological justice!

Which is what mystery, suspense, and thrillers are all about. They take us through the valley of the shadow of death, toward the light on the other side.

At least, the best ones do.

That’s been the secret of the popularity of this kind of fiction since it took off in the nineteenth century. Most scholars agree that the modern mystery story can be traced to Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). Here is the invention of the sleuth who, through the powers of observation and deduction, solves a seemingly inexplicable crime.

Which offers hope to a population that must believe, “Crime doesn’t pay.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took it to the next level with the invention of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes endures, even today, not simply because of his brainpower, but because of his eccentricities. He’s entertaining as well as brilliant. He’s flawed, too, just like us. But again we see the hope that deduction brings—justice will be done.

Back here in America we took the simple mystery and transformed it through the hardboiled school of the pulps. The quintessential detective hero of this type issued from the typewriter of Dashiell Hammett: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1930). This hero is not refined or dainty or a tea drinker. He is tough, cynical, sometimes brutal. But in the end he still gets justice. The mystery of the black bird is solved, but more importantly each of the nefarious characters Spade has dealt with get their comeuppance, including the femme fatale Spade has fallen in love with, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Spade “sends her over” because, after all, she killed his partner. Spade tries to explain it to her: “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

Underneath his contradictions, Sam Spade is still guided by a moral code.

In the detective pantheon, Spade was followed by Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Marlowe, like Spade, is tough and cynical (but a lot more fun to listen to) and has a code based on honor. Indeed, in Chandler’s world, Marlowe is something of knight errant in a fedora. Chandler made this plain in his 1944 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” Here is the famous passage:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and; a good enough man for any world.

As Professor David Schmid puts it in his course on mystery and suspense fiction:

Chandler’s essay helps us understand that hard-boiled mysteries appeal to the reader both because of their unvarnished, realistic cynicism and also because their private-eye protagonists embody an alternative to that cynicism, an oasis of personal responsibility and integrity in a world that is sorely in need of both.

The world is always in need of the heroic vision. The best thriller, mystery, and suspense novels offer that to us. No matter how mean the streets, or dark the night, justice, even if rough, somehow prevails through the strength and courage of the hero.

Yes, there is a type of novel that begins and ends in the darkness—noir. For example, the world of Jim Thompson (e.g., The Killer Inside Me; Savage Night) is not your grandmother’s cozy little village. Yet even as his grifters and psychopaths meet their ends, there is a rough noir-justice being doled out. While it isn’t a hero who “solves” things, there is a price to pay for the criminal choices made.This type of novel provides what Aristotle called catharsis. We see the consequences of an immoral life and thus are instructed not to go there. Thus, even dark noir can have a candlelight’s flame of moral illumination.

All this to say that the lasting popularity of mystery, suspense, and thrillers is based primarily on a hero bringing us justice, re-enforcing our belief that good will prevail and that light will shine again. As Dr. Schmid says at the end of his course:

Although experimental examples of mystery and suspense fiction may be well respected as aesthetic objects, they aren’t popular with wide audiences. In the final analysis, it seems that we can tolerate only so much experimentation and frustration. Perhaps the ultimate secret to great mystery and suspense fiction is that, in one way or another, it satisfies a deep-seated desire we all have for the world around us to make sense.

Isn’t that why you continue to read this kind of fiction? In a world that increasingly isn’t making sense, don’t we need these books more than ever?

 

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Escapism Rocks!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There’s always been a certain amount of stress associated with being alive. In pre-historic times, this was largely based on concerns over being eaten by large animals. Or by having pointy things stuck into your body by the tribe down the road. At the same time, you had crops to attend to and weather events to deal with. All with no TV, internet, or Candy Crush.

Later on, the Greeks sat around inventing philosophy and giving people more reasons for stress, as in, trying to figure out the point of this bewildering existence. Religion was asking the same questions in places like India, China, and Jerusalem.

As the great historians say, stuff happens. Like war. More stress. In America we had a war oddly called “Civil.” And later joined the right side in a couple of wars big enough to be called “World.”

In between WWI and II, we had the Great Depression, and the stress of actually getting food onto the table. Jobs were scarce. Prospects, in many cases, dim.

Which is where escapism stepped in to offer rays of entertaining sunshine. You had the movies, of course. For a dime you could spend a few hours with Astaire and Rogers, Gable and Tracy, Hepburn and Grant. Radio was pervasive, providing laughs from Benny and Hope and Fibber McGee, and adventures with The Lone Ranger and The Shadow. And comfort by way of “fireside chats” delivered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself.

But by far the most popular form of escapism came by way of the pulp magazines. In the 1930s the pulps were booming. Newsstands and drug stores carried dozens of magazines with names like Black Mask, Dime Detective, Amazing Stories, Adventure, and Thrilling Western. Popular series characters (what the great pulp writer Erle Stanley Gardner called “the writer’s insurance policy”) included Nick Carter, Doc Savage, Tarzan, Conan the Cimmerian, Buck Rogers, Sailor Steve Costigan, and Bill Lennox.

Indeed, some of our best American writers came out of the pulps—people like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard, Fredric Brown, and Horace McCoy. Not to mention the many steady professionals who knew one thing above all—how to tell a dang good story.

And just what did these stories have in common? I think Gardner himself said it best:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

I believe this is still true. Which is why I’m launching my own short fiction channel via Patreon.

If you’re not familiar with Patreon, it’s a site where artists of various stripes can find support for their work. Friends, family, and fans become patrons of the artist. Usually that comes in the form of monthly pledges, in return for which a patron receives various benefits, such as early access to new work or a personally autographed print.

But there is another model called “per creation,” which seems to me more applicable to writers. In this model, patrons are not charged monthly, but only when an actual story is published. My job is to deliver the goods, which means entertaining escapism for a busy reading public. Stories you can read on the subway or the bus, or while waiting for the doctor, or simply at home after a long day when you don’t feel like cracking Moby Dick.

All of the details about this venture are on my page. I hope some of you will join me in this venture. The stories I publish will not appear anywhere else. You’ll be able to read this exclusive content online, on your phone via the free Patreon app, or on your Kindle, Nook or Kobo ereader.

My first story will come out June 1. It takes place in Hollywood in 1945. There’s a movie studio, a murder, and a studio troubleshooter named William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. He’s going to be a series character, so this would be a good time to get in on the ground floor.

Because in times such as these, escapism rocks.

So what are some of your favorite books, movies, or TV shows when you simply want to escape?

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Don’t Kill Your Darlings—Give Them a Fair Trial!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’ve never been a big fan of the writing admonition to Kill your darlings. It’s been a virtual axiom among writers for decades. Yet it seems to me about as useful as Destroy your delight and as cold-hearted as Drown your puppies.

I mean, if something is your darling, should your first instinct be to end its life? Sounds positively psychopathic.

Isn’t a darling at least owed a fair trial?

The phrase itself has its origin in a lecture on style delivered by the English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch back in 1914. He said:

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament … [I]f you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

At least Sir Arthur was honest enough to call it murder! But murder requires malice aforethought, and that is a terrible way to think about a darling.

Darlingicide should be outlawed, not encouraged!

Stephen King strikes the right balance. In his book On Writing King says the whole idea behind “kill your darlings” is to make sure your style is “reasonably reader-friendly.”

Which means sometimes a darling stays, sometimes it goes, and sometimes you give it a skillful edit.

It’s mostly a matter of ear, what it sounds like. It’s that thing called voice, which is (as I’ve defined it) a synergy of author, character, and craft. You can develop an instinct for the right sound. The more you practice, the better you get.

Begin by being aware of three areas where darlings tend to present themselves:

  1. Metaphors, Similes and Turns of Phrase

I love writing that creates striking word pictures. That’s why I dig Raymond Chandler over most of his contemporaries. I mean, come on, you have to love things like this:

I lit a cigarette. It tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief. (Farewell, My Lovely)

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. (Farewell, My Lovely) 

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away. (The High Window) 

Obviously, finding just the right touch for this is crucial. I use metaphors and similes in my Mike Romeo series, because it’s true to his character. But my wife (and first editor) is usually right when she says, “This is too much” or “I have no idea what this is supposed to mean.”

Then I don’t kill the darling. But I do show her the door. Much more civilized.

  1. Dialogue

There’s a fine line between memorable dialogue and dialogue that seems to be straining too hard to be memorable.

In Revision and Self-Editing I suggest “one gem per act” as a rule of thumb. A line that really shines. One that you work and re-work.

In my workshops I’ll use an example from the movie The Godfather. It’s in the scene where Michael comes to Las Vegas to tell Moe Green that the Corleone family is taking over. Moe Green is furious. He shouts, “Do you know who I am? I’m Moe Green! I made my bones when you were in high school!”

Actually, no, he doesn’t say that. That wouldn’t be all that memorable. Here’s the actual line: “Do you know who I am? I’m Moe Green! I made my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders!”

Ah…

Perhaps this line went through a few iterations. Anything more added to it would have killed the effect. It would have been too darling.

Make sure your dialogue is true to the character who speaks it and true to the moment.

  1. Emotional Beats

Some time ago I read a scene from a manuscript by a young writer. It involved two women who are natural adversaries. The dialogue was pretty good between these two, but unfortunately it was slowed down considerably by line after line of emotional beats. Here’s an example of what I mean (I’m making this up):

“I don’t know what you mean,” Audrey said.

Sally felt the pull on her heart. Did Audrey really not know? How could she not?

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Sally said. Her hands trembled as she waited for Audrey to answer.

“Maybe you’re talking about Frank,” Audrey said.

Frank’s name on Audrey’s lips made Sally stiffen. If only Frank were really there! But she mustn’t let Audrey see any longing in her eyes.

“I think we should leave Frank out of this,” Sally said.

Audrey smirked. Oh, how Sally hated that smirk. Since they were kids, that smirk had always driven Sally crazy.

You get the idea. While writing with emotion is part of the art of the storyteller, choosing how and when is the essence of that art. Instead of allowing us to flow with the inherent conflict in the dialogue, we’re given way too much interior life here. That dilutes the overall effect. This scene ought to look more like this:

“I don’t know what you mean,” Audrey said.

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Sally said.

“Maybe you’re talking about Frank.”

“I think we should leave Frank out of this.”

Audrey smirked. Oh, how Sally hated that smirk.

There are times when you do want to emphasize what’s going on inside a character. Times when you want to “go big” for dramatic effect. And you should. I have a suggestion for you: overwrite those emotional moments the first time around. Go for it. Come back the next day and edit it a bit. When you go over your first draft, edit some more. Get feedback from a crit partner or trusted friend on those pages.

Keep what works and trim the rest. You’ll eventually feel the right balance.

It pleases me greatly to write darlings. So I don’t immediately plot their demise. I let them sit, I look at them again, I have my wife render an opinion, and then I decide if they must go. They get a fair trial. And sometimes they are set free!

Case dismissed.

So how do you treat your darlings?

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Playing to Your Strengths

Owl-In-Flight

My wife Lisa’s greatest joy — after her husband, of course, and our ungrateful, unappreciative daughter — is her enjoyment of wild birds. We (well, she) has a couple of large, impervious-to-squirrels feeders set up outside of our kitchen window, and Lisa will spend hours photographing the birds that come to take advantage of the seemingly endless supply of seed that is there for the taking. One characteristic of birds, however, is that they are slobs. They drop seed, they leave husks, and…well, you know the rest. We as a result get a nightly show in the form of nocturnal creatures gathering at night beneath the feeders in a heartwarming tableau. The opossums are first to arrive. They get there early to begin eating the seed that has been left on the ground. They eventually, however, are rudely shoved aside by the raccoons, the neighborhood bully boys who push aside the opossums as if they aren’t even there. The collective attitude of the masked bandits changes quickly, however, when the skunks arrive. Their “outta my way, kid” demeanor quickly changes to, “Oh, my, hello, Mr. Skunk! How nice to see you! We’ve been saving this pile of seed just for you.” Skunks are just so gentle and shy and cute as they walk up and begin eating. They don’t take any mess, however. I did see a young raccoon, one who apparently didn’t get the memo, try to nudge a skunk out of its way. The skunk engaged in some non-violent resistance, turning around and putting his tail up, resulting in three raccoons setting new distance and reaction records for standing side jumps. I didn’t know raccoons could jump sideways. They apparently can, if properly motivated.

What do those cute vignettes have to do with writing? Quite a bit, actually. After you’ve been writing for a while, you’re going to get the sense of what works and what doesn’t for you. Write what works for you. If you are good at writing action scenes but poor at writing dialogue, go with the explosions and karate and make you characters strong and silent. If you’re not able to write a convincing love scene without embarrassing yourself, don’t entangle your character in anything other than barb wire. If you can write great sex scenes but drop the thread on complex mysteries, keep the mystery simple and secondary to the amorous scenes in the bedroom or elsewhere. Our friend the opossum’s main strengths are to convincingly play dead (we’ve all run into folks like that, haven’t we, heh heh) and get places early. If you are good at writing action scenes, start with a strong one and jump from one to another. Your story may be best served by letting the plot drive it. As far as the skunk goes, we’re talking cute but dangerous. “Dangerous” isn’t too strong a word; making that midnight run out to a Sam’s Club for several five-gallon cans of tomato juice to erase the scent of skunk spray will make a believer out of you. So…the character is going to drive your story. Cute but dangerous? Think of Jack Reacher as played by, uh, Tom Cruise. If you are blessed with the ability to let plot and characters drive your novel, you’re like a raccoon. You can sense your story’s weaknesses and strengths, and sense when something can play out a bit or, alternatively, when it’s time to wrap it up.
Which animal are you when you write? One of the above? Or another? And why?…oh, and the animal at the top of my humble offering today? To paraphrase Raymond Chandler…”What. The owl? Oh. I forgot about him.” Not really. Owls are skunks’ natural predators. The reason? Owls don’t have olfactory glands.

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