by Will Viharo
Let’s face it: reading demands a lot of work from the consumer. People’s attentions spans are shrinking along with overall book sales.
However, there are enough books still selling – even by indie authors – to provide enough evidence that the literary industry is still alive, if not exactly kicking like visually oriented entertainment, from video games to television to movies.
Rule number one for keeping readers on the hook in this cerebral medium? Don’t bore them with unnecessary details…
There’s a famous Hollywood story about the time screenwriter William Faulkner – yes, that one – was adapting the screenplay for Howard Hawks’ production of the 1946 film noir classic The Big Sleep, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. The problem was that not even Faulkner, nor Hawks, nor the star Humphrey Bogart, nor Faulkner’s co-writers Lee Bracket and Jules Furthman could figure out from the source text who knocked off the chauffeur. They wired a telegram to Chandler for the answer. The widely reported reply? “Damned if I know.”
While the movie is acknowledged as a classic – hey, it’s Bogey and Bacall, baby! – the storyline has often been criticized or dismissed as incomprehensible. The reason the murkiness of the narrative is incidental to the film’s success is that it clicks on every other level, from the crackling dialogue to the ambient cinematography to the legendary chemistry of its lead actors.
It also helps that it’s a movie, not a book. Cinema is more like a dream, captured on film, and sometimes fiction can be cinematic in quality as well. The original novel itself is also deemed a seminal detective fiction masterpiece, still influencing authors today (including myself), even though Chandler himself didn’t consider plots that integral to his particular brand of storytelling, even if the mystery genre demanded, well, a mystery.
Investing in the Investigation
Chandler certainly delivered on that aspect, concocting labyrinthine webs of deceit and conspiracies, but often the “mystery” of who killed whom and why or when took a backseat to the mysteries of human nature itself. Chandler was more concerned with evoking a romantic if decadent mood and establishing a realistic if dreamy setting – namely, a sprawling, sexy, dirty, glamorous and gritty Los Angeles that was full of dangerous shadows even in the incessant sunlight – than he was about the subject of crime.
The character’s motivations for committing these desperate sins against humanity were much more interesting than the sins themselves. At least the way Chandler described them, via the witty observations and signature commentary from his world weary, wisecracking narrator, Philip Marlowe.
Which brings us to you. You’re not Raymond Chandler. Neither am I. But he isn’t us. We’re all unique individuals with our own special contributions to the form. The goal should always be to make your own mark with your work, not copy someone else’s, even if his or her work inspired you to take up this frustrating yet oddly rewarding profession in the first place.
Despite his enduring legacy, Chandler was not particularly prolific. He churned out only seven novels over two decades, with one (Poodle Springs) completed by Robert B. Parker and published posthumously, along with a few dozen short stories and several screenplays like The Blue Dahlia (1946).
But back then, during his heyday of the 1940s and '50s, it was possible to make a living as an author, even one that wasn't especially busy, because people simply turned to books for escapism a lot more than they do now. So he could get away with nonsensical plots that often bogged down with gratuitous descriptions of a room, someone’s wardrobe, the weather, etc. His readers were just along for the ride, since his words were so fun to consume.
Prose and Cons
Many contemporary crime authors, like James Lee Burke, compose masterful, poetic prose that is heavy on description and detail, but with such precision of craft that the reader is enraptured with the style rather than buried in ennui. This was also the case with Chandler.
Other popular crime authors, like Elmore Leonard, deemed a saint by many of his spiritual descendants and my own peers, devised and then stuck to a much stricter set of rules that didn’t allow for any self-indulgent flourishes that might distract the reader from the story being told. Chandler’s own guidelines were somewhat more liberal, but equally emphatic.
The way I see it, there’s no right or wrong way to tell a story, as long as you’re being true to your own agenda, and consistently mindful of your audience.
As a reader, I appreciate the way a story is being told over the story itself, since most plots have been rehashed thousands of times since Shakespeare. Many readers, probably most, prefer a good story, well told. So when I write, I try to maintain a level of suspense and intrigue, often eschewing a complete outline, so I’m just as curious what happens next as the reader, painting my characters into corners, then letting them write themselves out - as long as they don’t take their sweet time doing it.
I also limit tangential narrative threads, or at least make sure they are somehow wind up applicable to the situation at hand, even if they at first seem extraneous, as is often the case with my own private eye protagonist, Vic Valentine. His subjective first person musings are philosophical or sentimental in nature. Still, his universal preoccupations with sex and death always somehow relate to the case he’s on, even if he’s totally screwing it up – which is often the case.
"Just the Facts, Ma'am"
The goal is to keep readers involved with the characters and their actions, without needlessly dwelling on any particular piece of information for so long that it looks like you’re just not sure what to write next, so you’re simply filling the pages with randomly chosen words that aren’t essential to the story, stalling for time rather driving it forward.
That’s okay to do as long as you delete the excess verbiage once you do a final edit. I often recommend just writing until your juices start flowing again, especially if you feel stuck. Just don’t inflict your audience with your practice material. Only share the cream of your crop, weeding out the crap.
If you’re ambitiously conveying an epic saga, as opposed to a dark little slice of life or an intimate character study, a plot outline is definitely necessary, even if you deviate from it as you go (which is often a good thing, since it means you’re letting your characters tell the story for themselves).
Readers are quick to spot inconsistencies, in any genre, so while the plot may or may not be the main reason you’re writing a particular book – or even the chief attraction for your target audience – being sloppy for the sake of meeting a page count is an unforgivable offense. Even if your book is loosely structured, tailored to your subject and style, the story itself should be tightly told.
Even if it ultimately doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes the style is the substance of a true work of art, in any medium. That’s why I love the films of David Lynch and the music of Frank Sinatra. And the novels of Raymond Chandler.
PHOTO: WILL HART