11 August 2021

Shuffle Off

I was invited to submit a story to an anthology, and there were specific requirements for setting and length.  But writing it, I was reminded yet again that you really can accomplish more with less.  There are economies of scale in every endeavor, modest or grand.

An illustration.

If you’ve seen the Russell Crowe version of 3:10 to Yuma, released in 2007, it’s very much opened up to horizons and vistas.  It’s shot in color and widescreen, with an eye for landscape.  The characters have the context of place.  Oh, and it runs two hours.  In contrast, the 1957 picture, with Glenn Ford as the outlaw, tops out at an hour and a half, in crisp and beautiful black-and-white, and it’s more claustrophobic, pulled in tightly to the people, the arid terrain a hostile backdrop.  But thirdly, going back to the source material, a Dutch Leonard story published in Dime Western in 1953, the outside world doesn’t feature much at all; the “action” of the story, if you can even call it that, takes place mostly in the hotel room.  It’s about the shifting dynamic between the two men, in the dialogue. 

The story I wrote, titled “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” is in fact about a couple of guys waiting for a train, and I kept circling back to 3:10 to Yuma, not because I wanted to conjure it up, particularly, but because I was after that economy.  You didn’t need an encyclopedic back story, if you have the odd convincing detail.  I wasn’t even sure you needed to know why they were waiting.  Was it enough that you (and they) understood it was necessary?  I decided that was a little too artful, Vladimir and Estragon.  But the essential rule, per Elmore Leonard, remained: don’t explain when you don’t have to, it simply generates clutter. 

I also used another piece of tried-and-true, courtesy of Raymond Chandler.  If in doubt, have a guy come through the door with a gun.  I wasn’t in doubt or at a loss, by any means, but I needed a catalyst, and the shortest distance between two points was a gunfight.  I was spare with detail here, as well.  It took all of five lines. 

Another thing is that many of the Mickey Counihan stories, of which this is one, have a reverse at the end.  Not necessarily a twist, or an O. Henry, but a deadpan finish, a throwaway line by Mickey that turns the story back on itself.  Mark Billingham – who started out doing stand-up – once remarked that writing suspense has a lot in common with a comedy routine.  There’s a set-up and a punchline, and in both cases, the punchline depends on the reversal of expectations.

Lastly, you simply get a lot of satisfaction from stripping out the inessential.  Not that you shouldn’t drift into eddies and pools, or allow for moments of stillness.  It’s often its own reward, for me, the grace note, the dropped stitch, something caught out of the corner of your eye, but in this instance, there were no DVD extras.


  1. An excellent post, David.
    I agree that less is more. I also have to admit that remakes of film, especially films based on other original sources, usually turn me off. I saw the Glenn Ford version of 3:10 to Yuma when it came out (I was ten years old) and never had any need to see the remake.

    The play Proof won a Pulitzer Prize about 20 years ago, and part of what made it so powerful was the setting: the back porch of an old house. That small world helped emphasize the claustrophobic feel of a main character's insanity. The film opened the play up and put it all over Chicago, including the airport, which diluted its power.

    One of my constant reminders to students in my workshop is that they don't need backstory if they make the action and conflict concrete and immediate. Explanation is telling, but showing usually works better.

  2. Very interesting. I have read Leonard's story but not seen either of the movies. I love the comparison of suspense to comedy. Very true. You know, on Monday Stephen King was the guest on the Late Show. He said when he was writing The Stand he got all the characters to one place and then didn't know what to do with them. Then he remembered Chandler's advice about the man with the gun. Most people don't remember that Chandler was CRITICIZING that technique, but it sure does work. I look forward to Mickey's latest adventure...

    1. Good Grief! I didn't know Chandler was criticizing that idea!

  3. I've seen the first version of 3:10 to Yuma, and it was great. Another one - which I think is better than the book, which I read after seeing the movie - was The OxBow Incident. Whew.

  4. Yeah, I write shorter & shorter stuff all the time. I have two drabbles coming out in November.

  5. Eve, I love the Ox-Bow Incident. I assigned it for years in my American Lit class, but I don't remember ever seeing the film. Henry Fonda was in it, wasn't he?
    The only other western I remember using in class was Shane, and I showed the Alan Ladd film, which has some brillian parts and some that are embarrassingly awful. 1953 Hollywood had no idea how to handle a strong female character, and Jean Arthur salvaged the character anyway.

  6. I think SHANE, the Jack Schaefer book, is better than the picture, although I love the picture. Schaefer himself referred to Alan Ladd as "that dwarf," but Ladd is really good in the part. I agree that Jean Arthur makes the movie.
    I think OX-BOW INCIDENT, the movie, is better than the book, although I admire Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and I like CITY OF THE TREMBLING LEAVES a lot. But the way Wellman frames his actors is extraordinary. Look at the scene where Fonda reads the dead guy's letter.
    The 1957 version of 3:10 TO YUMA is better, if only because: Glenn Ford. Probably one of the most underrated guys of his era. I should do a piece on his noirs alone, then the Westerns, then the service comedies. The trick he manages in 3:10 TO YUMA is that he's enormously, dangerously charming, but clearly a snake underneath, until the last 30 seconds. (Dick Jaeckel of course helps.)
    It's an interesting point that opening a story up can weaken it. The tight internal dynamics of the Boetticher/Scott Westerns (Leonard wrote the story for THE TALL T) keep them edgy and personal. A model for story-telling, and no wasted motion. None of them run more than an hour and twenty minutes.

  7. Oddly, clearest main thing I recall in the most recent version of Yuma is the tssst, tssst, tssst of the idling locomotive. My particular attention may be in part because of my exposure to steam engines when I was a kid, but in the movie, it serves as a metronome, building tension as the time ticks toward 3:10.

    I have to be cautious not to explain too much, but I often err in the opposite direction, letting the reader to deduce too much. It's a balance.

  8. Another fine column about 3:10 to Yuma and I still haven't read the story!

  9. Steve, yes, Henry Fonda was the lead in OX-BOW INCIDENT the movie, along with a solid Dana Andrews and Harry Morgan. (And Anthony Quinn as "the Mexican")
    Side note: The only Westerns I ever showed in my classes were YOJIMBO and SEVEN SAMURAI which I showed to show that most modern Western movies (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, etc.) were remakes of Kurosawa movies.

  10. Great column, David. Sorry I'm late to the party. I agree that the original 3:10 TO YUMA was better than the remake, and better than Leonard's short story. I also agree that the novel SHANE was even better than the movie, and I Ioved both. And I too read OX-BOW INCIDENT only after seeing the movie, so maybe that's why I think, in that case, the movie was better.

    All things considered, I think Elmore Leonard's works were adapted into some good movies: 3:10, THE TALL T, HOMBRE, 52 PICK-UP, GET SHORTY, OUT OF SIGHT, JACKIE BROWN, etc.

  11. I never saw the original version so I would hope I like it better than the new one. I wanted Dan to live.


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