Showing posts with label Mark Billingham. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mark Billingham. Show all posts

23 October 2019


Some of you may know that the Brit writer Mark Billingham started out in comedy, and he once remarked there were a lot of similarities between doing stand-up and writing thrillers. Namely, setting up punchlines. E.g., "The pope, the Dalai Lama, and a stripper walk into a bar." I don't know where it's going, but it catches your attention. Jokes, of course, depend on the reversal of expectations, and setting a trap in writing is much the same. Sometimes the punchline gets left out, all the more effectively. The ending of Pet Sematary. You're not turning around.

The twist ending is a time-honored tradition. I got thinking, on the other hand, about twist openings. I just watched Night Train to Munich again, which is a terrific Carol Reed picture from 1940. The set-up is almost completely self-contained, a story all by itself, and Rex Harrison doesn't even show up until 20 minutes in. Not long after, the movie takes a sharp left-hand turn into the Twilight Zone. It's not what you were expecting.

I realized, watching it this time around, that Night Train to Munich puts me in mind of certain of John LeCarre's novels, The Little Drummer Girl in particular. The beginning, the set-up, "Sooner or later, they say in the trade, a man will sign his name," is itself masterful, and then he seems to wander off the beam, into some other story entirely. You're like, Wait, What, Where Are We? He's actually got absolute control, he's simply gathering the reins. Little Drummer Girl is about a deception operation, and the book is an illustration of method, a metafiction.

Metafictions can be said to call attention to themselves. Sometimes it's sleight of hand, sometimes it's done in plain sight. There's a Dutch Leonard book called The Hunted - some years before La Brava made him a household name - and it starts out with a guy in Witness Protection, who's been relocated to Israel, but the mob tracks him down and puts a hit on him. So far, so good. Then maybe a third of the way in, the story goes off at a right angle and all of a sudden, it's not about that guy at all, it's about this other guy, somebody you thought was a supporting character. Well, okay, it's Elmore Leonard, but hello? 

For my money, The Charm School is still Nelson DeMille's best book, not least because he takes what I think is a false and discredited premise and sells it, utterly. Not just that I suspended my disbelief, but that he had me totally convinced. Whether or not the spell wears off is of no consequence; he owns it, and you sign on. Here's the thing. Nelson pulls the same damn trick Dutch does. He starts off in one direction, and puts the pedal to the floor. We got ignition. Then he takes a curve at speed, and snaps your head around. He's got this guy who's only a walk-on, so you think, and suddenly he's center stage.

I don't think this is all that common a narrative device. At least, I haven't run across it that often. David Copperfield begins, famously, with "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else - " but we don't imagine Dickens is going to give Steerforth the lead. Likewise with Scott, no stranger to conventional theatrics, the hero of Old Mortality is your usual generic ingenue, and Scott quite happily loses control of his story to the two contending heavies, Lord Claverhouse and the Covenanter assassin Burley, who basically walks off with the book, but in the end, convention wins out.

Then there's the thing where you shift gears without even meaning to, or because the story requires it. In the first of the bounty hunter stories, for instance, I started out in one direction and veered off unexpectedly in another. I never intended it to be the beginning of a series, the guy himself seemed accidental, I thought I was channeling The Wild Bunch, and it turned out to be Have Gun, Will Travel. Not that I'm complaining, mind, but it took me by surprise.

I think this is where I'm going with this. That we should anticipate the unexpected. In anybody's narrative, but particularly our own. You follow the scent, you follow the story where it leads you, convention be damned.

Oh, and the punchline? "Mustard, custard, and you, you big shit."

10 August 2016

Apologies for the S-18's

David Edgerley Gates

More than a few years ago, I was helping my friend Alice move. She was living in the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts, and she was headed for Cape Cod. He dad, Joe Pelkey, had a silkscreen print shop in Pittsfield called Editions Ltd., and he shipped product all over the country. He told her to come by and pick up packing materials, and when we got there, Joe said, "What you guys want is a couple of sleeves of S-18's." Corrugated cardboard boxes. They come folded flat, you open them up and tape the seams, ready to go. They get their name because dimensionally, they measure 18 by 18 by 18 inches, which makes them practical for books or record albums, say. Or bricks. They don't weigh that much when they're full.

Like a lot of writers, or probably most, I've got a soft spot for nomenclature. The difference between a reveal and a rabbet, or a
clip and a magazine. Not everybody makes that big a deal out of it, but there are of course those of us who wax wroth over the Oxford comma. We dislike lower standards, cutting corners, getting sloppy. "Use the right word," Twain cautions, "not its second cousin."

Somehow the term S-18 stuck in my head. I relish arcane knowledge, insider lingo. When the subject of shipping cartons came up, S-18 was my mental default, and I'd deploy it like plumage. Over time, it turned into an inside joke, a private shorthand. Alice would read one of my stories, and when I asked her what she thought, she'd say, Well, you lost me in the S-18's. It was generally valid. Writers have a common weakness, and it's showing off. How better than turning over the chosen card, like a magic trick? Yes and no. The trick isn't effective if you call attention to it.

In performing close-up magic, an effect is made up of sleights, or manipulations. You use misdirection, verbal or physical distractions, to establish a false narrative - what people think they're being shown - and the narrative is a construct, a house of cards. Its structural integrity is sustained by the willing suspension of disbelief, an investment on the part of the audience, and we agree not to break the spell.

I heard Mark Billingham make an interesting remark about thriller
writing. He started out as a character actor, and then did stand-up, and he says comedy and thrillers are both about timing your
You're at the mike, and you've got thirty seconds to get the laugh.

You don't break the spell. You've shaken hands with the reader, you've agreed to the purchase-and-sale. You don't need to be a know-it-all. Just keep faith. With apologies for the S-18's. You can leave out most of the stuff you know. Hemingway said that, and he was right. Don't be afraid to leave some space. Give yourself room to breathe. You don't have to fill every silence.