07 July 2018
by John M. Floyd
Today I'd like to talk about two deceased writers whose stories still delight and inspire me. One of these authors I heard about from an agent I had long ago and the other I discovered when I happened to stumble across one of his stories in an anthology. Both wrote mostly short fiction and were widely published, but almost no one seems to know their names.
The only book I own by Mr. Ritchie is Little Boxes of Bewilderment, a collection of 31 of his stories--but I think I've found and read most of the stories that he published. As I've said, a lot of them were featured in mystery magazines, but many can also be found in anthologies, including more than fifty Alfred Hitchcock anthos.
One of Ritchie's stories, "The Green Heart," was adapted into the feature film A New Leaf, starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May, and another of his stories, "The Absence of Emily," has been filmed twice and won the Edgar Award in 1982. Several of his stories were also adapted for TV series iike Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected.
The other short-story writer I dearly love to read--and whose work has taught me a lot--is Fredric Brown. I had no idea who he was before finding one of his stories, "Voodoo," in an anthology years ago. That story, like many of Brown's, is only about 300 words in length--but it's brilliant.
Fred Brown's short story "Arena" was used as the basis for the episode of the same name in the original series of Star Trek, and was voted by Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the top twenty SF stories written before 1965. His short story "Naturally" was adapted into Geometrics, a short film by director Guillermo del Toro, and another story, "The Last Martian," was adapted into "Human Interest Story," an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His novel The Screaming Mimi became a 1958 movie starring Anita Ekberg and Gypsy Rose Lee.
These two writers had one thing in common, besides their love of the short form and their talent with mystery/crime stories: both had a minimalist style that was long on dialogue and humor and short on exposition and description, and almost always included surprise endings. In their stories, things started out fast and never slowed down. I love that.
If you're interested in trying new authors, here's a list of some of my favorites stories by these two writers:
The Absence of Emily
The Green Heart
For All the Rude People
Play a Game of Cyanide
The Best Driver in the County
Nightmare in Yellow
The Laughing Butcher
A Little White Lye
Placet Is a Crazy Place
I encourage you to find some of these stories--reading them won't take long. I think you'll like their authors.
02 December 2015
Back in the 1990s there was a publication called Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine. I used to write a column called FYI in every issue which allowed me to say anything I wanted as long as it was related to mystery fiction. Call it rehearsal for the blogging I have been doing for so many Wednesdays.
You see, Victor was an elderly and eccentric member of an organized crime family. Like Claudius, he survived in his murderous clan because no one took him seriously enough to kill him. His brother, the actual crime boss, told his son on his death bed, "Take care of Victor. God knows he needs it."
Benny, the son and new boss, is not a nice man, and he doesn't like his uncle. But he wants to make a lot of changes in the business and so, to please the traditionalists, he has to honor his father's dying words. When Uncle Victor decides to become a private eye Benny pulls strings to get him a license. Alas, Victor's main qualification, like that of Henry Turnbuckle, Jack Ritchie's police detective, is totally unjustified self-confidence.
I wrote a bunch of stories about this gentleman and then Murderous Intent went out of business and I moved on to other subjects. But naturally I included the stories in my online bibliography.
Here is a definition, from geocaching.com:
Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location.
The geocachers who contacted me were Kathleen and Bob Loose (and like the fictional Henry Turnbuckle, they are residents of Milwaukee). Their nom de cache is Team~DNF (DNF stands for Did Not Find, a signal that either the hider or the finder went wrong).
And now I will let Kathleen Loose explain why they wrote to me, and what happened next. With her permission I have done a little editing.
|A team of geogcachers searching for Uncle Victor|
|Finding the first stage|
|The successful hunters: Silyngufy, Mewwi101, |
Ranger Boy and Ranger Rob, and Mrs DNF
19 September 2020
The same goes for short stories, and their authors. Just as we're familiar with the names of famous novelists, a lot of us also know the names of famous short-story writers: Chekhov, Munro, Cheever, Bradbury, O'Connor, Poe, Welty, Doyle, Saki, Twain, Hoch, Dahl, Serling, Asimov, Jackson, Kafka, Joyce, Carver, Oates, O. Henry, Lovecraft, Baldwin, Ellison, etc. (And yes, most of them are famous for novels as well.)
But . . . there are some lesser-known writers of shorts who I believe were equally as talented. Here are a few I happened to discover, later in my writing life than I would've hoped.
Richard Matheson -- A master storyteller, and one of the writers (along with Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Earl Hamner, and others) for the original Twilight Zone. I first became award of Matheson when I found out he wrote the book that became the movie Somewhere in Time (which, God help me, I still love). I have here on my shelves two collections of Matheson's stories: Duel and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. The title stories of those two books are among my favorites. Others are "Steel," "Prey," and "Third from the Sun."
Jack Ritchie -- My favorite short-story writer, period. He wrote many, many stories for EQMM and AHMM. I have only one of his story collections--Little Boxes of Bewilderment--but only because they're extremely hard to find. Some of my Ritchie favorites: "The Absence of Emily," "Traveler's Check," "The Green Heart" (adapted into the movie A New Leaf), "Shatter Proof," "The Operator," "Play a Game of Cyanide."
Augusto Monterroso -- A Honduran writer who, like Ritchie, wrote only one novel. Everything else was short stories, some of them flash-length and some of them humorous. Here are a few that I think are worth finding and reading: "The Eclipse," "The Outdoor Poet," "Dinosaur," and "Mister Taylor."
Cornell Woolrich -- A great writer who led an incredibly sad life. Known mostly for the movie Rear Window, which was adapted from his short story "It Had to be Murder." He also wrote many novels that were made into movies. I own one of his story collections, Night & Fear, but loaned it out years ago. (If the guy who "borrowed" it is reading this, may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your Fruit of the Looms.) My favorites, of Woolrich's stories: "New York Blues," "Detective William Brown," "For the Rest of Her Life," "Endicott's Girl."
John Collier -- A British novelist, Collier is best known for his short fiction, much of which is witty, dark, and full of plot twists. He wrote or contributed to a number of screenplays, and more than a dozen of his stories have been adapted for TV, radio, and film. I have only one collection of Collier shorts--Fancies and Goodnights--but the stories in it are wonderful. My favorites: "De Mortuis," "Youth from Vienna," "Over Insurance," "Bottle Party," "Squirrels Have Bright Eyes."
Charles Beaumont -- An author of mostly short science fiction and horror stories, and another of the many writers of episodes for the original Twilight Zone. He wrote only a couple of novels, early in his career, but wrote a lot of screenplays, including 7 Faces of Dr. Lao and The Masque of the Red Death. I have one of his short-story collections--Perchance to Dream--and I've enjoyed every story of his that I've read. Favorites: "The Jungle," "The Beautiful People," "The Howling Man," "Night Ride."
Fredric Brown -- My second-favorite short-story writer. Brown's story output was almost all crime and science fiction. Among other things, he was a master at what's now called flash fiction, and he wrote several novels that later became movies. I own three of his collections--From These Ashes, Miss Darkness, and Nightmares and Geezenstacks. I think his standouts are "Arena," "Nightmare in Yellow," "Voodoo," "Rebound," and "The Laughing Butcher." I'm always amazed that so few readers know about this writer.
Have any of you read these seven authors? If so, what do you think of their stories, style, etc.?
NOTE: Two years ago I posted a SleuthSayers column about both Ritchie and Brown, in case you want to know more about them.
Changing the subject, here– If you're interested in reading some excellent lesser-known short stories by the better-known writers, here are my suggestions:
"The Last Rung on the Ladder," Stephen King
"Never Stop on the Motorway," Jeffrey Archer
"Strangers on a Handball Court," Lawrence Block
"The Last Night of the World," Ray Bradbury
"The Blood Bay," Annie Proulx
"Torch Song," John Cheever
"Dead Man," James M. Cain
"Fetching Raymond," John Grisham
"A Retrieved Reformation," O. Henry
"Perfect Timing," Bill Pronzini
"Not a Drill," Lee Child
"Carrera's Woman," Ed McBain
"Survival Week," James W. Hall
"Poison," Roald Dahl
"Come Dance with me in Ireland," Shirley Jackson
"The Last Good Country," Ernest Hemingway
"A Happy Man," Anton Chekhov
"Running Out of Dog," Dennis Lehane
"A&P," John Updike
"The Mule Rustlers," Joe R. Lansdale
"Tenkiller," Elmore Leonard
I can't finish a discussion like this without mentioning the many other short-story writers whose work regularly appears in magazines like AHMM, EQMM, BCMM, Strand, etc. I won't try to list them because I would probably leave someone out, but many of those fellow writers (and friends) are famous as well, and some have oatbags right here in the SleuthSayers stable. I hope you're already reading their stories.
In closing, who are some of your favorites short-story authors, known and unknown? (And some stories to point us to?)
Keep writing, and be safe.
17 June 2017
It's also fun to write. And it's easier to write, I think, than plain old description and exposition, because when my characters speak I can hear them in my head.
The truth is, most of my short stories are heavy on dialogue. I've even begun a few of them with the intention of writing the whole thing in nothing but dialogue. One such story, "Careers," was published in AHMM years ago and another, "Doctor's Orders," at Amazon Shorts--the first was 1000 words in length, the second 6000--and I can still remember the fun I had writing those. It'll probably be no surprise to you when I say that many of my favorite genre writers--Harlan Coben, Joe Lansdale, Nelson DeMille, Stephen King, Lee Child, Greg Iles, Janet Evanovich, Steve Hamilton, Carl Hiaasen, Robert B. Parker, Jack Ritchie, Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake--are/were absolute wizards in the use of dialogue.
Some movies that are almost all-dialogue come to mind: Sleuth, Twelve Angry Men, The Hateful Eight, Proof, The Breakfast Club, and Glengarry Glen Ross, to name only a few. Several of these were originally plays, which makes sense.
BUT . . .
(You knew there had to be a but in there somewhere, right?)
. . . there are also some well-known stories that don't include much--or any--dialogue.
Personally, I've only created a few (none of them well-known) that are seriously short on dialogue. One of my stories, "Bennigan's Key," a 5000-worder published a few years ago in The Strand Magazine, has no dialogue at all. But since it was prose, I was at least able to use unspoken thoughts (sometimes called "internal monologue"). The same could be said about Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire."
The sound of silence
In movies, the no-dialogue approach is harder to pull off. After all, a screenwriter can't tell you what the characters are thinking. He or she has only two ways to convey information to the audience: action and speech. And if no one's speaking . . .
One of those--All is Lost, a 2013 film with Robert Redford as a lone seaman who battles the elements--contains only one spoken word: a common and graphic expletive, uttered after a frustrating setback. And despite the fact that nothing else is said during its almost-two-hour run, the movie manages to hold the attention of the audience throughout. An impressive feat.
NOTE: It occurred to me only after jotting down those little-or-no-dialogue movies that all ten of them involve characters who spend the whole story walking around (or running around or floating around) in the Great Outdoors. I suppose a lot needs to be happening around them, to have any kind of interesting plotline.
Speaking your mind
Can you think of other movies, or stories or novels, that tell the entire tale using no dialogue? If you're a writer, have you published anything written that way? How hard was that to do? Have you written any plays, or other kinds of fiction, that use almost nothing but dialogue? If you had to pick one of the two extremes--all or none--which would you prefer?
"Let's hear it for a lot of talking," Dialogue Dude says.
Quiet Dude makes no reply…
17 September 2011
Welcome to SleuthSayers!
My name’s John Floyd, I live in Mississippi, my wife and I have three grown kids, and I write mystery stories. Writing is actually my second career—IBM was my first, and as Clint Eastwood said after the final gunfight in Unforgiven, I was lucky in the order. If I had discovered my love for writing when I was twenty years old, my family would probably have starved.
I’d like to begin by making something clear: I’m not writing this first column at our new blog because I’m the best choice for that. I’m writing it because for almost four years I wrote the Saturday column at the Criminal Brief blog, and since we contributors to CB are finally turning in our badges and guns, and since several of us are migrating here from that site, and since today is Saturday… well, you get the picture. I’ll be alternating Saturdays with my friend Elizabeth Zelvin, who writes wonderful mysteries.
By the way, this is a blog for both readers and writers. Mostly readers and writers of mystery/crime/suspense. And when someone asks me what I enjoy most about the writing process, the answer is an easy one, because it’s also what I enjoy most about reading. It’s the plot.
Spin Me a Web
To me, coming up with the plot of a story is more fun than everything else put together. I don’t deny that characterization and description—and all those other things that you must do well to be a successful writer—are important. Of course they’re important. Without them your piece of fiction isn’t interesting and it isn’t marketable. But I think the pure enjoyment of weaving a good plot, one that’s suspenseful and believable and entertaining… well, that can’t be beat.
Since I write mostly short stories, much of that plotting is done ahead of time, in my head, before the first word of the story is put on paper. Is that outlining? Probably so—at least mental outlining. And what I’ve outlined sometimes changes once the writing starts. But to me, some measure of before-the-fact brainstorming is not only necessary, it’s fun.
My story process consists of three steps: planning, writing, and rewriting. For a typical short story, the research and planning (pre-plotting?) phase probably takes the longest, maybe a couple weeks; the writing of the first draft might take a day or so; and the rewriting and editing can take another few days, or as long as a week or two. These times are directly proportional to the length of the story. Then I let my wife read it, I incorporate (or not) her ideas, and I mail it off into the great beyond. And then I start on another one. I’ve gone through that cycle so many times it’s as natural as climbing out of bed in the morning.
I hope I’ve done it enough that by now I know what I’m doing. But anytime I start patting myself on the back, anytime I even begin to think I’ve mastered the art of plotting a mystery story, I think of the last time I read a novel by Nelson DeMille or Harlan Coben, or Block or King or Lippman or Deaver or Sandford—or the last time I read a short story by someone like Jack Ritchie, Bill Pronzini, Roald Dahl, Ed Hoch, or Fredrick Brown. These folks are, to use the current catchphrase, amazing. Their expertise in creating compelling plots can inspire amateurs and veterans alike. Read them and learn.
I also like the way great authors incorporate plot twists, not only at the end of a story but in the middle. Read a novel by Lee Child, for example. You might think you know what Jack Reacher will try next, and you might think the story will turn out a certain way, but at least two or three times during the book, the plot does a one-eighty and takes you in a completely different direction. Child’s talent for that kind of reversal, for keeping the reader off-balance, is one of the many reasons he’s so successful, and so enjoyable to read.
Fun and Games
I think most of us agree that a mystery (novel or short story) is essentially a puzzle. The writer is presenting the reader with a question to be answered, a puzzle to be solved, a situation in which a likeable character (cop, PI, ordinary Joe, whatever) faces a difficult problem. And the writer’s job is to somehow solve that problem for the character, and thus for the reader, in a way that is (1) satisfying and (2) unexpected. That’s not as easy at it sounds, and it’s always a challenge—and a thrill—to find a way to steadily build the tension and make things eventually “turn out right.
I love all kinds of puzzles, and I think almost anyone who likes puzzles also enjoys reading mysteries. And I think anyone who doesn’t like puzzles shouldn’t try to write one. He probably wouldn’t even want to.
Tell Me a Story
A quick word on the old argument about whether plot is more important than characterization, or vice versa. Both—obviously—are vital ingredients of good fiction. But I’m always amused when I hear fellow writers say, “Don’t worry about the plot. Just choose interesting characters and then give them something to do.” Well, here’s a news flash: What they do is the plot.
I like the following quote from Secret Windows, a collection of essays by Stephen King:
“All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer’s craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else is forgiven.”I wish I’d said that myself.
21 July 2018
by John M. Floyd
One of my former students asked me a good question the other day. It was a question I've heard before--all writers have--but it's still an interesting one: How much backstory should I include in my work?
As it turned out, she was asking about short fiction, and that's a whole different animal, but the answer's the same. My take is, you should include enough backstory to explain to the reader why your characters might later act the way they do. Sometimes it's a lot and sometimes it's not. Done well, backstory can give depth to the characters and make the plot more believable and strengthen the reader's connection to the story. Done poorly, it's a prime example of telling instead of showing.
My favorite definition of backstory comes from Story author Robert McKee. He says it's "an oft-misunderstood term. It doesn't mean life history or biography. Backstory is the set of significant events that occurred in the characters' past that the writer can use to build his story's progression."
Spelling it out
If you want to see backstory galore, read almost anything written by almost any old-time author--Daniel Defoe and Edgar Rice Burroughs come to mind. Not only was there a ton of backstory, it often happened at the very beginning of the tale--something contemporary writers are warned not to do. (Remember the first chapter of Hawaii?) But that was a different era, with very few things competing for one's time and attention. A reader was more apt to hang in there and wade through pages and even entire chapters of a character's (or a setting's) history before anything really happened. Today, it's a good idea to have the dinosaur eat one of the scientists on the first page.
(Maybe it's a sign of the times. When my 92-year-old mother meets someone, she likes to know (beforehand, if possible) where he's from, who his parents were, where his parents were from, and what church he attends. Folks of my generation, and certainly of our children's, don't worry about all that. Just the facts, ma'am.)
While there are many, many authors who prepare and forewarn readers with a lot of character history (the first page of The Great Gatsby was almost all backstory), I can also think of many who don't. My most recent SleuthSayers column discussed two of these. The late Fredric Brown and Jack Ritchie both had a spare and straightforward style that included almost nonstop action and not much exposition or description (or backstory). For them, that worked well. Also, of course, they were short-fiction writers as well as novelists--Ritchie wrote almost nothing but short stories--and most shorts don't need much in the way of backstory.
How much, one might well ask, DO short stories need? And I think the answer's still the same: enough to make it clear why folks later take the actions they do. If your protagonist experienced a traumatic event during her childhood, or has lived his entire life in an Eskimo village, or recently won the state lottery, or lost both legs in Desert Storm, or was just released from a mental institution, etc., those things are important to the story. They influence the way that character thinks and acts and reacts in certain situations. (And this goes for the antagonist as well as the hero.)
Again, though, this doesn't have to be revealed in an information dump at the beginning. It can be filtered in later, when needed, as a part of the narrative or via dialogue. A question from one character to another, like "How's Joe doing, since his wife passed away?" can be considered a piece of backstory.
One more thing: properly-timed backstory can be one of the tools that allows the writer to increase the suspense of the plot.
That student I mentioned earlier also asked me how much backstory I use in my own stories, and cornered me a bit when she suggested I give her some examples. Before sending those to her, I pulled out my story file and did some quick research, and what I found surprised me a bit. Most of the recent stories I've written that somehow went on to achieve at least a bit of after-the-fact recognition did include backstory.
Some of the examples I gave her, from my own creations:
"Dentonville," a story that appeared in EQMM and won a Derringer Award, featured a full page of narrative backstory about the main character, although not at the beginning of the story. First, I introduced the three main characters and got the plot going. (And while one page doesn't sound like much, it amounted to about five percent of the story.)
"Molly's Plan," written for The Strand Magazine and later chosen for Best American Mystery Stories' 2015 edition, included maybe half a page of detailed narrative backstory about the two main characters--and pretty early in the story.
"200 Feet," another Strand story--it got nominated for an Edgar that same year--had a fair amount of backstory, but all of it was injected via dialogue between the two lead characters throughout the first half of the piece.
"Driver," yet another Strand story that won a Derringer and was shortlisted for B.A.M.S., crammed all of its backstory into the opening two pages, as soon as the three main characters were introduced, and it was mostly revealed through their dialogue.
"Gun Work," which appeared in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes last year and is upcoming in Best American Mystery Stories' 2018 edition, included substantial backstory about its protagonist, but this was sifted in through both dialogue and exposition throughout the story.
But, having said that, I've also had several earlier stories (four shortlisted for B.A.M.S., one Derringer winner, and two nominated for the Pushcart Prize) that included no backstory at all. What the reader saw onscreen, happening right then, was all he got.
One size seldom fits all
Bottom line is, I think backstory can be useful but isn't always necessary. Too little can be confusing and too much can be boring. Because of all that, this whole discussion is one of the more subjective issues in writing fiction, and especially short fiction.
What are your thoughts on backstory, in both novels and shorts? Do you find it difficult to write? Tedious to read? Do you welcome it because of the clarity it provides? Do you think editors do? Any examples from your own works, or the works of others?
Speak up--don't be shy. Full disclosure!
07 December 2013
In another tale, I used an escape method that I'd once read about in the William Mulvihill novel The Sands of Kalahari. In that book, a murderer had been captured by a band of good guys in the middle of nowhere, and--being good guys--they decided to imprison him rather than kill him. Their makeshift jail was a deep stone pit with smooth, unclimbable sides. The problem was, it rained all that night, and the next morning they discovered that the runoff from the mountains had filled the pit with muddy water. Too bad, they thought--he's drowned. But he hadn't. They later found the pit empty. The captive had simply treaded water until the level rose high enough for him to climb out. One of my characters did the same kind of thing in my story "The Messenger," which first appeared in the magazine Futures, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and was reprinted four times in other publications.
17 February 2021
Yesterday the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine hit the newsstand, assuming such institutions still exist. I am delighted to be making my 33rd appearance in those distinguished pages. "Shanks' Locked Room" is the eleventh showing there by my grumpy crime writer, so he stars in one-third of my tales in that market.
You may notice the "locked room" in the title. It is a subgenre of the mystery story, of course, going all the way back to the very first: Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue." I thought it might be fun to play around with the old gimmick and I wound up turning it inside out. The puzzle Shanks has to solve is not "how did the villain get into a room without a key?" but "why did the villain steal the key and not enter the room?"
enjoy turning a cliche around. I had written what I thought would be a
follow-up called "Shanks' Last Words," involving the famous
dying-message clue, but it turned out that technology had gotten ahead
of me and made my story outdated. Such is life.
One master of the upturned cliche was Jack Ritchie, a genius of the comic short story whom John Floyd and I have praised to the sky on this page. He wrote a book about Henry Turnbuckle, a Milwaukee police detective. Henry loved mystery fiction and was constantly being disappointed that reality cruelly ignored the cliches and motifs of the field.
For example, in one story two of the suspects are identical twins. Alas, in violation of every rule of mystery fiction that turns out to have nothing to do with the solution. In another tale Henry gathers all the suspects and dramatically reveals the killer - only to have the suspects point out a fatal flaw in his logic, which involved a fact no one had bothered to mention to him. Why is it in crime fiction the detective always gets all the necessary information? Doesn't happen in real life.
By coincidence I was reading a story today and gave up on it because it stuck to a very tired cliche: The villain was about to kill the hero but first gave him a detailed explanation of his plan, and damned near a blueprint of the house where he was being held.
This peculiar generosity on the part of some bad guys was brilliantly skewered in the movie Austin Powers.
So, which cliches of the field bug you the most?
14 December 2019
John Floyd and I have both said before that Jack Ritchie was one of the greatest writers of short humorous mysteries. I just discovered that his Edgar-winning story "The Absence of Emily" was adapted into an episode of the British TV series Tales of the Unexpected. And here it is!
02 May 2015
"Because a story is a metaphor for life, we expect it to feel like life, to have the rhythm of life. This rhythm beats between two contradictory desires: On one hand, we desire serenity, harmony, peace, and relaxation, but too much of this day after day and we become bored to the point of ennui, and need therapy. As a result, we also desire challenges, tension, danger, even fear. But too much of this day after day and again we end up in the rubber room. So the rhythm of life swings between these poles."
We all know that in a short story or a novel, the proper pacing is vital to its success. And in the case of mystery/crime fiction, the pace has to be fast. Nobody likes being bored, and nothing is so boring to a reader as a story that drags along and doesn't do something.
Ideally, this building of suspense has to happen throughout the narrative. A good, exciting opening is always important, but the challenge is then to keep up that pace afterward as well. Personally, I'd almost rather read a story or novel that starts slowly than one that starts strong and then bogs down in the middle; if it has a poor beginning I can at least stop reading sooner. As I've said before, there are too many good books and stories and movies out there for me to waste my time reading one or watching one that doesn't hold my interest.
So yes, good pacing is essential. But--as the little boy said to the magician--how do you do it?
At the risk of oversimplifying, here are three ways that we writers can control the pacing of our fiction.
- Dialogue speeds things up; description slows them down
- Short, simple sentences speed things up; long, complex sentences slow them down (think Hemingway vs. Faulkner)
- Action verbs speed things up (sprinting vs. running, slamming vs. closing, gulping vs. eating, stomping vs. walking)
- The overuse of certain kinds of punctuation (commas, ellipses, parentheses, etc.) slows things down
- Active voice speeds things up; passive voice slows them down
- Short scenes/chapters speed things up; long scenes/chapters slow them down (think Patterson vs. Michener)
I'm a big fan of plot twists--and by that I don't just mean O. Henry-type surprise endings. I love it when the story takes a sharp and unexpected turn at any point, even near the beginning. It keeps me guessing and therefore keeps me reading. (Or watching. Reference the shower scene in Psycho.) I can't remember who said it, and I'm paraphrasing here, but if you're the writer and you think things might be moving too slowly, that's a good time to have someone burst through the door holding a gun.
Those are just a few thoughts--please feel free to contradict them or to add to the list.
Finally, no discussion of pacing would be complete without at least mentioning the concept of "scene and sequel." Scenes are units of story action, and sequels (in terms of writing) are breaks in the action--rest periods when the hero/heroine takes a timeout to think about what just happened and to consider what might happen next. Properly alternating scenes and sequels is a pacing mechanism, to allow the reader to--along with the protagonist--catch his breath and calm down a bit before facing the next challenge.
If you want to read some really fast-paced mystery fiction, I suggest stories and novels by the following authors: Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Robert B. Parker, Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, Jack Ritchie, Joe R. Lansdale, and Elmore Leonard.
It won't take you long.
17 July 2013
The great picture on the right is the illustration by Tim Foley which appears with my story in the October issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. It is used here with his gracious permission. You can find much more of his work at his website.
This particular issue of AHMM has stories by two SleuthSayers: David Edgerley Gates and yours truly. I thought I would write about one of those stories and since I haven't read David's yet, what the heck, I'll discuss mine.
Which brings me to Jack Ritchie. As I have said before I have probably stolen more from Mr. R. than any other single author. He was a master of the comic short crime story.
A while back I was pondering one type of story he was fond of. These stories begin with two men in a room, one of whom is holding a gun on the other. (Two examples you can find in his Little Boxes of Bewilderment are "Shatter Proof" and "A Taste For Murder.")
As a set-up this has a lot to recommend it. Suspense? Built-in. Starting in the middle of the action? Absolutely. Character motivation? Well, we can assume one guy is hoping not to get shot. As for the other guy's motive, that''s how a set-up turns into a plot.
While pondering this concept I came up with what I hoped was an original take on it, and "Two Men, One Gun" was born. As for motivation, here is how the tale begins:
"Here's the story," said the man whose name was probably not Richard. "Once upon a time there were three men who hated each other."
That's the gunman's motive. He wants to tell the other guy a story. Surely there must be more going on. Why choose this man as the audience? Why use a gun to hold his attention. But I make it clear right at the beginning that this is a story about storytelling. The act of telling this tale will change lives, Richard's included.
By the way, last year when my short story "Brutal" appeared in Hitchcock's I told you that it was one of two stories that begin in the same seedy office building I visited years ago. No idea why that run-down place made such an impression on me, but "Two Men" is the other story set there.
One odd thing about this. Although it was inspired by a great writer of humor, my story isn't particularly funny. There's some wit, I hope, but it's more about suspense than guffaws.
And if you don't like it, try David's!