Late in the nineteenth century, painters such as van Gogh, Cézanne and Seurat looked back to the Old Masters of the seventeenth century-geniuses like Rembrandt and Poussin-for techniques that would add richness to their work.
Why do today’s fiction writers so seldom do something similar to help in writing a novel: look back to the Old Masters of the best-seller list-to the Tom Clancys and Michael Crichtons and Stephen Kings of our parents’ and grandparents’ day-to learn more about their craft? Let’s examine the work of six writers who not only ruled yesterday’s best-seller lists, but whose consistent crowd-pleasing abilities also place them among the most successful authors of all time. In their books lie techniques of good storytelling that are timeless, of value to the commercial novelist of today-or any day. Extract these timeless elements and apply them to writing your novel:
ERLE STANLEY GARDNER
The creator of lawyer-detective Perry Mason and a lawyer himself (it is said he is the model for Mason), Gardner was easily the best-selling and most prolific of all mystery writers. From the early thirties until his death in 1970, he produced two or three of his The Case of … novels a year, enough to keep five secretaries busy transcribing his dictation full-time.
Technique #1: Put Your Story Front and Center Story was literally everything to Gardner. Characterization and background were of secondary, if any, importance. To Gardner, the novel was simply the most effective means of presenting his detective puzzles. Like Agatha Christie, Gardner relied heavily on dialogue, so that his books often read like scripts.
Here’s the no-nonsense beginning of The Case of the Screaming Woman, an example of how Gardner hooks us immediately with the first bizarre aspect of his story:
Della Street, Perry Mason’s confidential secretary, entered Mason’s private office, walked over to the lawyer’s desk and said, “You always like something out of the ordinary, Chief. This time I have a lulu!”
“Unusual?” Mason asked, looking up from the papers on his desk.
“Unique,” she said.
“Give,” Mason told her.
“A Mrs. John Kirby telephoned,” Della Street said, “and wanted to retain you to cross-examine her husband.”
“A divorce case?” Mason asked.
“No, she and her husband are good friends.”
“Yet she wants me to cross-examine him?”
“About where he was last night.”
Mason frowned. “Della, I’m not a lie detector. I’m not a psychoanalyst. I don’t handle cases involving domestic relations.”
“That’s what I told Mrs. Kirby,” Della Street said. “She told me she only wanted her husband’s interests protected. She said she wanted you to listen to his story, puncture his self-assurance, and rip him to pieces.”
Though few would be tempted to call Gardner a stylist, there’s no arguing that he could arrest us with a wildly unlikely premise at the start of each of his books. It was this ability to build a novel on strength of story, rather than on how he told that story, that made him the favorite of millions.
Sometimes this kind of get-to-the-point storytelling is exactly what readers crave-for example, when what they really want is a challenging puzzle in novel form.
If you share Gardner’s gift for ingenious plotting, why embellish your book with unnecessary detail or description? You might be doing yourself, and your book, a disservice. Bare-bones, plot-oriented writing may be the perfect approach for your novel of mystery or suspense.
“From the day of my birth until I reached the age of twenty years, I rarely lived longer than six years in the same place,” wrote this red-haired, Georgia-born son of a Presbyterian minister, who at eighteen was running guns for a revolt in Central America. He also worked as a plowboy, poolroom attendant, cotton picker, lumbermill hand, professional football player, taxi driver, stagehand in a burlesque theater, stonemason, soda jerk, cook and waiter, book reviewer and journalist.
Caldwell is best known, however, as the author of sometimes scandalous novels about the Southern poor, most notably 1933’s God’s Little Acre, among the most popular novels of all time. Not far behind is Tobacco Road, written the year before.
Technique #2: Paint Characters With Heart Caldwell’s novels about “American primitives” have enjoyed their phenomenal success largely because Caldwell (like Mark Twain and Bret Harte, to whom he is frequently compared) truly loved the people he wrote about. This love for these people at their best and worst would not have existed if he had not known them so well, and it was this knowledge that allowed him to show them in all their humor, eccentricity and pathos-qualities that make these people irresistible to readers.
In this excerpt from Tobacco Road, Ellie May Lester shows her feelings for Lov Bensey. Lov is married to Ellie May’s younger sister Pearl, who refuses to sleep with Lov. Ellie May, though harelipped, is all too willing to give Lov what he wants.
[Lov] was looking at Ellie May now. She had at last got him to give her some attention.
Ellie May was edging closer and closer to Lov. She was moving across the yard by raising her weight on her hands and sliding herself over the hard white sand. She was smiling at Lov, and trying to make him take more notice of her. She could not wait any longer for him to come to her, so she was going to him. Her harelip was spread open across her upper teeth, making her mouth appear as though she had no upper lip at all. Men usually would have nothing to do with Ellie May; but she was eighteen now, and she was beginning to discover that it should be possible for her to get a man in spite of her appearance.
“Ellie May’s acting like your old hound used to do when he got the itch,” Dude said to Jeeter. “Look at her scrape her bottom on the sand. That old hound used to make the same kind of sound Ellie May’s making, too. It sounds just like a little pig squealing, don’t it?”
Chances are these are not like the people you encounter daily, but to Erskine Caldwell they might as well have been, and he painted them exactly as he saw them, with a brush full of color, and broad, lively strokes.
In most novels it is vital that the author give us characters we can know and like as much as we find ourselves knowing and liking those in Caldwell’s. To create such supersympathetic characters in your novels, look directly to the people you know and love better than any others. Only by knowing and loving your characters can you make us do the same.
Drawing on his experience with British Naval Intelligence, Fleming created James Bond 007, and indeed Fleming and Bond often became confused in the public mind. Though Fleming called his work “trivial piffle,” his espionage adventures had been phenomenally successful around the world, with John F. Kennedy among his most avid fans.
Technique #3: Appeal to Our Wildest Fantasies The success of Fleming’s books has been attributed to the way they appeal to our wildest dreams. James Bond, more than any other fictional hero, lived many people’s fantasy of a life of total self-sufficiency and self-indulgence.
At the climax of You Only Live Twice, Bond is a prisoner of his old nemesis, Ernst Blofeld, in the cliff-top Castle of Death. Bond manages to escape the deadly volcanic mud of the Question Room, save his neck from Blofeld’s massive samurai sword, and ultimately overpower and strangle Blofeld. He even sets the Castle to self-destruct-only to climb out a window and find himself trapped on a narrow balustrade.
. . . He looked over the side. A sheer hundred-foot drop to the gravel. A soft fluted whistle above him caught his ear. He looked up. Only a breath of a wind in the moorings of that bloody balloon! But then a lunatic idea came to him, a flashback to one of the old Douglas Fairbanks films when the hero had swung across the wide hall by taking a flying leap at the chandelier. This helium balloon was strong enough to hold taut fifty feet of framed cotton strip bearing the warning sign! Why shouldn’t it be powerful enough to bear the weight of a man?
Bond ran to the corner of the balustrade to which the mooring line was attached. He tested it. It was taut as a wire! From somewhere behind him there came a great clamour in the castle . . . Holding onto the straining rope, he climbed onto the railing, cut a foothold for himself in the cotton banner, and, grasping the mooring rope with his right hand, chopped downwards below him with Blofeld’s sword and threw himself into space.
It worked! There was a light night breeze, and he felt himself wafted gently away over the moonlit park, over the glittering, steaming lake, towards the sea. But he was rising, not falling! The helium sphere was not in the least worried by his weight! Then blue-and-yellow fire fluttered from the upper storey of the castle, and an occasional angry wasp zipped past him. . . . Now the whole black silhouette of the castle swayed in the moonlight and seemed to jig upwards and sideways and then slowly dissolve like an ice cream cone in the sunshine. The top storey crumbled first, then the next, and the next, and then, after a moment, a huge jet of orange fire shot up from hell towards the moon. A buffet of hot wind, followed by an echoing crack of thunder, hit Bond and made his balloon sway violently.
. . . Punctured by a bullet, the balloon was fast losing height. Below, the softly swelling sea offered a bed. . . .
It seems clear that Fleming never forgot that most people who read for pleasure read to escape, and that these readers want as much escape as they can get for their time and money.
Are your own characters humdrum and mundane, doing humdrum and mundane things, when they would be so much for interesting being and doing things we’ve only dreamed of? Fleming knew-and every novelist should remember-that one of the greatest joys of writing is that the impossible can be made possible. Give your readers a run for their money. Let them find true, wonderful escape in the worlds you create for them.
His mystery-detective novels have been called nasty and sadistic, but they’ve won Spillane millions of fans just the same. The Brooklyn-born son of an Irish bartender began his writing career selling stories to the “slicks” and the “pulps,” then writing comic books. His novels, most of them starring rough, tough Mike Hammer (said to resemble his creator), landed Spillane on the all-time best-seller list again and again, from 1947’s I, The Jury to the fifties’ My Gun is Quick, The Big Kill, One Lonely Night, The Long Wait and Kiss Me, Deadly, to 1961’s The Deep.
Technique #4: Torture the Reader to the End Of his method of creating suspense, Spillane said: “You don’t read a book to get to the middle. You read a book to get to the end. You deliberately torture yourself all the way through, hoping that after all the garbage the end will be worth all the time you spent in the reading thereof. True? It’s got to be totally satisfactory in the last line.
A superb example of how Spillane puts his words into action is the ending of I, The Jury (I’ve used a few dashes so as not to give anything away):
“No, —-, I’m the jury now, and the judge, and I have a promise to keep. Beautiful as you are, as much as I almost loved you, I sentence you to death.” . . .
The roar of the .45 shook the room. —- staggered back a step. Her eyes were a symphony of incredulity, an unbelieving witness to truth. Slowly, she looked down to the ugly swelling in her naked belly where the bullet went in. A thin trickle of blood welled out.
I stood up in front of her and shoved the gun into my pocket. I turned and looked at the rubber plant behind me. There on the table was the gun, with the safety catch off and the silencer still attached. Those loving arms would have reached it nicely. A face that was waiting to be kissed was really waiting to be splattered with blood when she blew my head off. My blood. When I heard her fall I turned around. Her eyes had pain in them now, the pain preceding death. Pain and unbelief.
“How c-could you?” she gasped.
I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.
“It was easy,” I said.
Remember how we all love being surprised, and hold some things back as you write your novel, whatever sort of novel it is. It’s a wonderful feeling to read a book and realize that a truly skillful novelist has gotten the best of us. Be careful to play fair with your surprises, however; make them believable and be sure to plant any necessary precedents or clues.
Georgia-born Yerby is best known for his vivid and complex Southern tales, the most successful of which are 1946’s The Foxes of Harrow, 1947’s The Vixens, and 1949’s Pride’s Castle. A critic once wrote that “Mr. Yerby could be a pretty good novelist if he ever got his mind off the neckline and the cash register,” but the world always welcomed a new Yerby novel unconditionally.
Technique #5: Evoke the Magic of the Moment Yerby is famous for his vivid language, for his multiplicity of characters and for writing, in the words of Arna Bontemps, with “a flair for color, an air of easy abandon, the ability to live in the moment and to create characters that live in the moment, a touch of very elementary magic.”
Devilseed is Yerby’s story of Mireille Duclos, who, like many women of her time, sails penniless into gold-crazed San Francisco in the 1850s and there climbs to riches and respectability. In this scene we see Mireille riding into town as the new wife of Judge Alain Curtwright.
Mireille’s imposing mahogany-and-rosewood-paneled landau swept eastward down Clay Street toward Portsmouth Square, drawn at a spanking trot behind her pair of night-black, imported Australian horses. Perched high on the driver’s seat before her, the Swithers brothers, James and John, her coachman and footman, sat, clad in livery every bit as imposing as the landau, their faces, under their tall silk hats, blacker than the hides of her splendid five-gaited pair, set in frowns of stern self-importance.
“Mammy” Pleasant had sent the Blacks to Mireille with a note suggesting that she hire them, which Mireille had been pleased to do, even knowing that Mary Ellen Pleasant had surely placed them in her employ to spy on her. Now, staring at their sturdy backs straining against the frock coats of their livery, she had the wickedly delighted feeling that she had “turned” them both: that they now were, if not wholly on her side, at last double agents. For, by awarding them a treatment involving so much kindness, real consideration, even, at times, an easy, affectionate familiarity that no Black menservants in the 1850s could dream of receiving from a young, stunningly beautiful white woman, she got as much information about Mary Ellen Pleasant’s weird, devious, and plain evil doings out of them as they carried back to the house on Washington Street about hers.
As she rolled along, with the rear calash top folded back and the breeze stirring her raven hair under her smart little bonnet, all the men on the sidewalks took off their hats and waved them in her direction. More than one of them grandly bowed. The women-what few there were-glared, and ostentatiously turned their backs. Mireille smiled with quiet satisfaction at that sight. Ever since the fabulous Lola Montez, mistress of the immortal pianist-composer Franz Liszt, mistress of the ex-King Ludwig of Bavaria, mistress of-the list was endless!-whose Spider Dance drove men of the cloth, not to mention mere miners and businessmen, out of their minds, had left San Francisco that preceding fall to settle-permanently, she swore-in the pleasant little California mountain town of Grass Valley, Mireille had inherited, by default, Lola’s crown as the most celebrated demimondaine in the city. . . .
Yerby uses details of place and time as tools to evoke character, making Mireille and Mary Ellen functions of where and when they live, and vice versa. The Swithers brothers, coachman and footman, very much a sign of affluence at this time, are the device by which Mary Ellen spies of Mireille, who in turn uses them for the same purpose. We see the people on Clay Street showing their feelings for Mireille through social customs of the place and time-grand bows and waves of the hat from the men, exaggerated turns of the back from the women. Note the use of a real and colorful figure, Lola Montez, to bring Mireille and her role in San Francisco into even sharper focus.
Use these techniques to make the characters in your novel virtually an extension of their place and time. Have them use, abuse and react to objects and customs distinctly of their world, so that we cannot recall these characters without recalling how they were dressed, how they spoke, what they ate and all the other ways they interacted with their world.
Not a person has been born who has not been shaped to some degree by where and when he or she lived. The magic of moment in reading fiction is learning how people live in, adapt to and make use of their where and when as we do with ours.
HAROLD ROBBINS It was a tribute to Robbins’s staying power and adaptability that he was as much a titan in 1988 as he was forty years earlier, when he published 1948’s Never Love a Stranger.
Robbins’s publishers once announced that every minute someone bought a Robbins novel-another tribute to his never having let his public down. Not bad for a poor kid from New York who started his career as a grocery clerk, short-order cook, cashier, errand boy and bookies’ runner.
Robbins has been praised most for the authenticity of the world in which he sets his novels. Never Love a Stranger drew heavily from Robbins’s experience growing up in New York, and so vividly depicted that world of hustlers and racketeers that one critic called it “a Les Misérables of New York.”
Technique #6: Make Background a Character In 79 Park Avenue, in which heroine Marja starts out a poor kid from Second Avenue and winds up a Park Avenue call girl, Robbins describes the seamy beachfront world of prostitution as he no doubt observed it growing up:
She walked into the hotel lobby and chose a seat in a discreet out-of-the-way corner. Opening a copy of Vogue that she had carried with her, she glanced through it idly. . . .
A few minutes passed. Then a bellboy stopped in front of her. “Room three-eleven,” he said in a low voice.
“Three-eleven,” she repeated, a smile on her lips.
He nodded. “Right. He’s waiting there now.”
“Thank you.” She smiled, holding out her hand.
“You’re welcome, miss,” the bellboy answered, taking the two bills from her. He walked away quickly.
Slowly she closed the magazine, glancing around the lobby as she stood up. It was normal. The house dick was looking the other way, the desk clerks were busy with check-ins, the other people in the lobby were all guests. Satisfied with her quick check, she sauntered toward the elevators. She had nothing to worry about. Everyone was taken care of. Mac, the landlord of the rooming house, had put her wise to that.
“Pick a place to operate from,” he had said knowingly. “Then before you do anything, make sure that everybody who might be interested is paid off. They’ll leave you alone then, even help you.”
Obviously, Robbins would not have undertaken a novel with a background of prostitution if the hadn’t felt he could do so convincingly. But his use of detail and ambiance is what sets this and his other novels apart, makes them as memorable for their depiction of world and place as for their characters.
When deciding on the world in which to place your novel, consider the worlds you know so well that you may be overlooking them entirely. Writers have found these worlds, literally right in front of their noses, to be the richest and to work most authentically. What, after all, does a writer-or anyone-know better than his or her own life and the lives of those he or she has observed firsthand?
MASTERPIECES TO UNCOVER
On the shelves of your library and your used bookstore are countless masterpieces of yesterday that excited and moved their readers because of certain techniques that could work in any age. Isn’t storytelling, after all, a timeless art, one we’ve been perfecting since we first appeared on earth? Why not take down some of these erstwhile blockbusters by the Old Masters? You may want to borrow a few strokes for a best-seller of your own.
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