Economy of words in visual writing


The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon

I am in some sort of transition in my writing now. This morning I decided to re-read works of the great pulp fiction writers to re-acquaint myself with their styles, how they made books crackle.

So for the next little while I will be reading and listening to Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald and Raymond Chandler.  Along the way, I may visit a book or two of Robert B. Parker because I think he was a direct descendant of the pulp fictioneers in his spare use of words.

I have chosen to return to this group of writers for one very simple reason.  Their style of writing is the one I most enjoy to read.  Perhaps that dates me, I don’t know. But if there is one thing I have learned thus far about the writing craft it is that each author tends to gravitate toward a certain type of book.

By this I don’t mean to say that writers can only produce works in one genre. Professional writers can switch genres as the need arises.

But when it comes right down to it, an author settles into a genre that has an affinity not only with his personal style, but also with the lens through which he views the world.

In my case when I approach a story the first thing that intrigues me is how to hide until the very last minute what really motivates the characters. So, I naturally gravitate toward thrillers and mysteries.

But regardless of the genre, one of the other things I am appreciating more and more as my writing and reading years pass is a technique I see in what strikes me as fine writing. That technique is using the fewest words possible to show, not tell, a story.

Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett

The trick is to understand how few is the fewest.

Yesterday I listened to the first few chapters of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, narrated by William Dufris.  The first thing that struck me was the amount of detail Hammett used early on in his description of Sam Spade, his iconic hard-boiled detective protagonist. Here is the book’s first paragraph.

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the  more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v.  His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal.  The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down-from his high flat temples-in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

With those four sentences Hammett has described Sam Spade, but he has accomplished much  more than that.  He has set a tone for all that is to come in the book.

How could anyone look “rather pleasantly like a blond satan”?

I guess I will have to keep reading.




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