23 June 2019
Take a look at this. It’s by Raymond Chandler.
A long time ago when I was writing for pulps I put into a story a line like “he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water.” They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing: just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock on the door. That damn little paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just couldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.
With kindest regards,
Chandler was writing to an editor, a gentle rebuke about changing his stuff.
A few remarkable things about this note. First, it’s long, the sentences are long, the ideas are involved. It was written in a time when people thought long thoughts. Secondly, it’s not the detail he brings out, although the detail is wonderful, it’s the misdirection. He gets you thinking about the paper clip just as the dying man is thinking about the paper clip, and his death is all the more stunning because of it.
His description of a death behind a desk is not on the nose, maybe not even accurately depicted. It’s focused on a small, telling part of a man’s life going out. A paper clip.
We are all encouraged, too much I think, to write on the nose. We focus a lot on getting people to say what they are saying. We get at something deeper, though, when we misdirect. It’s better if people are not saying what they mean at all but instead are telling a completely different story, the story that is inside them.
That’s what makes a scene.
Thanks for reading,
(c) Lee Schneider 2023. Take care of each other. Subscribe.