Monthly Archives: August 2013

Great Storytelling … And On Cheap Newsprint

ModestyAdventure strips once were a staple of newspapers. Now they’re mostly relics.

Which is a shame. First, because I’m a huge fan of many great adventure strips. But second, because the best writers of the bunch knew how to move a story forward with an economy of words.

I try to tell people this when I teach mystery writing: Keep your story moving forward. Anything that doesn’t: jettison.

Here’s as single strip from the great “Modesty Blaise,” circa 1970, which appeared in The Evening Standard. The writer is Englishman Peter O’Donnell (the all-time best, I think) and the art is by Spaniard Ernique Badia Romero.

Here, the heroes, Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin, are trapped underground in a terrorist base and are trying to get to the surface. They’ve decoyed most of the enemy the wrong direction.

Peter O’Donnell, one of my personal heroes, only has about 50 words to move his plot forward. Romero only has three images. Yet move forward, it does.

Willie informs Modesty that the decoy ruse worked … too well. The armed guards at the elevator shaft moved, too.

Modesty explains why that’s “bad” news – she wanted to take out those guards and eliminate their guns before a drawn-out firefight We learn here that Modesty wanted the armed confrontation. Not because she’s suicidal or overly violent, but because dealing with those guns now means not having to wonder about them later.

In the third panel, Willie calmly informs her that the elevator, or lift, isn’t responding. Which means the decoy isn’t working any longer. Does he sound or look anxious? Nope. That was expected.

And Modesty’s response is: “Well, there are always snags.” No blame, no anger, no regrets. They played their hand. It went well enough. Their minds have moved on to the next threat.

Again: 50 words, 3 images, and Messrs. O’Donnell and Romero provide both plot development and character analysis. And you’ll note that I didn’t pick an action sequence, either. Because reaction is as telling as action, in the hands of a great storyteller.

The takeaways?: First, with few exceptions, everything in your story needs to move your plot forward, or provide character development. And second, you don’t need a ton of words and pages of expository writing to accomplish that.


‘Lawrence’ Biography is a Triumph

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but “Lawrence In Arabia” by Scott Anderson is one hell of a ride.

UnknownAnderson tells the side-by-side stories of T.E. Lawrence, along with several contemporary young men in the Middle East at the ramp-up to World War I, and in the war itself. They include an American oil man, a Jewish agronomist trying to turn Palestine green, and a young German intelligence officer.

Lawrence himself isn’t portrayed as some strapping Hollywood action figure, but as an eccentric little academic who stumbles into greatness. He’s Indiana Jones, as written by Noel Coward and styled by Larry Gelbart’s “M*A*S*H.”

Their stories are nicely blended. The book reads like an international thriller — which, of course, it is — but not like a dry, academic tome.

Subtitled, “War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” Anderson’s book is that rare example of escapist lit that ain’t escapist at all … it just reads that way.

The Great Grafton

Sue Grafton gets the Lifetime Achievement Award this year at Bouchercon, The World Mystery Convention, in Albany, N.Y.

360_sue_grafton_1201Greatly deserved.

Sue and I came on board Bantam Books about the same time, a very long time ago. And I remember a talk she gave at an early Bouchercon. A member of the audience got up and pointed out the fatal flaw in Sue’s Kinsey Milhone mystery series. “You’ve named them after letters of the alphabet. You can only write 26 of them, then you’re done.”

She kindly thanked the woman for pointing that out and added that, with luck, she’d come up with a Plan B by then. 

Click here to see other honored guests at this year’s Bouchercon. 

Great Magazine Writing

We often talk about novelists who do a great job describing places and things. But magazine journalists can knock it out of the park, as well.

The New York Times Magazine’s Sam Anderson did a great job (Aug. 11 issue) of describing tornadoes. Here’s an example. Look at how brilliantly he used “floating opposites” to describe things known and things unknown about twisters. Great stuff:

“Tornadoes occupy a space at the intersection of knowing and not knowing. We know everything about the conditions that help them form but almost nothing about why they actually do form. We know the paths they take but not why they take them. We know where and when, throughout Oklahoma’s history, tornadoes have done the most damage … but we don’t know exactly why they hit those spots instead of 100 miles north or 50 miles south. We know that tornadoes frequently spawn in families, that they make some walls collapse inward and others fall outward, that they’re often preceded by green light and giant hail and an eerie calm, that their parent storms kill them, eventually, with cold wind. We know that the bad ones like to form at the very back edge of a storm and that, in our part of the world, the funnels tend to rotate counterclockwise.”

Active. Descriptive. Colorful. Accurate.

Great writing.

The Passing of Elmore Leonard

The Detroit News reports that novelist and master storyteller Elmore Leonard has died.

elmore_leonardHe was 87.

Leonard’s brilliant body of stories includes mysteries and westerns. He is, arguably, the greatest dialog writer in the history of the whodunit. And his characters were unforgettable.

Much like the man himself.

Elmore Leonard, 1925-2013. Tall tales, told right.


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