‘All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I have thought a lot about this quote recently. Not because of the plethora of plaudits for his writing that has accompanied the release of another film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, but because of how easy I think it is to write poor crime fiction. In recent posts we have looked at a number of crime fiction clichés, and whilst when done well, these clichés can give great pleasure, when done badly they grate and jar. What follows is the literary equivalent of swimming in the shallow end.
- The dog that doesn’t bark, meaning that the murderer was not a stranger. S.S. Van Dine hated this one.
- The murderer who smokes an obscure brand of cigarette and can thus be easily identified.
- The detective who knows things the reader does not. At her best Agatha Christie was superb. At her worst, she was too fond of using this tool.
- The femme fatale with ‘legs up to here.’ She may well have, but when done right she should also have a handgun in her stockings.
- The detective who turns out to be the killer. This is lazy and wrong.
- The set-piece shoot out. Raymond Chandler used to give advice to crime fiction writers. “If your plot is flagging, have a man come in with a gun.” On-screen, it looks fine. On paper, it brings out the worst in writers. I challenge you to write a description of a bullet killing someone without at least one reference to exploding fruit.
- “It was a dark and stormy night.” Of course, it was.
- The bottle of bourbon in the desk drawer. Contrary to what you may read it is not compulsory for detectives to be alcoholics. Or to have failed marriages for that matter.
- The wisecrack. Done sparingly, this works. Done all the time it makes the detective sound like a stand-up.
- “I’ll have your badge for this.” Similar to the alcoholic detective, we have the rule-breaking counterpart.
In the right hands, clichés can create beautiful writing. In the wrong hands, they become blunt and cumbersome lumps of words. I do not have naturally gifted, well balanced and dexterous hands and I have misused clichés in the past, and I am certain I will do so in the future.
F. Scott Fitzgerald gave this piece of writing advice to a family friend (the quote is taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters),
The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming — the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.
That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.
I’ll keep trying to hold my breath.