Friday, April 12, 2013

Passage Work

By Russel D McLean

“The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passage work.” – Raymond Chandler, Trouble is my Business (1950)

Let me start out by saying I love crime fiction. I adore the genre completely. I think it capable of great things and some of the loveliest people I know are crime writers. Some of the most amazing books I’ve ever read are crime novels, but then they’re the ones that do exactly what I’m just about to talk about here…

I do a little bit of reading work here and there, freelance, for various people who send me unpublished manuscripts for appraisal*. This one I was reading, like many I get sent, contained a promise from the writer that it would send me into a state of shock and awe with its unique take on the tired detective genre.

It didn’t.

In fact, it trotted out a lot of the same-old, same-old, simply biding its time until it could try to pull the rug out from under the reader in a climax it clearly believed was going to shock everyone.

The curse of the twist ending.

Where all that matters is the twist. Everything that comes before the twist fails to matter because all the writer (and by extension the reader) is interested in is the twist.

The preceding was all “passage work”. None of it mattered if you didn’t have the ending.

Some people can do the twist well. Some writers can build to a twist and still have the work before feel less like passage work and more of interest in and of itself. But it’s a rare skill to be able to do this.

The end of the Chandler quote is this:

“The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing”

And its true. A mystery, or a crime novel (I view mystery as a subset of crime, so deal with it), is so much more than its twist ending or its dramatic reveal. While these are important (a good ending is a climax; an inevitable outcome that is shocking not in the unexpected but in the emotional sense), the journey to the end should not be dull or uninteresting or merely filling time. And too often in crime fiction it is. Endless scenes of procedure pad out pages with no emotional connection, or else there’s a pretence that something of deep import is happening that is actually of no relevance because the twist or the reveal is so all consuming that nothing else matters.

Every scene matters.

Every scene should be of interest in and of itself.

Every scene should be interesting.

To return to Chandler, there should be fireworks on every page. Whether that’s literary fireworks or emotional ones. Whether its just one good line or a sequence that leaves the reader literally breathless. Too often, I find pages filled with filler. Scenes that take too long to end, scenes that sometimes contain their own twist at the end after a mini-sequence of passage work to lead there, that would have been better eliminating the preceding and merely giving us the twist.

Not to say that one should eliminate foregrounding and set up. But rather that a writer should also make the foregrounding and setup interesting in and of themselves.

An impossible task?


When I was young and starting out with this thing called writing, my dad said something to me that stuck, that as a reader he didn’t mind the destination being a bit dull as long as the journey was worthwhile.

Took me a long time to figure what meant. But I get it, now. A novel is ninety-nine percent journey and one-percent destination (as, on a micro level, is any scene)* and that journey has to be interesting. At least as interesting as the destination, maybe more so.

Fireworks, people.

Make people remember scenes. Make them remember moments. Make them talk about dialogue and character with joy and the memory not of finishing the book, of reaching the climax, but of the actual reading of it.

*note – don’t send me manuscripts unbidden. I only take them through sources I know (and sources who know my work), on a pre-agreed chargeable freelance basis. I never know who the authors of these manuscripts are,  and I won’t open an unpublished manuscript that arrives unbidden in my mail box. 

**Although I do remember one novel where the explanation of the twist was as long as the set up. I read with my jaw on the floor as the climax turned out to be roughly sixty pages of exposition and re-explanation of things previously seen


Dana King said...

Agree completely. Endings are hard. If i enjoy the read and the ending falls a little short, well, it's not a perfect book, but it was still a damn good read.

If the journey is lifeless and serves too obviously as a set-up for the ending, the author can have written the greatest ending ever, and it won't matter because I've quite reading before i got there.

Thomas Pluck said...

Well said, Russell.

Some stories are a circle. The ending shows not much has really changed, despite all the characters' thrashings and fury. Twist endings are overrated. I like a good magic trick, but with misdirection all things are possible.

John McFetridge said...

Some novels should be novellas...