Friday, April 5, 2013

Two Bad Guys Walk into a Story

Writing crime flash is a tricky business.  Yes, you can use those few words to present an obscene picture of mayhem and death, but can you make the reader care?  This was driven home by a flash piece I read the other day.  It was well written and moved along to a good conclusion, but I didn't give a rat's ass about either of the people in the story.  Why?  They were both bad guys without a trace of humanity in them.  They might as well have been two dogs fighting over a scrap of meat.

Whether a story is long or short there should be a bit of heart in it.  A reader needs to care about the people he's spending time with.  In the case of the story I read a man was waiting to kill another man.  A man who'd stole some money from the wrong people.  It was a totally cold and calculated murder for hire job.  Yes, it was a nice portrait of a professional hit man, but how much better if the man he was going to kill was perhaps related to him?  Or an old friend?  That one bit of information would have shown the reader the even deeper coldness that lay in the killer's heart but it would have also put a bit of humanity into the story.  The reader would be left wondering how a man could kill someone he knew so personally.  And that's what you want for a story.  Something that sticks with the reader when he's finished reading.  Something that gets under his skin and forces him see life in a different way.

No matter how short the story there's always a way to put a little heart into the story.  A well-placed word or two, a bit of conversation, a tear, or a touch.  You don't have to beat the story to death with it, just a passing mention will do.  Just a little something that draws the reader closer to your characters.

How about you?  Do you prefer a story that leaves you thinking or do you just want to read for the entertainment value and forget the story as soon as you turn the page?  Do you writers out there try to find a way to bring that bit of heart into a story or do you just try for the harshness that makes up much of crime fiction? 


Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Sandra,

I think there's a world of difference between what some people call flash and stories that just happen to be told in 1000, 1000, or even 10 words.


G. B. Miller said...

I would perfer to have a story that leaves me thinking, specifically thinking in a good way. If it leaves me thinking in a bad way, it then potentially becomes fodder for a blog post.

Peter DiChellis said...

An author wrote a perspective on this topic that nailed why I like mystery and suspense stories. 

The author said the best mystery-suspense stories often are not about a crime, but are about the puzzle of deceit and misdirection that attempts to cover up a crime; and/or the twists of anticipation, uncertainty and false alarms before a criminal strikes.

That says it for me. It's exactly why I like reading mystery-suspense. As a (very) new writer, I try to create stories along those lines.

Love your blog.

Best wishes,
Peter DiChellis

David Cranmer said...

"... but can you make the reader care?" Sandra, every writer (no matter the genre) should ask themselves before they hit submit.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I absolutely agree with this and this is why so many stories fail for me. Cleverness can't even save them.
The best stories for me are how people are trapped in a situation or are the victims of one.

Chris Rhatigan said...

Interesting. I disagree. Out of everything Tao Lin has written, I don't care about a single one of his characters, but I love his books for the absurd humor and strangely lyrical prose. For me, caring about characters is just one entry way into digging a story.

sandra seamans said...

You're right, Stephen, some writers forget that flash can be a story and not just a character study.

I know what you mean, G., I've run across many stories that turn into blog posts about what you should and shouldn't do with a story :)

Welcome to the Corner, Peter! I like mystery stories that have a puzzle to solve but I also like stories that touch on the after effects of a crime.

I think readers need to care about the characters, David and Patti, otherwise the story will have that dryness that a news article has.

sandra seamans said...

I think that's the trick, Chris. Even if you have characters people don't like, you still need to find the human interest that holds a reader's attention. And there are people who just read for the beauty of the words. For me, that's poetry, not a short story.

Thomas Pluck said...

If I don't care about the characters- even if I'm only reading to see what they do next, because they are interesting (like Parker, or Dolarhyde in Red Dragon) I am not going to bother turning the page. Even if the prose is magical, it feels masturbatory if the character is meaningless.
But that's just me. I've never cared about puzzles. Give me motive. The people and their twisted motivations are the only mystery I need. Killing someone in a locked room is a staple, but the real trick has always been killing someone you want to kill without it pointing back to you.

Some guy doing bad-ass stuff for no reason gets old very quickly. If I read another story about a hit man with uber cool weapons and a bitchin' ride or Honey Bunny & Pumpkin from Pulp Fiction pulling armed store robberies to survive my eyes will roll out. Everyone needs to cut their teeth on basic stories, when they start writing. I wrote plenty of "mob enforcer goes to collect" stories, myself. They are just an excuse to write about someone who can mete out violence without consequences. It's fantasy. And it gets tedious, quickly.
All violence has consequences. If you can commit it regularly without repercussion, you are a psychopath. Ask the Marine sniper who was murdered at the Texas gun range. He was trying to help other soldiers deal with coming home. You don't fill the hole that leaves with snappy patter and shots of whiskey. Not for long, anyway.

sandra seamans said...

Not all puzzle stories are about locked rooms, Thomas. If you're reading a PI novel, it's a puzzle mystery because you're following clues to solve the mystery. And they usually give you the reasons behind the crime.

Yes, we all start out writing the same stories until we find our voices and start to grow as a writer.