Thursday, July 06, 2006

WTPEN -- Description & Style

We’ve only got a few more topics to go in our discussion about writing the private eye novel. Next up is description and style, or more accurately, Chandler’s influence on same.

One of Chandler’s legacies in this area is the use of similes. No one has ever used them as well as he did, so if you decide to emulate the master, bear in mind that he's set a high bar.

On the plus side, similes can help reveal character, set a mood or foreshadow action and sometimes just plain entertain. But to do them right, they must be accurate and they have to say something original. And since bad similes are often used to parody PI writing (see Woody Allen’s Getting Even), the cost of getting it wrong can be a review that labels your book as “hackneyed” or “a near self-parody.”

Be aware, too, that even similes done well can distract. Even Chandler felt he had gone too far in his use of them in The Big Sleep.

Chandler’s other legacy is a detailed, “camera eye” description of the people and places Marlowe encounters. But here, too, it’s possible to get carried away in attempting to emulate his style.

One or two specific details about a character’s appearance are better than a laundry list of mundane ones. And if you read Chandler’s descriptions carefully, you’ll see that they are there to serve his agenda, not simply document appearance. For instance, his description of the Sternwood mansion in The Big Sleep tells you a great deal about the people who live there well before Carmen steps into the scene.

Good description should draw upon all the senses, but does not require that every sense be referenced for portrayal of each person or place. And when description educates—for instance, with details about police procedure—it can help carry the reader’s interest.

Finally, a partially dissenting opinion about the inclusion of detailed description can be found in Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing fiction.


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