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Is Your Fiction Big Enough?

photo by Kris Williams

We’re thrilled to welcome James Scott Bell [2] back to WU today! James writes thrillers and books on the craft of fiction. He has been a finalist for an International Thriller Writers Award, and served as the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine A sampling of his books may be found here [3]. He lives and writes in Los Angeles.

Is Your Fiction Big Enough?

I love the craft of fiction––the tools and techniques we apply to the parts or the whole of our stories. To help the books live and breathe and connect with readers.

There are techniques that apply to the things we can do, and others that help us identify things we ought to avoid. I call this latter group “speed bumps.” The reader may not notice them consciously, but in subtle ways they interrupt the fictive dream. They are often the difference between a reader thinking, “That book was pretty good” and “Wow! That blew me away!’

And then there’s a quality we can bring to our fiction that I haven’t really seen addressed before. It came to me one day when reading a story by the famous (and doomed) pulp writer Robert E. Howard.

For want of a better term, I call it the quality of bigness.

Maybe the best way to explain it is through examples.

In an unpublished story written shortly before his death, “Sword Woman,” Howard introduces Agnes, who might have become a character as popular as his most famous creation, Conan the Cimmerian.

Written in first person POV, the story begins with Agnes escaping from her father and the loveless marriage he has consigned her to. She enters a tavern, dressed in men’s clothes. There she meets the leader of a group of mercenaries, Guiscard de Clisson, and expresses a desire to join his band.

Guiscard answers, “By Saint Denis, girl, you have a proper spirit, but it takes more than a pair of breeches to make a man. … Don thy petticoats and become a proper woman once more.”

Ripping out an oath that made him start, I sprang up, knocking my bench backward so it fell with a crash. I stood before him, clenching and unclenching my hands, seething with the rage that always rose quickly in me.

“Ever the man in men!” I said between my teeth. “Let a woman know her proper place: let her milk and spin and sew and bake and bear children, nor look beyond her threshold or the command of her lord and master. Bah! I spit on you all! There is no man alive who can face me with weapons and live, and before I die, I’ll prove it to the world. Women! Cows! Slaves! Whimpering, cringing serfs, crouching to blows, revenging themselves–– among men? By God, I’ll live as I please and die as God wills, but if I’m not fit to be a man’s comrade, at least I’ll be no man’s mistress. So go ye to hell, Guiscard de Clisson, and may the devil tear your heart!”

Howard, a boxing fanatic, does not pull his punches, does he?

When a group of thieves, led by a man named Tristan, bursts into a room to kill a wounded man Agnes is protecting, Howard gives us this:

With a fierce exultant cry I ran at Tristan, and he wheeled, bellowing, fumbling at his sword. I cut that bellow short as my sword sheared through his thick neck muscles and he went down, spouting blood, his head hanging by a shred of flesh. The other ruffians gave tongue like a pack of hounds and turned on me in fear and fury. And remembering suddenly the pistol in my girdle, I plucked it forth and fired point-blank into the face of Jacques, blasting his skull into a red ruin. In the hanging smoke the others made at me, bawling foul curses.

This is not the stuff of a category romance. It’s action, and as in all of Howard’s fiction, it’s just plain big.

But does that mean bigness is only for pulp-style action? Quite the contrary. Interior-driven should go big, too.

Which brings me to the intriguing case of Theodore Dreiser. H. L. Mencken, a Dreiser contemporary and critic, once said readers of Dreiser had to wade through “specimens of awkward, platitudinous marginalia, of whole scenes spoiled by bad writing, of phrases as brackish as so many lumps of sodium hyposulphite.”

No one reads Mencken anymore, but Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925) still sell. How can that be? I’ll tell you. Despite a sometimes clunky style, there is a bigness about Dreiser. Not the page count, which is auspicious. But a bigness of reach, of depth, and (this is key) of compassion.

No less a literary light than Joan Didion once said: “[A]nother writer I read in high school who just knocked me out was Theodore Dreiser. I read An American Tragedy all in one weekend and couldn’t put it down—I locked myself in my room. Now that was antithetical to every other book I was reading at the time because Dreiser really had no style, but it was powerful.”

I well remember the first time I read An American Tragedy (basis of the 1951 film classic, A Place in the Sun). The writer part of my brain was thinking things like He just used that word in the last paragraph! and That sentence should be cut in half! At the same time, however, I felt myself drawn in deeper and deeper to the story.

Naturally, I had to find out why.

First of all, Dreiser’s theme is big––no less than the soul of man (and I use the gender pronoun advisedly, for while Dreiser wrote about women in Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt (1911), Tragedy is about the dark side of the American male psyche).

There is no reason the fiction you write must settle for a lower bar. If Blake could see the world in a grain of sand, surely the writer can see it in a character.

Dreiser does with Clyde Griffiths. The smallest swirl of Clyde’s inner life is enlarged by Dreiser’s insight. When Clyde, working as a naïve young bellhop, hears about his fellows going to a “joint” (whorehouse) after hours:

For the first time in his life now, he found himself confronted by a choice as to his desire for the more accurate knowledge of the one great fascinating mystery that had for so long confronted and fascinated and baffled and yet frightened him a little. For, despite all his many thoughts in regard to all this and women in general, he had never been in contact with any one of them in this way. And now––now ––

All of a sudden he felt faint thrills of hot and cold racing up and down his back and all over him. His hands and face grew hot and became moist––then his cheeks and forehead flamed. He could feel them. Strange, swift, enticing and yet disturbing thoughts raced in and out of his consciousness. His hair tingled and he saw pictures––bacchanalian scenes––which swiftly, and yet in vain, he sought to put out of his mind. They would keep coming back. And he wanted them to come back. Yet he did not. And through it all he was now a little afraid. Pshaw! Had he no courage at all? … But what would his mother think if she knew? His mother! He dared not think of his mother or his father either at this time, and put them both resolutely out of his mind.

It’s that last line that haunts the book, for it is here that Clyde begins his long descent into darkness.

Let me quickly add that even a lean-and-mean style of fiction can go big. Every plot and main character present opportunities to widen scope. I’ve seen this in Mike Hammer (Mickey Spillane), Mac Bolan (Don Pendleton), Parker (Richard Stark), and a fellow named Reacher (Lee Child).

So! How does one write big? Here’s the good news: you’ve already got what it takes. It’s inside you. Every writer has the capacity for bigness. What we need are ways to get it out of ourselves and onto the page. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Open Your Chest

You’ve no doubt heard the writing axiom that counsels sitting down at the typewriter and opening a vein. But I say bleeding is not enough. You’ve got to crack open your chest. You’ve got to create the feeling that you’re letting everything in and not holding anything back when you write.

Don’t think your way through a scene; explode your way through it. You’ll have plenty of time for editing later.

(By the way, Hemingway never said anything remotely like, “Sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” So don’t forward that meme! It was actually the great sportswriter Red Smith who said it [4]).

  1. Live Large

I don’t mean striking out to the Yukon, like Jack London––though that’s always an option! I mean being open to life, and finding compassion even for those with whom you violently disagree. This compassion will show in your writing and create powerful cross-currents of emotion in the reader.

Try writing a “closing argument” for your villains, as if they were trying to persuade a jury of readers of the rightness of their actions. You don’t have to use this verbatim in the book, though you might end up using a lot of it. But just knowing what drives their actions––and finding a sympathy factor in it––will take your antagonists out of the realm of the mundane and set them unforgettably in your readers’ minds (Hannibal Lecter, anyone?).

  1. Draft Page-Long Sentences

This is one of my favorite exercises. When you come to a place in a scene where a character is registering significant emotion, pause and do the following: open up a new document and write a long, run-on sentence (at least 250 words) in the character’s voice. Let the character burst with verbal feeling about what’s going on, and why, and what it all may mean. Follow wherever that sentence leads you––to new and unexpected emotions and expressions. Write fast and loose and if you’re going good, keep on with it.

Take a break, then come back and highlight what is most compelling and memorable. You’ll always find something that is fresh, unanticipated.

Competent fiction will get you an appreciate nod. Big fiction will build you a loyal following. Fiction that’s good enough is ultimately forgotten. Big fiction stays with us long after the final page. Sometimes forever.

Go big.

Have thoughts on writing big, or tips to share? Up against a story you’re not sure is quite big enough and want to discuss? The floor is yours.

About James Scott Bell [5]

JAMES SCOTT BELL [2] writes thrillers and books on the craft of fiction. A winner of the International Thriller Writers Award, he previously served as fiction columnist for Writer's Digest magazine. He lives and writes in Los Angeles. Learn more about him on his website [2], and follow him on Twitter [6].