Entries in scott bury (1)
Scott Bury is my Canadian alter-ego. My brother from another mother. A journalist, author (of Bones of Earth) and communications pro who owns The Written Word, Scott has a terrific take on what 'Write for the Jugular' means and a direct, no-nonsense style that I love to read.
So we've decided to Wonder-Twins up and guest blog for each other this week. Check out Scott's thoughts on the jugular, below, and make sure to leave him some feedback (here or at his site).
And be sure to read my guest post on his site, www,WrittenWord.ca, by clicking right here.
What I mean by writing for the jugular
When I read Scott Morgan’s subtitle, “Write for the jugular,” I thought “YES.”
Then I thought “Why couldn’t I have come up with that phrase? Augh!”
It epitomizes my ideal for writing. Great writing, fiction or not, reaches an audience the way a big cat reaches for its prey: no compromise, maximum effect.
To me, writing for the jugular means telling the story. Great writing is active; it moves ahead, pulling the audience helplessly with it.
Action doesn’t mean just violence, car chases and explosions; the story can and should also move ahead emotionally, spiritually and mentally. The focus has to be on things that happen, whether they’re events, motions, words or thoughts. Some people call this “show, don’t tell.” Show, describe what characters feel, say and do.
Ditch the back story
One of the worst mistakes that many new writers make is putting in too much back story. I love the depth of the invented history JRR Tolkien put into The Lord of the Rings, but I understand how it daunts a lot of readers. It’s also the reason the book is three volumes long.
Few writers can get away with this. Write the back story for your own benefit as a writer, but put it in a binder somewhere. Audiences don’t read for your benefit as the writer—they read for their own needs as readers.
Focus on driving the story forward, and fill in the back story only when necessary. Fitzgerald’s early short stories are great examples of this. We don’t know the back story of the Jellybean or why he’s in a particular situation; we just know he’s a jellybean and out of place at a country club party.
How much back story does James Bond have? Almost none. This makes him very mysterious—that’s part of his appeal.
If your audience needs to understand how your character got to a point in the story, put a SHORT flashback at the point where you need it. Not before – I would rather read it when I need to know it, not have to remember details 100 pages later.
Remove excess detail
This is something that I had to learn the hard way. Dashiel Hammet briefly described Sam Spade’s face as a series of Vs, so that he looked like a pleasant blond Satan. The only description of Phil Marlowe that Chandler gives us in — how many? — novels and short stories is that he’s tall and weighs about 190 pounds, and once or twice, women call him handsome. That’s it.
That too old-school for you? Okay, one of my favourite new writers is Rob Guthrie, author of the Clan MacAulay series. Other than having a prosthetic leg, I don’t know what the main character, Bobby Mac, looks like. I don’t know if he has a beard or is totally bald. The story mentions that he’s Scottish; this fact grounds some of the character’s personality and factors into the mystery and back story. But that’s it.
And the back story? There are a couple of flashbacks and a brief description of a long-fought feud, but it’s very brief.
Every writer should have his or her own style. If you like description, go for it. I describe my characters and settings in some detail because the setting is a time very different from our own.
Readers can feel bogged down by long explanations of family or political history. Don’t try to impress readers with your gift for language. Get on with the story. Include descriptions and details only when they’re necessary to getting the point across. What does it matter if there’s an ashtray in the Director’s office? Mention it only if one character hits another with it.
I am always impressed by a book or a movie where the climax depends on some detail that seemed unimportant when it was first introduced. For example, look at the best-seller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It begins with a problem that lands the hero in jail (goes for the jugular). A small detail near the beginning of the story becomes the point that explains how a famous investigative journalist was tricked, and also ties up one of the major loose ends of the novel.
I use this technique in my own novel, The Bones of the Earth. See if you can spot it.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not a great book, but I think one of the reasons it has been as successful as it has is that the story goes for the jugular. Readers don’t care about the nuances of voice or vocabulary that commercial publishers and agents do. Readers want a story that grabs them and pulls them along.
To me, writing for the jugular means telling the story. Bring out your characters’ inner demons through their actions.