Saturday, January 30, 2010

How to write a shocker

I have been occupied of late with the arrangements for purchasing a townhouse and my literary interests have languished. Writing has been pushed aside and my reading has been restricted to breezy adventure novels.

Last night I finished reading John Buchan's 1924 thriller (or "shocker", to use Buchan's description) called The Three Hostages. This is the final book of the Richard Hannay series, which includes The 39 Steps, Greenmantle, and Mr. Standfast.

At the beginning of The Three Hostages, Buchan shows us Richard Hannay, now Sir Richard, as a retired general living as a country squire with his wife Mary and young son Peter John. Hannay is visited by his friend and family doctor, Tom Greenslade. During their conversation, Greenslade summarizes Buchan's method to writing shockers.

/-----
It was a cold night and very pleasant by the fireside, where some scented logs from an old pear-tree were burning. The doctor picked up a detective novel I had been reading, and glanced at the title page.

"I can read most things," he said, "but it beats me how you waste time over such stuff. These shockers are too easy, Dick. You could invent better ones for yourself."

"Not I. I call that a dashed ingenious yarn. I can't think how the fellow does it."

"Quite simple. The author writes the story inductively, and the reader follows it deductively. Do you see what I mean?"

"Not a bit," I replied.

"Look here. I want to write a shocker, so I begin by fixing on one or two facts which have no sort of obvious connection."

"For example?"

"Well, imagine anything you like. Let us take three things a long way apart" -- he paused for a second to consider -- "say, an old blind woman spinning in the Western Highlands, a barn in a Norwegian saeter, and a little curiosity shop in North London kept by a Jew with a dyed beard. Not much connection between the three? You invent a connection -- simple enough if you have any imagination, and you weave all three into a yarn. The reader, who knows nothing about the three at the start, is puzzled and intrigued and, if the story is well arranged, finally satisfied. He is pleased with the ingenuity of the solution, for he doesn't realise that the author fixed upon the solution first, and then invented a problem to suit it.

"I see," I said. "You've gone and taken the gilt off my favorite light reading. I won't be able any more to marvel at the writer's cleverness."

"I've another objection to the stuff -- it's not ingenious enough, or rather it doesn't take account of the infernal complexity of life. It might have been all right twenty years ago, when most people argued and behaved fairly logically. But they don't nowadays. Have you ever realised, Dick, the amount of stark craziness that the War has left in the world?"

Mary, who was sitting sewing under a lamp, raised her head and laughed.

Greenslade's face had become serious. "I can speak about it frankly here, for you two are almost the only completely sane people I know. Well, as a pathologist, I'm fairly staggered. I hardly meet a soul who hasn't got some slight kink in his brain as a consequence of the last seven years. With most people it's rather a pleasant kink -- they're less settled in their grooves, and they see the comic side of things quicker, and are readier for adventure. But with some it's pukka madness, and that means crime. Now, how are you going to write detective stories about that kind of world on the old lines? You can take nothing for granted, as you once could, and your argus-eyed, lightning-brained expert has nothing solid with which to build his foundations."

I observed that the poor old War seemed to be getting blamed for a good deal that I was taught in my childhood was due to original sin.

"Oh, I'm not questioning your Calvinism. Original sin is always there, but the meaning of civilisation was that we had got it battened down under hatches, whereas now it's getting its head up. But it isn't only sin. It's a dislocation of the mechanism of human reasoning, a general loosening of the screws."

[...]

Greenslade: "The barriers between the conscious and the subconscious have always been pretty stiff in the average man. But now with the general loosening of screws they are growing shaky and the two worlds are getting mixed. It is like two separate tanks of fluid, where the containing wall has worn into holes, and one is percolating into the other. The result is confusion, and, if the fluids are of a certain character, explosions. That is why I say that you can't any longer take the clear psychology of most civilised human beings for granted. Something is welling up from primeval deeps to muddy it."

"I don't object to that," I said. "We've overdone civilisation, and personally I'm all for a little barbarism. I want a simpler world."

"Then you won't get it," said Greenslade. He had become very serious now, and was looking towards Mary as he talked. "The civilised is far simpler that the primeval. All history has been an effort to make definitions, clear rules of thought, clear rules of conduct, solid sanctions, by which we can conduct our life. These are the work of the conscious self. The subconscious is an elementary and lawless thing. If it intrudes on life, two results must follow. There will be a weakening of the power of reasoning, which after all is the thing that brings men nearest to the Almighty. And there will be a failure of nerve."
-----/

A generation later, Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, and Ian Fleming adapted this writing method for their own ends as they wrote their shockers about mid-20th century barbarism and the decadence that has infiltrated the West since The Great War.


[Wikipedia Note: Pukka is a loan word borrowed in English during the British Raj from the Hindi language and is of Sanskrit origin. An adjective (esp in India) meaning:
1) Genuine; authentic.
2) Superior; first-class; firm; properly or perfectly done, firmly constructed

Therefore, the pukka madness that Greenslade spoke of means a most deep-seated madness.]

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