“What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers.” That’s a quote from Logan Pearsall Smith, known as an expert in correct usage of the English language. I think he’s referring to the subtext flying under the radar of dramatic scenes as distinguished from the straightforward exposition. William Jovanovich, the longtime head of publisher Harcourt, Brace & World said, “Some words are like the old Roman galleys; large-scaled and ponderous. They sit low in the water even when their cargo is light.”
Don’t you wish you could say things like that? As a mystery writer, I know better than to put that kind of stuff on my pages and I hope to avoid the ponderous word. A witty remark and a story are two different things. Speaking and writing, not the same at all. They say, in Ireland a writer is regarded as a failed conversationalist.
I love to read advice from famous writers. (How do we know who really said what? The internet is full of misattributions, so I usually try to find a couple of sources. The quotes above come from The Harper Book of Quotations, third edition. Try www.quoteinvestigator.com or www.brainyquote.com )
Arthur Conan Doyle said about mystery, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” The counter-argument from Raymond Chandler is, “At least half the mystery novels published violate the law that the solution, once revealed, must seem to be inevitable.”
As a reader, I’d say Chandler’s approach is more satisfying. If the climax makes the reader think, “of course that’s right” and the story makes the reader ponder for the next day or so, that’s a good book. We don’t really like to be left with an improbable truth, do we?
On murder, the famed trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow said, “I have never killed anyone, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.” That was a quote from his own memoir, but it’s been misattributed to Mark Twain. Twain, on the other hand, did say, “I didn’t attend the funeral but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”
We writers are endlessly focused, not only on the story and the meaning, but on the words the great writers use to express their wonderful ideas. A Turkish proverb says, “If you can teach me a new word, I’ll walk all the way to China to get it.” It’s a judgment call. In fiction, we don’t want to make the reader stop to look up a word. At least, not often.
One source that a fiction writer can pilfer is dialogue overheard and reported. Montaigne said, “The word is half his that speaks, and half his that hears it.” That truth makes for subtlety and innuendo when the author can whisper a subtext in a dialogue scene. From my file of random words, with apologies to the anonymous internet author, consider the following for potential for a dramatic scene:
A Man’s Dictionary for Home Use
1. Fine: This is the word women use when it’s time to end the argument and they are right and the man should shut up.
2. Five minutes: This means half an hour if she’s getting dressed. If she’s given the man five minutes to watch the game before he should come and help her, it means “five minutes.”
3. Nothing: This word signifies the calm before the storm. It means something and the man should be on his toes. Arguments that begin with “nothing” usually end with “fine.”
4. Go Ahead: This is a dare. Not permission. Don’t Do It!
5. Loud Sigh: This is not actually a word, but a non-verbal statement, often misunderstood. It means she thinks you are an idiot and wonders why she is wasting her time standing here and arguing with you about “nothing.” Refer to #3.
6. That’s Okay: This is one of the most dangerous statements a woman can make. It means she wants to think long and hard before deciding how and when you will pay for your mistakes.
7. Whatever: This is a woman’s way of saying “F—K YOU!”
8. Don’t worry about it. I got it: Another dangerous statement, meaning she’s told you this several times and is now doing it herself. This will later result in the man asking, “What’s wrong?” leading to #3 and #1.
Thanks to the anonymous author.