Plot Wizards #1: Dummies With Names

Plot Wizards #1: Dummies With Names

Posted by Lurton Blassingame on Oct 16th 2019

Author of stories in smooth paper, western, detective, and — if it must be known — confession magazines.

by Lurton Blassingame

[This article originally appeared in Writer's Digest, January 1935.]

WHO is the oldest man living today? A Turk recently won his way onto the front pages of all the papers because he claimed to be more than a hundred and fifty years old; but for me Ulysses sailing manfully across a wine-dark sea was much more alive. And Penelope, unraveling at night what she had knitted during the day, is more alive in my mind than the memory of my grandmother. For Homer came as near to being a God as a man can come; he created men and women in his great story, not puppet figures with names attached. And as a result, the story about them goes marching down the corridor of the years.

Ah, you say, but that's literature; I want to write for the commercial magazines. Tell me the plots they want.

Well, I know an editor who, after a writer kept trying to pin him down about the kind of plots he wanted, exploded: "Hell, man, I don't know, and I don't care as long as it won't offend too many readers and is convincing. What I want is a story about interesting persons. I want a yarn which will make the reader say to himself, when he's finished it, 'There was a man!' "

And there you have about the last word on—not characterization—but plotting. For if you can create real characters whom the magazine readers will admire, and put these characters in situations which make them reveal their strength and their weakness, then you have a plot.

I could talk about the characters in the stories of Dickens—and, I'm ashamed to admit, the plots of most of his stories have slipped my memory, though many of the characters are still fresh there — and the other masters, but let's take examples from the commercial magazines for which you wish to write. Could you tell me the plots of many of Octavus Roy Cohen's stories about Birmingham Negroes? I doubt it. But you would recognize Florien Slappey, even if you haven't been on 18th Street. And in any waterfront saloon you would recognize Glecannon and Montgomey if they came in. Yet neither Cohen nor Kilpatric make any pretense of writing literature. They write to sell; and they know that the way to do this is to give readers interesting characters, not dummies with names.

Last week I was to have dinner with the editor of a western magazine. He was still working when I reached his office and for nearly an hour he continued to wade through the pile of manuscripts on his desk. As he tossed stories aside for his secretary to return the next day, I killed time by glancing through them to see why they were going back. Some of them were rather well written; most of them had plenty of action; but in every story there was only the conventional fast-shooting hero, the despicable villain. In all the stories, the heroes could have been inter-changed without anyone, even the author, being able to tell the difference. Because each hero was like every other hero—a gun, a name and a pure purpose, and each villain only a name, a gun, some profanity and a bad purpose.

Yet I still remember a Western story written four years ago, and the next day I turned back to it to see why I remembered it. It wasn't for the plot; that was only the conventional range feud. When Rainey Quarles returned to renew the feud with Lin Merchant, the hero, he brought with him as ally, Brulon de Wets, Frenchman and adventurer. De Wets wasn't, you see, either hero or principal villain; but this scoundrel stole the story.

The amateur writer would have had this assistant villain try to shoot the hero in the back, and get killed for his trickery. The professional author had him meet the hero face to face, challenge him: "There is no man, on my soul, I am afraid of. When I hear of some fellow who is said to be a master of himself and others it intrigues me to know how soon I could whip him. In my experience, no man is as good as he thinks he is. Supposing we throw away the guns and satisfy this curiosity of mine."

In the furious fight with Merchant which followed, de Wets was beaten. Instead of skulking off, he acknowledged defeat: "Now why should I say I can whip you when the thing was impossible. My sacred aunt, what a beating I have absorbed to prove an academic question."

De Wets—thorough scoundrel that he was —deserted his former chieftain and threw in with the hero whose life he saved in the climatic gunfight. Then when adulations were about to be heaped upon him, he quietly stole away, musing, "There are limits to all scoundrels, of a truth—so I rose to the proper thing ... By gosh, what a man I am!" And with this audacious self-praise deWets rode out of the story—but the author has ridden on into ever increasing popularity. Even if you never read pulp magazines, you probably know the name of Ernest Haycox, for it was inevitable that anyone who created such interesting characters should go on to bigger audiences.

Nor is Haycox an exception. Most of the pulp writers who thought about character as well as plot when they wrote stories have met the reward of superior work. Years ago, Erle Stanley Gardner created for Black Mask the character of Ed Jenkins, a real individual who could not be confused with other detective heroes. Today Gardner is selling to Liberty and his serials are being made into movies. Fred Nebel created a man and not a puppet in Hard Dick Donahue; he created other good characters for 's pulp stories; and today he sells to Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, etc. Fred Painton's characters are always more than names, and as a result the big magazines have grabbed a number of Painton's stories. McKinlay Kantor used to make his heroes convincing and interestingly individual for Detective Fiction; he has a story in the current Redbook as I write this and his novel, Long Remember, is on the best seller list. But the writers who think no more about their characters than that they are heroes and villains are—if they have good plots and write well—in the magazines this month and out the next without ever being missed and without getting more than minimum rates.

Let's see now how successful writers go about this business of creating interesting characters. Here, for example, is the opening of a story by Irvin Monroe in Collier's:

"The key turned around in the lock all right, but the door wouldn't open. I went back down to the lobby, and the little fat clerk was at the desk. I told him that there was something wrong with the lock on the door of my room, and it wouldn't open. He fussed around for a bit, then he said: 'I'm sorry, Mr. Hollster, but unless you can give us something on account, I'm afraid I can't open it for you. Rules of the house, you know, the management's very strict with us.'

"I said that I quite understood, and went out. He seemed very much embarrassed about it all.

"Outside it was hot and dusty, and there was that curious taste in the air of a storm on its way. I counted what I had in my pocket. About a buck and a half. If I bought two drinks in Tony's he'd give me one on the house. After all, it didn't make much difference whether I started sleeping in the park tonight or later. I went in Tony's."

Here is the way a beginner would have written this opening:

"Dick Hollister was a handsome young man of about twenty-eight summers. He came of a good family and had a good education. For several years he had been an important newspaper man, but he fell under the curse of drink in New York City and once, when under the evil influence of liquor, he missed a very important assignment given him by the city editor of the paper for which he worked. As a result, he was fired from his job. He had been living at a middle-class hotel where he was greatly respected, and though he knew he should move to cheaper quarters and conserve his money, he had a streak of pride in him. He just couldn't believe that he, Richard Hollister, couldn't get a job. But slowly his money vanished, and he reached the point where he either had to go hungry or fail to pay his bill at the hotel."

Instead, see what the professional author does. He doesn't stand in front of his character and talk about him; instead, he shows the character finding his room locked, shows us the servile attitude of the desk clerk; reveals by Hollister's devil-may-care attitude that he takes life as it comes and doesn't go around mooning about hard luck.

The professional author knows that the reader doesn't care two toots on a Christmas horn what the author has to say about the character, that the reader is interested in seeing that character for himself and discovering, by watching the character, what he will do when facing a crisis—minor or major—in his life.

Let's turn now to one of the women's magazines. Conrad Richter, who used to write for Blue Book, has a story in the December Ladies' Home Journal which he calls "Frontier Woman." The first two paragraphs let us know that Mrs. Porterfield and her daughter are leaving their Georgia plantation immediately after the war between the states and that they will never return to it. Then:

"The plum-colored cushions of the waiting carriage glowed in the morning sun like wine, but Lalla saw only that the watching field Negroes, now that they were free and good as white folks, had spurned to come from their unburned cabins to give their mistresses good-by.

"Cornelia Porterfield and Lalla halted to face the distant blacks. A steady look, almost bleak, passed between mother and daughter. Quietly then they started on foot toward the row of cabins.

"They moved with slow composure under the live oaks, a tall, delicately molded lady with fragile hands and a porcelain-china face, resting on the arm of a girl with the spirited mouth and eyes of the Porterfields, both in striped homespun; their hoop skirts brushing the low weeds; their hats, slatted sunbonnets; their cloth shoes fastened with buttons cut from gourds and covered with the same material as their dresses.

"The field blacks saw them coming and retreated indoors. Mother and daughter followed, shaking them by the hand and wishing them well with their new employer at wages."

How would you have handled this scene? I know some who would have written it like this:

"Mrs. Porterfield and her daughter had to leave the big southern plantation which had been their home and the home of their family for generations. But before they left, they had a duty to perform. They were bred as southern ladies, which meant that they always did their duty as they saw it.

"It was a hard task, to tell the Negroes who had belonged to them goodbye. The Negroes made this even harder by shrinking away from their former masters. This hurt Mrs. Porterfield and her daughter to the quick of their beings, but such pain could not deflect them from their purpose. Even though the Negroes would not come to tell them goodbye, they went proudly to the cabins and shook hands with them one by one and wished them good luck. For Mrs. Porterfield and her daughter did not blame the Negroes. They knew that they were self-conscious about their newly gained freedom and did not know how to act now with the family who had owned them, body and soul, such a short time before."

Do you see the difference?

The professional author gives us the scene as vividly as though we were there seeing it: the waiting carriage, the blacks moving into their cabins, the hurt this causes the women, their gallant carrying on. The difference between the professional and the amateur handling is the difference between seeing a play or cinema and having someone tell you about it. In the former the scene is alive because you see it, the characters are real and vital because you witness them doing things in time of stress; in the latter you are as if blind and must get your impressions at second hand.

I should like to quote more of Richter's story to you, for though the plot is simple to the extreme, the character work—which made the story sell—is excellently done. But space is pressing and we haven't yet touched on a character in love, though romance is one of the most prolific fields for the writer. Let's turn, then, to Sarah-Elizabeth Rodger's story in December McCall's.

In the climax of "Four Snapshots of Allison," Kent is returning to his wife to tell her that he has lost all his money and that, since he can no longer give her wealth, he will give her freedom, so that she can marry a man who can give her what she deserves. Let's pick him up after he reaches his home:

"He passed through his own room, and paused a long moment in the cool, dark corridor leading into the pale fragility of Allison's boudoir. Looking from semi-dark into all that whiteness was blinding to the eyes, and it did sudden, exquisite things to the senses.

"He stared and stared—as a condemned man looks into sunlight for the last time—at the color and substance of this oblong that was the setting into which he had put Allison three months after they were married. He remembered the latticed white screen standing like a background behind the chaise lounge. It was still there, but he felt alien to it. There was the white fur rug, brushed and combed by Allison's maid every week in front of the dressing table; there was the great round, frameless mirror above—the indirect white alabaster lights, the camellias in their low white bowl . . .

"She lay against the white taffeta pillows of her chaise lounge. On a low chromium coffee table at her side were tall glasses—ice tea for two with sprigs of mint in it—and a plate of the little chocolate cakes that Kent had an undistinguished taste for. It was like her, he thought to make the gracious gesture, play hostess charmingly to the end . . .

"She wore one of the traily tea gowns. This time it was white mousseline and there were white violets pinned at the waist. Little curls showed over the top of her head like a coronet. There was utter calm and tranquility on her face.

"'Let me remember her like this,' he thought incoherently, 'in white—in this room—till I die. If she's ever less lovely—or unhappy—if there are ever little mean lines around her mouth—her beautiful gay mouth—if she's ever old—let me not know.' He fought down the tightness in his throat and blinked on the sudden stinging of his eyelids. Then, filing Allison's face, with its pale serenity, away in the secret places of his heart, he went to the room for tea."

Is there any need to see how an amateur would mistreat this scene? Can't you see him telling us that Kent was in love with his wife, telling us that the man suffered because he knew he was going to lose her, describing the room—if he did it at all—from his own point of view? Miss Rodger, on the other hand, let's the man feel, and so we feel with him. She doesn't describe the room; she let's Kent see it because she knows this reveals his love for Allison in his desire to hold her in his mind in this particular setting. The whole point of the description would be lost if the author gave it.

Kent isn't just any man; he is an individual whom we admire. And consequently, we get a real thrill, a sense of uplift, when at the end he finds that his wife loves him, not the money he once possessed.

What the writer forgets, all too frequently, in his scientific approach to writing is that science tells us that no two persons are identical. We not only look differently, but we react differently to the same things. We have our own individual walk, our particular gestures and expressions. We have particular inflections to our voice and we don't talk alike. Yet that same writer will work out his plot, then have all his characters talk and act in the same way, except that the hero will be a little too noble to be convincing, scientifically or otherwise, and the villain will be without any saving graces whatsoever.

PLOT is important—yes. But it is only the vehicle by which you give your characters an opportunity to reveal themselves. The detective magazines want characters engaged in the commission and suppression of crime; the westerns want characters engaged in fighting over range land, water rights, etc.; the women's magazines want characters engaged in getting mates, building and keeping homes. The things the characters do—your plot—should be interesting, but these characters whom you put through their paces must be convincing human beings, persons we can know and admire and hate.

Here are a few tips I've found valuable in creating characters who have enough individuality to get by the editors.

When my plot comes first (frequently the plot grows naturally out of some interesting character) I write nothing until I have thought about all the characters in the story. I try to discover the educational and social background of each character, for this will influence his manner of acting and his speech. I decide what each one wants to get out of life and whether he or she is aggressive or supine, and to what degree. I want to know which have a sense of humor and whether this manifests itself in wise-cracks or ironic comment. I want to know which are intelligent and of those who are, I want to know whether this flashes quickly or whether the character turns a thought over in his mind, examining both sides of it before risking comment. And, of course, I want to know the physical characteristics of each, not only how they look but their peculiarities of gesture down to the number of times they tap a cigarette before using it and the degree to which their eyebrows express surprise and interrogation.

There are other things I want to know about each character, but this outline will give you an idea. Much of it may never enter the story, but if I know the characters, I can see them in the different scenes and know, to a certain extent, what each would do in that situation. They are not just dummies with names.

Then, knowing my characters, I try when writing to keep myself out of the story. Instead of telling about the action, I try to keep to the character from whose viewpoint the scene is being told. What he thinks, sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes—these I give as he experiences them.

The invention is not my own. It is borrowed from Homer to Huysman and Hardy, from the popular writers of today in this country and England. It has worked very well for them, and is still proving effective. Try it. I believe you'll find it will help you.

— from Writer's Digest, January 1935