Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Write Descriptions like Raymond Chandler

Lately I have been reading Raymond Chandler again, specifically Farewell, My Lovely. For those who are not familiar with Mr. Chandler and his work, he writes what is called the “hard-boiled” detective stories. In fact, Raymond Chandler and his colleague Dashiell Hammett, pretty much invented the genre. Hammett had Sam Spade, of The Maltese Falcon fame, and Chandler had Philip Marlowe. Both are cynical, world-weary detectives without a tract of romanticism between the two of them.

But even if you don’t particularly like the hard-boiled detective genre, Raymond Chandler is still worth reading, just because he is so good at what he does. He’s a very good writer who is often overlooked by those who don’t consider him a “serious” writer.

Why do I consider Chandler so good? Because of the prose he produced. Yes, it might have been pulp fiction and is still considered (by those who spend way too much time sorting novels into particular boxes) “genre” fiction. And yes it is genre fiction, but it is very good genre fiction. There are a couple of reasons for this.

His description is uniquely interesting.

Part of the tradition in hard-boiled detective fiction is that the narrative is told in the first person, ostensibly by the detective. In Raymond Chandler’s case, Philip Marlowe. Part of that narrative is to portray the detective as jaded, cynical, and world weary, reflecting the detective’s low expectations of the world around him. Chandler does this better than anyone else and does it with nearly every single word he puts on the page.

Consider his description of a showgirl:

From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away. (The High Window)

Or a building:

The Belfont Building was eight stories of nothing in particular… (The High Window)

The very descriptions give the impression of a narrator who is more than a bit of a smart ass and not impressed by much anymore.

Another building, this time a mansion:

The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building. (Farewell, My Lovely)

As a person who enjoys sarcasm myself, this is someone I would enjoy spending some time with. Chandler uses sarcasm to great effect, as well as understatement, and exaggeration. Each working double duty, telling us what is going on as well as Marlowe’s attitude towards what is going on.

Perhaps Chandler’s greatest gift though, is in the use of similes. They are unique, surprising, and yet perfectly in character. When describing the aftereffects of being knocked out:

My stomach took a whirl. I clamped my teeth tight and just managed to keep it down my throat. Cold sweat stood out in lumps on my forehead, but I shivered just the same. I got up on one foot, then on both feet, straightened up, wobbling a little. I felt like an amputated leg. (Farewell, My Lovely) (the bold is my own)

The passage not only conveys what is happening, it conveys the narrator’s attitude toward what is happening with a wonderful economy of language. The narrator reports what is happening in a unique voice, then comments on it in a way that intensifies the characterization.

And he does this throughout the novel, with impressive consistency.

A man in a striped vest and gilt buttons opened the door, bowed, took my hat and was through for the day. (Farewell, My Lovely)

There was a cornflower in the lapel of his white coat and his pale blue eyes looked faded out by comparison…he had the general appearance of a lad who would wear a white flannel suit with a violet scarf around his neck and a cornflower in his lapel. (Farewell, My Lovely)

And this is all fine and dandy for those who are writing hard-boiled detective fiction, where the narrator or main character is supposed to be cynical, expecting the worst from humanity because that’s usually what he sees. But I’m writing a romance, or a historical family drama; how does this help me?

Because every scene you write, is written from someone’s point of view. It is narrated in someone’s voice, usually the voice of the main character. Having that voice obviously change as the point of view changes goes a great way toward showing your reader the character.

A room described by a Marine Corps Gunnery Sargent is going to be different than that same room as described by a twenty-year-old kindergarten teacher and animal rights activist. They will each notice different things. Their vocabularies will be different. The aggression (or lack thereof) will be different. It’s an extreme example, but the principle is there. Use your description to help create the character’s voice.

Reading Raymond Chandler’s novel is one way to see just how a master does that and does it well.

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