Free Advice from James Lincoln Warren

On this site posts seldom involve explicit advice to writers, but James Lincoln Warren wrote an engaging piece for Criminal Brief, a blog site he founded, several years ago that we thought readers as well as writers would enjoy. He has updated and revised the column for us. Unfortunately, Criminal Brief, a site devoted to short stories, has closed, but some of its contributors are now posting regularly on SleuthSayers. James Lincoln Warren is one of those rare writers (much valued by the Dell fiction magazines) who specialize in the short story. He is a winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, given jointly by AHMM and the Wolfe Pack (a society devoted to all things related to the immortal Rex Stout character Nero Wolfe). —Janet Hutchings

Here, completely free, is some advice for aspiring short story writers of crime fiction. These are all little things, but then again, a fatal bullet is a little thing, too. Yeah, I know that free advice is worth exactly what one pays for it, especially as I will not pay you for following my advice, unlike an actual editor who may send you a check for following her advice. So I appeal to you in my capacity as a devoted reader rather than as a professional writer, by letting you know what makes my eyes roll. (And who wants a reader’s eyes ever leave the page?)

Don’t let your research show.

Sometimes the most fun I have in writing a story is doing research for it. I’ll always find much more than I need, and being of a somewhat curious nature, by which I mean inquisitive rather than eccentric, although the latter sense is pretty accurate, too—anyway, being of a somewhat curious nature, I am frequently deeply fascinated by what I find, and feel the strong temptation to share all my new-found and riveting knowledge. But I restrain myself. Usually.

It’s a cardinal rule of writing short stories that only those things essential to the tale should be told. What makes this particularly true of research is that research is like a brassiere. Its purpose is to give support to the story, but you don’t want the straps showing. When it’s really standing up on the job, it’s invisible. Otherwise, it’s distracting as hell.

Gratuitous sex and violence are, well, gratuitous.

I’m not saying that a story should never have any sex or violence in it, but I promise you that explicit violence in a story won’t affect you as strongly as real violence will, and explicit sex in a story is never as much fun as the real thing, although the author is very likely to lie about how it is. But a good short story doesn’t have room for anything gratuitous.

What’s interesting about visceral experiences in story-telling isn’t the effect on the reader, but rather the effect on the characters, since it’s the characters that actually affect the reader. Gratuitous sex and violence do not develop character.

Bloated exposition and description are also gratuitous, although they’re less controversial because they’re dull, which is rarely the case with sex and violence. But when something is present only to titillate, we usually call that pornography.

If you use a thesaurus to find a synonym, look up the synonym in the dictionary before you use it.

The sad truth is that synonyms are rarely 100% interchangeable. I once read a story where the author used the word consanguinity in lieu of relationship to describe the confluence of a number of factors in determining an outcome. This is a misusage.

Consanguinity is a type of relationship, but in its literal sense it means a relationship by blood. Metaphorically, it means a relationship by way of descent from a common origin, the relationship between things that share similar characteristics, rather than the relationship between things that interact. You and your cousin may be friends, but being cousins and being friends are two different kinds of relationship—only the former is consanguineal. The author could have used marriage to describe different factors working together, and gotten away with it, but in the context used, consanguinity made no sense.

Not only is it not necessary to have a twist ending, usually it’s a bad idea.

A story should stand on its own merits. The most frequent problem with twist endings is that the vast majority of the time, the reader can see it coming. He will be thinking, “Surely the ending won’t be that obvious, will it?” and then be irritated that he wasted his time slogging through the whole story to get there when it is.

Unless you are Jeffery Deaver, O. Henry, or a few others I can think of, you should not attempt this at home without professional supervision. Most really good short stories don’t have surprise endings. Name me one Sherlock Holmes story that does.

Stories about the commission of a crime, instead of how it is solved, are rarely as interesting as you think they are.

It’s a lot easier to commit a crime than to solve one. By extension, it’s a lot easier to write about committing a crime than solving one. Taking the easy way out usually shows. I make an exception for capers, which are engaging because the crime must be so fiendishly clever. Yes, admittedly there are lots of great straight crime stories out there, especially if you are James M. Cain or Lawrence Block, but those guys happen to be James M. Cain and Lawrence Block.

I particularly dislike most revenge stories—revenge as a motive is often obsessively monotonous. Every good revenge story I can think of actually hangs its hat on some other quality of the story than its protagonist’s motive.

And last but not least . . .

Don’t ever begin your story with, “It was a dark and stormy night …”

It is not clever, even if it’s supposed to be funny. It is categorically impossible to write a good story that begins with that phrase unless you are Snoopy, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, or Madeleine L’Engle.

Clichés at any time are bad, but to use one to introduce yourself to your reader is like having eye-watering B.O. when you meet someone for your first date. No matter how charming, witty, brilliant, and beautiful you are the rest of the evening, there is nothing that can rescue you from that devastating first impression.

Look, I don’t care if your story actually begins with a dark and stormy night or not, Elmore Leonard’s famous dictum to never begin a story with the weather notwithstanding, but if it does, make your point some other way. Write “Lightning flashed, limning the horizon against the black sky,” if you want. Or maybe “Rain pelted the roof, and looked like it would keep coming until morning.” Anything but those Deadly Seven Words. Please.

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6 Responses to Free Advice from James Lincoln Warren

  1. Doug Greene says:

    Ah, so that’s why Jim Warren’s short stories are so good. . . .

    • Thanks, Doug . . . remeber when we first met at Malice Domestic? We were both at the Alfred Hitchcock Table, and S.J. Rozan, who a couple nights before had won the Edagr for Best Short Story, was sitting between us. As soon as we discovered that we had similar passions, we talked through her, at which she shook her head an muttered, “Short story people.”

  2. Jon L. Breen says:

    All good advice. How about starting a story this way?: “Had I but known it was a dark and stormy night, I would have worn my raincoat and left the sunglasses at home.”

  3. Toe Hallock says:

    Mr. Warren: Thank you for your very helpful “Free Advice.” From where I’m sitting, it’s “Priceless.” Yours truly, Toe.

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