“Wrestling with the ‘S’ Word” (by Jim Allyn)

In mystery circles, and especially EQMM circles, you can’t say the name Allyn without everyone assuming you mean Doug Allyn, the multiple Edgar Allan Poe Award winner and record-holding EQMM Readers Award winner who for nearly thirty years has stood at the pinnacle of accomplishment in the field of short fiction. But Doug has an extraordinarily talented younger brother, Jim, who has contributed half a dozen stories to EQMM over the past decade. Jim’s high-powered career in marketing never left him much time for fiction, but he has recently transitioned to writing full time, and he’s currently at work on a novel. His November 2013 EQMM story, “Princess Anne,” will appear in the next volume of Best American Mystery Stories (October 2014), and his upcoming story for us, “Fall of a Fantasy,” is slated for the Black Mask department of our February 2015 issue. Readers who are not yet familiar with Jim’s work won’t want to miss those opportunities to discover him, and here’s a tip for any book editors reading this: The novel Jim is working on is an expansion of the hard-hitting, emotionally charged “Fall of a Fantasy.” My guess is, it’s going to be good.—Janet Hutchings

When I first started submitting crime fiction I was told that my stories were too sentimental. I was told that if I toughened them up, they would be marketable. I did, and they were. I’ve paid close attention to the “S” word ever since. If it’s handled well, it’s a dance. Lovely to watch. Satisfying and moving. If done wrong, it’s amateurish—awkward, potentially comical, and embarrassing.

Robert Frost wrote, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.”

Think that’s true for mysteries and crime fiction generally, so much weight on the emotional content? Think it’s true for those who work in the hardboiled and noir genres where emotional distance is the standard and a lump in the tough detective’s throat has to be a sandwich? Or are a unique plot, a unique character, an angle, a twist the first orders of business, with the emotional base being pretty thin?

What Frost wrote about emotional inspiration is true for me most of the time. My “ideas” for stories are less ideas than emotional situations. I typically grow my stories from one or two emotionally charged scenes. If the story doesn’t have emotional roots, not only do I not want to do it, I can’t do it. Just can’t get into it. More often than not, then, I’m dealing with the “S” word from the get-go.

For my purposes, “sentimentality” refers to emotional responses inappropriate to a particular situation—too bland, too hysterical, too whatever for that character. Because some characters are genetically bland or genetically hysterical or genetically too whatever, it’s okay if they go over the top according to their particular trait. In general, though, the description “sentimental tale” is not a good one. Oscar Wilde once said that no one could read about the death of Little Nell in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop without dissolving into tears . . . of laughter. That’s the big threat. That you’ll unintentionally turn something touching into something ludicrous.

In a 2013 New Yorker article entitled “Home Movies,” Margaret Talbot writes about her interview with Alexander Payne, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay for The Descendants, a film packed with emotions of every stripe. Talbot quotes Payne as saying, “I’m deathly afraid of being too sentimental.” Payne then cites a letter from Chekhov in which he says about another’s writing, “It’s too damn sentimental. If you want emotional effects, you have to place them against a cold background, so they stand out in relief.”

Good advice. Deciding whether a story has too much heart or too little is not easy. Clearly it’s a balancing act. Mining powerful emotions is key to powerful, memorable writing. Fortunately, my favorite part of writing involves wrestling with emotionally charged scenes and themes. I have a suggestion in this regard: Don’t worry about it until you have to, and that’s very late in the game, perhaps even the final edit. Sometimes emotion is the engine. Let it drive the story. Plot elements will rise up. Note them, but stay with the emotional push.

I very deliberately don’t guard against sentimentality when writing a first draft. No barriers, no fences, let it all hang out. Writers know better than most that from day one we all live in an idiopathic cloud of emotion. We breathe it in. We breathe it out. It goes where we go. It rules our dreams. So if there’s an emotional hue for the story, I try to let it come out naturally. If it’s sloppy syrup, I don’t care. It’s easier to edit and synthesize from sloppy syrup than it is to edit and synthesize from a blank page and amidst the debris you may have written something fine. After all, it’s your eyes only until you decide otherwise, so why blush?

When I get serious about editing, it’s time to be hard. Time to look for ways to be mean, to be cold. Excessiveness is the big risk, just plain laying it on too thick. Overcook and here come the belly laughs. After all, “hardboiled” is a genre. “Soft-boiled” isn’t. For me, it’s easy to be hard. But that doesn’t mean it’s always the best way to go. Am I after “bittersweet” or just “bitter?” To warm things up I lean toward an occasional poetic indulgence, toward a certain imagined beauty. It’s not really definable but often I develop a feel for what it is I’m after and can find it inside the pages of my raw sentimental tripe. A couple of lines salvaged from a whole page of copy is not unusual and those lines may be critical. I’m constantly amazed by how carving out copy helps a story. This is harder than it sounds because I tend to exaggerate the value of the pages I’ve filled. Literary gold, of course. “Less is more” works better for actors, but it also works for writers. Talking about a script she didn’t like, the actress Joan Allen said, “You can read it, but you can’t say it.” I read questionable copy aloud. Not only does it help the flow, overly sentimental copy will stick in my throat. It will make me cringe or make me laugh. If I can’t say it comfortably, I go back to work.

Unless I’m fortunate and can write the story quickly, which rarely happens, the emotional connection and current is difficult to maintain, especially if emotion was the starting point. When things flatten out with a story, I use music and movies to get the juices flowing again. With music, it’s very much a relaxing, meditative process. There’s always a group of tunes that seem to fit the action and the mood I’m after. This only works for the dramatic scenes. Doesn’t work for most of the story, which is just sweat and discipline. I just lay back and listen to the music, letting scenes play out in my imagination, often with new variations that I’ll jot down for review and possible use. It seems lazy but it’s actually work and it actually does work. Writing is hard. This is the fun part. Letting your imagination soar with a purpose and hopefully a meaningful result. Whether planned or spontaneous, my creative breaks from the PC always yield something.

An especially challenging factor in emotional scenes is that nothing much may be going on except talking heads. No action. That puts a premium on the writing of dialogue and describing small actions, such as facial expressions or body movements. Exemplifying this situation is a lovely bittersweet scene I like very much in the 1986 film Nothing in Common. Lasting just over a minute, the scene contains little action—just music and the expressions on the faces of the four actors. They’re obviously talking, but the dialogue is on mute. A sweaty, fit couple—Bess Armstrong and Mark von Holstein—are pushing their bicycles past a table at a busy outdoor restaurant. Sitting at the table is Armstrong’s high-flying old flame played by Tom Hanks. Armstrong spots Hanks and tries to hurry by, but he sees her and calls her back. Sitting with Hanks is his new, hot, very chic current girlfriend played by Sela Ward. Von Holstein is Armstrong’s current boyfriend—very straight, very solid-citizen, very much the nice guy every woman is afraid she’ll have to settle for. Sweaty faces, sweat-stained workout clothes as contrasted with the two sharp, slickly groomed executive types. Hanks introduces everybody and polite small talk ensues (all apparent, no dialogue). As they chat, Hanks reaches out and brushes damp dark hair away from Armstrong’s face. Despite his roving eye, it’s clear that Hanks’s fondness for Armstrong is genuine. She had been his girlfriend for years and his emotional pit stop for even more years. Also clear is that Ward and von Holstein are aware of the deep relationship that existed between Hanks and Armstrong, and that these two are unsure of where they stand and live in fear of being dumped.

As the two push on with their bikes, Hanks’s gaze follows them. They go a few steps and Armstrong stops, looks down for a moment, then looks back at Hanks, who is still watching her in a tense, awkward kind of way. This final look that passes between the two makes the scene. In her eyes you can plainly read the anger, regret, heartache that’s asking him, “How could you have ruined something so real and so wonderful?” You can see they both know it should have worked. If you’ve got one of those, it will ring a bell.

Flitting among the four faces, the camera says it all. It’s all there. All this in a little over a minute. Some 28 frames with 24 being solo head shots. I enjoy this scene because all the expressions of the four characters are captured perfectly. All unique, all perfect. Four faces with very different, readable emotional reactions to this chance meeting. It’s a good reminder that every character has feelings and all the feelings form the whole. The scene is touching because of all that came before. It’s good to be reminded of that too.

Writers don’t get to pass the responsibility for emotion to the actors, who in this instance do it wonderfully. No, the writer has to capture and convey the complex interplay of emotions. It’s especially tough for writers of crime fiction, where sentimentality can undo a story quickly and completely. Yet there are ways to do it. One way, perhaps the hardest, is to flirt with poetry . . . carefully. Consciously put the music to it . . . carefully.

Another way is to treat sentimentality like a pastel water color, letting it seep through the whole thing without warping the paper. Or come at it sideways. For example, in “Princess Anne” (EQMM, November 2013), sentimentality flows as lies from a serial killer’s lips. This psychopath is talking about how he loved and lost a little dog. A little dog whose grave he came to visit, a little dog that never existed (unbeknownst to the reader). It’s likely that anyone who ever loved an animal will identify with the sentiment expressed by this killer.

There were other ways to write this story, ways in which the grave of the little dog would have been less central. But those ways would not have allowed the mining of all the sentiment of both the family that cherished the supposed grave of the dog or the lies about it spun out by the killer.

Reviewing a plot, then, I always ask myself what part of the story touches the heart, and is there more—or less—that should be done with it.

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