I love me a gritty story. Love how a story can have it’s own voice and it’s own buzz and hum.
In addition to the work a writer does with setting, grit can help create the world of Noir.
So for today’s Noir Week post, I’m writing about grit — the descriptions and the dialogue that give the story its heartbeat.
This is different than location or setting, which I’ll write about it later on this week. Check out the schedule below. If you want to read yesterday’s post on sidekicks, go ahead and click this sentence.
So before we get into it. Just a heads up.
For this week, I’ll write a post each day on an aspect of noir writing. All of this leads up to my online noir writing class through WriteSpace in Houston, Texas — Femme Fatales, Sidekicks, and Gumshoes: A Noir Writing Workshop
A little about the online class:
The femme/homme fatale, the detective, the side kick, the villain. Sprinkle in dark, moody atmosphere, a crime, the snarky voice of a lead character–and you have the ingredients of a stellar noir story.
Noir is a mystery subgenre that has its own grime and grit. From Raymond Chandler to Jessica Jones, the genre has moved and shifted over time but one thing remains the same, you know noir when you see (or read it!). In this online course, we’ll discover what makes a noir story tick, how to flesh out the characters, and he best way to tackle place and atmosphere. By the end of our time together we’ll create our own noir stories, as dark and gritty as a windless night.
To sign up for the class: Femme Fatales, Sidekicks, and Gumshoes: Writing a Noir Mystery .
Description in a noir story builds the atmosphere. Think of this as a guide for the reader. What can they expect from the story? What is the tone? Essentially, what the reader wants to know is how they are going to be taken care of during the reading of this piece.
For this, I’m going to the grand-daddy of noir, Raymond Chandler.
For grit, let’s look at the first paragraph for The Big Sleep.
“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars. “The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
When a reader is taking in this first paragraph, this is what they know.
- The setting (of course but, again, we’ll take about that later on this week)
- What he’s wearing and how the character describes himself. Also important but…
- The money, the great thing here is the tone. How this story is going to go is that it’s going to be detailed and it’s being to be sarcastic and it’s not going to pull any punches.
In short, it’s not going to be flowerly. The writer is going to give it to you direct and he doesn’t care who knows about it.
Though we’re not talking about setting, I do want to focus on diction in the paragraph. The idea of “hard, wet rain” against “clearness” and the fact that it was morning and the sun was NOT shining also give me contradictions. Things will not be easy. In fact, there will be things, as a reader, I won’t be able to explain to myself but that some how, in some humanistic level, will ring true.
For example, how can rain be hard? It can and the reader can almost feel it on their skin as they consider this. It is painful. But then again, there’s some hope. There is clearness in them there hills so this pain is temporary.
And a dark morning? How can that be. It can. It shows the reader that not everything is unicorn and rainbows. There is a sinister-ness to a morning without sunshine.
Yes, all that comes from paragraph one. All that grit, all the atmosphere, is in the first paragraph. From there, this story is off to the races.
In short, this world has it’s own rules and the writer must command that from the first paragraph.
Let’s take a look at another opener. Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley (also another favorite). Here’s the first paragraph of that book.
“It was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar. It’s not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt was a Panama straw hat and done shoes over flashing white silk socks. His skin was smooth and pale was just a few freckles. One lick of strawberry-blond hair escaped the band of his hat. He stopped in the doorway, filling it with his large frame and surveyed the room with pale eyes; not a color I’d ever seen in a man’s eyes. When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, bur that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948.Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley
Here, Mosley is going beyond imagery, which is is language that appeals to readers senses. He is using sensory language. Mosley is painting a visual here, juxtaposing this large white dude against this backdrop — a mostly black bar dressed in all white with pale eyes.
Against all this, and without coming out and saying it directly, Mosley is describing a ghost. This character seems almost translucent and glowing. I’d go as far as be character being highlighted. This character is important and this description sets up this unnamed character as important. This is the start of something that is about to happen, almost like a trigger. And since we are talking about noir here, it’s an apt description.
But there’s a kicker here. Despite all this…the main character, the narrator, who is describing all this, isn’t scared of the ghost.
Now we’re off to the races. This tells the reader that this isn’t your normal character and your normal protagonist. And it’s not your normal story. The narrator doesn’t scare easy and is tougher than your average person.
So how you like them apples? Lots of grit and lots of info here. Want to know how this works along with setting, characters, and even the femme fatale? You gotta come to class!
Join me on Jan. 19 for my online Noir writing class, Femme Fatales, Sidekicks, and Gumshoes: Writing a Noir Mystery.
Until tomorrow gumshoes!