Episode 2: It's All a Matter of Timing
This article originally appeared in the October, 1940 issue of Writer’s Digest.
By Nelson S. Bond
It's the damnedest thing! I stand up there with my heart full of hope and my mitts full of driver; I wiggle and I waggle; I straighten my left arm and lower my head; I haul my hips back. I swing. My clubhead goes swoosh! - and the ball goes ploop! A one hundred and fifty yard drive. Fifty up, fifty down, and fifty yards into the lush tangle of crab grass between the tee and the fairway.
My companion says, "Tsk," and stares after my ball thoughtfully. "You going after it?" she asks. "Be careful. There's lions and tigers in there!"
She takes her stance. She's tiny and slim, and her hands are soft. She weighs 106 in her Kaysers. Her biceps are about as tough and sinewy as a cup custard. She swings. A gentle little swaying motion. But the club head goes splat! against the ball. Said pill takes off like a homing pigeon; soars high and far and true, and comes to rest at long last, gleaming whitely upon the green bosom of the fairway halfway to the pin.
Why? I weigh more than she does. I'm taller. I'm stronger. My clubs are heavier.
If I wrote like I golf, there wouldn't be any long, lazy, blood-pressure-raising afternoons on the links. There would be handouts and patched breeches and truckloads of rejection slips. But by some quirk of fate-possibly because the gods have a celestial budget to balance-I am so lucky as to possess, in my vocation, that which I can't grasp when I'm playing. A sense of timing.
I'm not sure that I can tell you what it is, or how to do it. I suspect it's One of Those Things, like swimming or swinging a golf club or knowing that the third Scotch-and is enough.You have it or you don't. If you don't, you just keep on plugging, going through the motions, until one day, suddenly, there it is and you know what I'm talking about.
And when you've got it, you're sitting pretty. Meat On the table, checks in the poke, and luh-huv in my heart for yoo-hool
You're bound to get it, too, if you keep working at it. You know the old gag about how "every writer has to get a million lousy words out of his system.” Of course, that's the old malarkey. Some writers click on the first go-round, others (like myself) have to do it the hard way. The truth remains, though, that those first, feeble, fumbling attempts are valuable. Every word you put on paper is another lesson in writing. Even if the story comes bouncing back with the stamps still moist, you've learned something from it. Maybe you've just learned how not do it next time. And, buddy, if you have-that's valuable!
Did I hear a snarl in the audience? You want me to skip the fight-talk, huh? Get down to business? All right. You're asking for it. Here's my theory on the way to "time” a normal, 5,000 word story in such a way as to make it fast, dramatic and salable.
I don't guarantee it; I don't claim that all other methods are wrong. I believe, with Kipling, that “there are six-and-twenty and ways of constructing tribal lays . . . every single one of them is right!” All I say is that this works for me.
DESIGN FOR BRICKLAYING A STORY (Patent not worth applying for)
Lay out approximately 20-25 sheets of clean, white paper. I prefer Corrasable Bond because it actually does-as Arnold Gingrich of Esquire puts it-“take erasure with dignity." And an ordinary pencil eraser, to. If the Eaton People want to send me a check for this plug, I'm not proud. Use the 16, rather than the 20 pound weight. It costs less, and keeps down the postage.
Lay out an equal amount of yellow "second sheets," a piece of carbon paper, your cigarettes and matches-*Hold it!* Change that typewriter ribbon! Your chances of selling fade in direct proportion to the fading of your ink, friend! Now put that damned thesaurus away. Hide it! If you don't know the words and use them in your ordinary conversation, they'll bulge in your story like an olive in a snake's gut.
We'll take it for granted you know how to title and identify your manuscript. If you don't you shouldn't be reading this; you should be studying back issues of Writer's Digest. Name and address in upper left corner, approximate number of words in upper right, title and your name halfway down the page. All right! Let's go!
First 1000 Words. Ends on Page 5.
Get going with a bang! Remember, you're writing a short story, not Gone With the Wind. You can't waste words, nor will the editor permit you to waste his or the readers' time. Your first thousand words must tell who are to be the central characters of this work-of-art, when the story takes place, where the scene is set, what the problem is, and set the question as to how the hero expects to take care of it.
Get me straight! I don't mean you should start off anything like this-
"John Marmaduke Frasier, tall, blonde and handsome Sheriff of Burp's Crossing, Arizona, strode down Main Street wondering what he should do about saving the property of his fiancée, sweet Hildegarde Phlewzy, from the clutches of rich bank president, Phineas Gelt, who threatened to foreclose the mortgage on August 19th, 1904, twenty days hence . . ."
You think I'm crazy, eh? Nobody ever introduced a story that way? Guess again! I sat beside Harry Widmer of Ace Publications for a full hour one afternoon, reading over his shoulder unsolicited manuscripts that opened in exactly that fashion. Needless to say, the stories were not offered by "regulars," nor did they come in the folders of an agent. They were the "unrush” mail, i.e., the free-lance offerings that earn pale blue slips reading, "We regret to say-”
But get the thing moving. Start with something happening to somebody; not with mental maunderings, Grab your hero by the neck and shove him smack into a mess of trouble. Then show who started that trouble-and why. Introduce the other persons involved in the problem, make their opening speeches depict their characters. As you write, keep an eye on your page numbers. Remember that this phase of the story must be finished by the middle of page 5.
End the opening sections with the implication that Our Hero recognizes his difficulty and knows what he's going to do about it.
Second 1000 words. Ends on Page 9-10.
This is the phase wherein Our Hero's star is in the ascendency. Things move along with reasonable assurance of eventual success. Looks like the problem wasn't so terrible after all. With matters moving smoothly, this section may also be used for brief, telling “flashbacks" (if required), and for strengthening characterizations.
A word about scene changes. Many beginning writers seem to go haywire over time and place transitions. That's simply because they make an easy job tough for themselves. For instance, We've all seen manuscripts in which a character leaves a room, goes to another place, meets other people. The beginner, his "timing" hopelessly off, tries to follow the character all the way-
"He stalked from the building indignantly, found a taxi at the door, rode uptown, got out at his own apartment, paid off the cabby, took the elevator upstairs…”
Sharper-edged, neater and vastly more readable is a device used by all professionals and editors. The bridging of time by a quadruple space. Finish one scene. Slap your space-lever twice-and begin your new section with a scene as fresh, as new, as clean-cut as if you were starting an entirely new story!
Here's the way it works in actual practice. Scene one was in the apartment of a detective, Sid ("Softy") O'Neill. A policeman has come to bring Softy to headquarters. The first scene ends and the second scene begins as follows.
"Okay, let's go!" (said Softy.) Then he remembered and jerked open a drawer in his desk. Dull blue glinted as he jammed something into a harness beneath his left arm-pit. "Let's go!" he repeated.
The Chief said, "Gentlemen, meet Detective O'Neill. Sid is not a member of the city force, but as I told you . . ."
It is not until some paragraphs later that the Chief is introduced by name, or the second phase of the plot determined. But story stuff is unimportant here; we are concerned only with the question of time-and-place transitions. During the blank space left above, Softy O'Neill presumably covered a number of city miles and consumed a half hour's time. The reader is made conscious of that by implication. You don't have to drag him along the route with you. How Softy got to headquarters is unimportant; all that matters is that he got there! Save words, save time. It's all a matter of timing!
Third 1000 words. Ends on Page 13-15.
Here's where the Hero stubs his toe. Things looked good-now the Villain heaves a monkeywrench onto the woiks! Trouble-with a capital "Boo!"-pops up. Technically this is known as a "plot complication." Which is just a literary way of saying it's a, "Dood Dod, what do I do now?" mess.
Let's backtrack a moment and dovetail this. We'll suppose our story to have been (1) sports, (2) science-fiction, (3) detective, (4) love, (5) romantic adventure. Show how a "complication" piles on the major problem in each of the aforementioned.
- Hero flashy player, without his team cannot win championship vital to athletic future of small college. In phase one, main problem set forth. In phase two, path looks easy-hero going like house afire. Phase three, complication-vital blocking back busts leg before crucial game!
- Hero hastily finishing spaceship with which to visit Mars; must get special Martian desert weed to stave off dreadful scourge which threatens to destroy Earth. Complication. Enemy scientists corners market on beryllium, vitally essential metal for construction of spaceship.
- Detective hero hunting Red Jornegan, gangster, whose fingerprints were found all over gun that murdered cop. Tracks Jornegan to hide-out. Complication. Finds Jornegan dead, killer's gun lying across room with Jornegan's fingerprints on it! (Whew! This one came off the top of my mind. I wonder whodunit?)
- Hero admires movie idol, wangles introduction, succeeds in making him veddy, veddy interested. Soft odor of orange blossoms in distance, and then-*complication!* Learns his contract has a nix-wedding-bells clause.
- Hero, Foreign Legion lieutenant, besieged by a mob of howling Bedouins. Must carry news of uprising to post. Remembers cache of ammunition in desert. Finds it. Complication. Bullets are for different rifle!
In short, then, this complication is generally something he did not nor could have possibly expected; it may even be a break the villain himself did not count on. But it makes a heluva situation for Our Hero.
Fourth 1000 words. Ends on Page 17-19.
Herein, two things happen. The Hero, finds, thinks, or fights his way out of the complication. This consumes almost all of the fourth phase. And when we've suffered with him, bled him into open country again-
Up pops the Villain with his deepest, most dastardly plot, unfolded, finally, in all its dire ramifications!
This is the trouble! Ossa on Pelion, if youse lugs know what I mean. This is the spot wherein (in the ancient mellerdramers) Nick Carter used to get two busted legs and a broken back, while a horde of savages armed with scythes and swords and Stuka bumbers swarmed in on him.
That won't go today-thank heaven! I've heard too much poppycock and balderdash about how "the pulps demand an excess of emotion." Action, yes! True emotion, yes! But in my opinion, they neither want, nor will buy, blatantly overwritten mellerdrama.
Anyway, that's a good rule to go buy. Figure it this way and you can't go far wrong-the only reason pulps print hokey stuff is that sometimes they can't get the smooth kind of writing they'll grab when it's offered to them. Let a man learn his trade, and he'll be snatched up by the slicks in a split-second. I think none of the following ex-pulpateers will object if I mention their names in passing: William R. Cox, who has parlayed his Dime Sport muscle men into American, Liberty, et al. Ernest Haycox, who sells super-Westerns to every top-ranking magazine and to Hollywood. Richard Sale . . . Jacland Marmur . . . William Fay . . . but why go on? Their stories had what it takes; they've moved up (Yeah, yeah, I know, they still sell some to the pulps!) and others can profit by studying their techniques.
Some digression. We were in Phase Four, where Our Hero is up to his neck in Trouble. And the Villain is on the bank, heaving rocks at his head.
How to get him out? That's your problem, pal! If I knew, I'd write the story, not donate the outline. But there are several sturdy, tried-and-true methods. By his superior knowledge. By a quirk of chance carefully planted in the earlier part of the story (none of that long arm of coincidence stuff)! By sheer fighting ability.
And he accomplishes this in-
The Fifth 1000 words. Ends on Page 21-25.
This is the phase of the solution, of final explanation, of denouement. In the detective story, here's where your cop or shamus explains whodunit, why, and how he figured it out. In the western, science, sport or action story, this is where Our Hero fights free and, tying up loose ends, explains to his public how he knew just what to do.
The fifth phase of begins with violent action, tears along swiftly, leading to a swift, decisive conclusion-and ends happily.
Watch your timing here! Pace your final conflict so that the action of it consumes approximately 500 words or more. Previous action may have been truncated to move the story along-but not this final scene. Your readers have suffered with the Hero for 4,000 words. Give 'em a blow-by-blow description of the Last Stand, let their empathies jump with glee as the Villain flinches, cowers, and dies.
I could mention a half dozen writing "tricks" that arouse this emphatic feeling, but there's no time to do so in this article. Nor is this the proper place to do it. This is simply a blueprint, a method of mechanically plotting the short story, that has worked for me-and it will work for you, if you'll give it a trial.
If you'll hew to the page-markers set forth here, I think you'll have no more trouble with tedious openings, long, drowsy middle sections, stories that refuse to end. Because writing, like that confounded golf swing I cannot master, is all a matter of timing.
Oh, I said that before, didn't I? Well-it still goes!