Friday, February 15, 2008

The Thin Man

Two summers ago, I got on a hard-boiled detective reading jag and bought Dashell Hammett's novels in a collection, but never got around to reading it. I spent all my time on Raymond Chandler (excellent writer). A couple weeks ago though, friends were discussing favorite movies and K mentioned The Thin Man, which I also adored. Then suddenly I was jonesing for a Thin Man fix, but I figured "Why not read the novel?" After searching my many reading stacks (and sighing over the truly great books I have and plan to read - some day.) I found it last weekend and read it.

One of the things that worries me about my writing sometimes is how little description I give of settings. The reader needs to be anchored somewhere. S/he needs a sense of time and place or else dialog is just floating heads yapping and it can be disorienting. Besides, a conversation that sounds dull as dishwater over lunch at a diner may be fraught with tension if it's being spoken as someone diffuses a bomb - setting does matter. So one of the first things I noticed about Dashell Hammett's writing is how few words he wastes on setting. He doesn't even write that much description of action. He must not have been paid by the word. It was amazing to see how much of The Thin Man was simply dialog. Being a very good writer, Hammett manages to get a lot of mileage out of every word even in dialog. His characterizations are in the words his characters speak, not in their physical descriptions or actions.

I read The Thin Man the first time through as a reader, but now I think I'm going to go through as a writer and study how he did it. I like that sparse delivery. I'm going to try to figure out how, with so few words, he was able to evoke full, detailed settings in my mind - and then I'll have to think carefully about the image I'm envisioning and compare it to the settings in the movie version. A better test of this will be to read his other novels - the ones I haven't seen on film. (But I'll read the Maltese Flacon anyway.)

1 comment:

Ashley Ladd said...

I'll have to check out and study Dashell Hammett's books, too. Thanks for suggesting it. I'm always trying to improve my writing and characterization. Dialogue is my favorite part of the process.