Wednesday 22 June 2011

Chapter One: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The latest genre in my series of Chapter 1 Analyses is crime fiction. The Friends of Eddie Coyle was written in 1972 by George V. Higgins, an experienced lawyer. It was his first published novel (although he had 14 failed attempts under his beltt—hope for us all) and it was made into a film soon after starring Robert Mitchum in the title role.

I looked at a number of crime fiction books for this post as I would have preferred something more recent, but most followed fairly standard approaches, many of which we have already discussed in this series. However, this book, considered a classic and much admired by people like Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane, had a first chapter that really made an impact on me. Here are the opening lines:

Jackie Brown at 26, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns. "I can get your pieces probably by tomorrow night. I can get you, probably, six pieces. Tomorrow night. In a week or so, maybe 10 days, another dozen. I got a guy coming in with at least 10 of them but I already talked to another guy up for them and he's, you know, expecting them. He's got something to do. So, six tomorrow night. Another dozen in a week."

The majority of this novel is dialogue, even referred to as a 'monsoon of dialogue' by one reviewer. It's not very clear who we're talking to, where we are, or what's going on. What we get is dropped into the middle of a conversation, and it's not a normal conversation. People talk in a very specific dialect, with lots of slang and assumed understanding. At no point does one person explain what's going on to another for the benefit of the reader.

It reminded me of the TV show The Wire where black drug dealers often spoke in a way that was completely baffling to an outsider and yet you knew exactly what they're talking about. Here the effect is much the same with low lifes,  cops and other ne'er-do-wells all in the same city speaking the same language and a million miles away from anything I've ever experienced.

And yet it is very engaging, draws you in very quickly and keeps hold of you without any sort of pandering to  the reader. You have to wait until it becomes clear by itself. What keeps you hooked, and what often with aspiring writers fails to happen, is the completely authentic and gripping nature of the dialogue. It's all very well writing what you know (see post here) but it really helps if what you know happens to be very interesting. As a criminal lawyer in a very criminal city in the 60s and 70s Higgins was very involved with the people in this world, and it shows. He doesn't transcribe dialogue, but the way he compresses it and translates that world into a succinct patois is masterful.

Part of this, I think, comes from the fact that in this world, and in this genre, everybody wants something from somebody else, which is the basis of most drama. Because these people are hustling and aiming for something all the time I think even what appears to be chitchat is often loaded with meaning and threat.

“No?” the stocky man said. “Okay, I hope you’re right about that. I’m running short of fingers. And if I gotta leave town, my friend, you gotta leave town. You understand that. They’ll do it to me, they’ll do worse to you. You know that.”

“I know that,” Jackie Brown said.

The whole of the first chapter is two men arguing about buying guns, what's considered a fair price and what the risks are to each of them. Both of them have something at stake and each wants to get the best deal possible for himself. There is very little scene-setting, or drawing of character. This is like a conversation you overhear behind you and can't turn round in case people know you're listening. 

What this chapter tells you is that there is no definite approach to how to open a story, in terms of confusing the reader or helping them establish where they are. That sort of advice may seem to be a no-brainer, but in reality all that matters is that you have the reader's attention and how you get that attention is by writing something interesting. 

The question is, if you were eavesdropping on a very interesting conversation would you need to know who they were or what they looked like? You might want to know, but do you need to know in order for it to remain interesting and you to stay listening?  Because when you start reading something new you know nothing and the writer has to figure out how to get the reader's wandering eye to stop wandering. What they're talking about or what they're doing has to be interesting, far more than a clear picture of who or where they are.

Agree? Disagree? Perhaps you prefer a clear indication of what's what at the start of a story, let me know.

If you'd like to read the first chapter of this book for yourself it can be found online here.

You can also leave suggestions for future Chapter One Analyses in the comments here, or on the Ch.1 Page here.


Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Sounds like an interesting book even though crime isn't my genre of choice.

Suze said...

'And yet it is very engaging, draws you in very quickly and keeps hold of you without any sort of pandering to the reader. You have to wait until it becomes clear by itself.'

In a critique group I was involved with for a brief amount of time, about a year, the one thing both writers always asked of me was to quit being subtle, to explain for the benefit of the reader. This chafed me no end.

My goal is to execute a subtle, decidedly non-pandering story that still manages to bewitch the reader-- even if it takes me fourteen manuscripts to achieve it.

Another engaging post, mood. Even if it's not 'The Beautiful and the Damned.'

McKenzie McCann said...

I agree that authenticity always makes for an engaging tale, but I'll put down any book that confuses me. I'm not a fan of being the least informed member of a story.

mooderino said...

@Lynda-I've been going through different genres for this series. Hopefully there's something in each that can help any writer.

@Suze-most writing advice seems to be aimed at people who aren't very good writers. I think you have to allow for some personal expression, not everyone wants to write a blockbuster by any means necessary.

@McKenzie-I think a lot of people feel that way and no doubt publishers are wary of that. But I think there should be room for the less direct approach too. The push towards whatever sells the most is doing more harm than good, imo.

Thanks for the comments!

The Friends of Eddie Coyle... live said...

Nice analysis, and it's true -- every piece of dialogue is about what the speaker wants and needs from who he's talking to rather than filling in the reader. And yet, the reader gets awfully filled in. I found it to be the essence of drama as well, and started working on a stage adaptation. After a reading, George's wife in attendance, I got the estate's blessing and will open in Cambridge, MA, in December. if you're interested.

Sultan said...

Having lived in Boston for a while I always thought the strength of this book was the authenticity of the voices which run through it. If you sat for a bit in a bar in Southie, you would hear a lot of guys who sounded like this, way back when.

I will also say though, as a former criminal defense attorney, that my interaction with criminals was quite different really. Of all the clients I ever had, of whatever stripe or kind, my criminal ones were the best behaved and most polite. They certainly were a lot more so than the Corporate monsters I later worked for.

Matthew MacNish said...

This is excellent analysis. I haven't read this book, but what you describe is quite true, both in real life and in any great crime novel.

Well done, Mood!

Matthew MacNish said...

Oh, and I remember hearing an interview with Richard Price, where he said that you can have a scene with two characters just sitting on a bench, having a conversation, and it can go on as long as you'd like, as long as what they're talking about is interesting.

So I think you're absolutely right.

Pearl said...

I am a huge fan of dialogue and prefer to write that way myself.

And I've just written down the name of this novel, as I'd not heard of it before. Thanks.


VR Barkowski said...

Outstanding analysis. I don't need to know what the characters look like unless it's imperative to the story. In fact, I'd prefer not to know. Here, it's not important, and reading this brilliant dialogue wouldn't make me the least bit curious. I'm infuriated when the flow of a story is interrupted with a laundry list of physical attributes and fashion mentions. I'd much rather fill in the blanks so that characters are brought to life in my head as well as on the page.

mooderino said...

@Friends - would be easier if you were in Cambridge, England...

@Laoch - this book is about bad guys, but not that bad.

@Matthew - well, I guess Price knows a little something about it...

@Pearl - it's a classic of the genre.

@VR - the modern trend seems to be to spoonfeed the audience (in movies too) because it makes more money. Not sure there's a cure for that.

Sangu Mandanna said...

Authenticity is key! And I think you need to be confused - to an extent - when you're reading crime fiction because the answers can't be obvious or it's just not fun. But being confused the whole way through is just off-putting!

Margo Berendsen said...

I think you are right, what makes this work is how its loaded with meaning and threat.

By the way, you did a first chapter analysis of Harry Potter a while back; I just found another first chapter analysis here:

Sophia said...

I like the idea that as long as you get the reader interested in the opening you don't necessarily have to stick to all the rules. If you can hook a reader with description that sets up a tense atmosphere where you just know something bad is about to happen, or if you have dialogue that makes you need to know what happens next then why not write it that way if you think you can make it work?

Lydia Kang said...

I like to know where the story is going, and yet if the characters and situation are really entertaining, I won't care nearly as much.

Thanks for the Twitter follow! I'm following you back. :)

John Wiswell said...

I don't mind a book starting en medias res or without total clarity as to where it's going, though such openings are increasingly precarious. Now every movie has a trailer, even TV show has an ad campaign, and every book is sold on a synopsis. If most of your audience bought your book because it's "What if cowboys stopped Hitler's ghost army?" then teasing or not getting to the point is fruitless, if not obnoxious. A writer has to be pretty clever in not delivering a premise that his or her audience knows is coming.

A great example is HG Wells's The Invisible Man. Just try reading that today. Even back then his audience knew the guy upstairs was actually invisible; today the wait for Wells to come out and say so is painful.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

It sounds similar to the treatment that James Joyce uses in his stream of consciousness prose (trying to draw a connection between say that type of writing and one that uses only dialogue). It's intriguing to note the different styles authors use to tell a tale.

mooderino said...

@Sangu - I don't think you need to be confused (althoug a little mystery doesn't hurt), you just don't need as much background information as you might think.

@Margo - thanks for the link.

@Sophia - since the reason for the rules is to get the reader invested in the story, if you do that then the rules becpem moot.

@Lydia - my main aim here is to show that you don't need to establish setting to engage the reader. A writer may choose to, but the primary goal should be to catch the reader's attention.

@John - I am very much against that kind of coyness in writing. I have done a number of posts trying to explain that suspense is generated by giving information, not withholding it. In this chapter it is very clear what is happening, a gun deal between unsavoury types, my point is the locale, the atmosphere, the facial expressions, are all detail-lite. The dialogue generates all the interest you need because it is interesting dialogue. There's nothing wrong with painting a vivid picture of where people are and what they look like, but it is very much secondary to they're doing and saying.

Misha Gerrick said...

I am of the firm belief that any writing rule can be broken if it is done well.

This sounds like a story that I'll keep an eye out for.


Anonymous said...

It depends on how well it is written. I love mysterious people. That is fun hiding their identity for the moment. But there has to be other stuff happening to move the plot forward. A conversation followed by a murder, a theft, or other devious event.

Libby said...

Hey Mooderino! Wanted to let you know I've tagged you in blog tag. If you want to play just click back to my blog. No pressure!

Charmaine Clancy said...

I always turn to look. Just yesterday I was in one of the closing down Borders bookstores and heard a young woman asking the bookshop assistant for a recommendation for a teen girl she needed to buy a present for. I heard him say, 'Twilight is very popular' and I couldn't help myself, I spun around. Unfortunately, they happen to be looking exactly at my spot at that time and the young guy got all embarrassed and started quickly assuring me, 'oh but I personally would never recommend that book, never.'
I felt a bit bad when I walked past their several shelves of unsold Stephanie Meyer books.

Arlee Bird said...

The use of long stretches of sometimes confusing dialogue reminds me of some of Cormac McCarthy's writing. Sometimes I have to go back and start reading a passage over because I forgot who was saying what. I wouldn't say it's bad. It's nice to have easy reading where everything is clear, but life is not always so cut and dried. Maybe that's why I tend to remember McCarthy's books more than some others.

Tossing It Out

mooderino said...

@Michael Offutt - I think it comes down to what you're trying to say rather than how you go about saying it.

@Misha - I agree.

@Stephen - I believe keeping things interesting is the primary goal of any story.

@Libby - thanks, don't really have the time at the moment, barely managing to get these posts out, writing my own novel, and lying around in the seltering heat (v. time consuming).

@Charmaine - keep fighting the good fight!

@Lee - McCarthy's lack of punctuation takes a little getting used to, but I think it usually stops being an issue very quickly.

Many thanks for all the comments.

Dawn M. Hamsher said...

The want to know more would spur people to read on. I can see how that would be an effective writing hook!

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