6 Things I Learned from Dashiell Hammett

I’m still studying Shirley Jackson, and if you don’t know why you can easily find out. I spent yesterday doing a scene-by-scene analysis of Chapters 5 and 6 of The Haunting of Hill House that turned into line-by-line—that’s how fast she switches gears in her most profound passages!—and at some indefinite point degenerated into re-reading for the sheer pleasure of it. Utterly seductive writing. Of course, this all started with Stephen King and his 1981 overview of the twentieth-century horror genre, Danse Macabre, a whole world of learning how to push readers’ buttons.

But this week I’m discussing with a client the writing of Dashiell Hammett.

Speaking of shifting gears.

Now, my client isn’t writing detective mysteries. In fact, she’s not writing any kind of mysteries. But she is writing wonderful, gripping scenes shaped largely around dialog, so we’re exploring the tools and techniques of drawing a reader fully into scenes, the way the balance of description, action, and dialog has altered over the decades, and the ever-growing modern dependence upon exposition.

Sometimes writers hear, “You have to intersperse scenes with exposition because otherwise your story is too intense,” and, “There’s no formula, you have to just sense when to slip into exposition.”

There are reasons for this advice, and the best way I know to ferret out the reasons for any fictional techniques is to study how the greats used them.

So I went to Hammett, because I already knew that he changed styles drastically between The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, and in this change in style he illustrated a number of things:

  1. It is not true that stories without exposition are simply too intense

    Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon pretty much entirely without exposition—pure scenes. And it’s a heck of a fabulous novel.

    How did he do it?

    Well, for one thing, he did it in the 1930s, long before most of the publishing professionals who recommend exposition today were even born. Most of those people depend, not upon a deep understanding of the craft, but upon whatever they read on current best seller lists.

    Do those novels tend to be largely exposition?

    Yes, they do.


    Because current publishing market conditions require successful authors to crank out novels as fast as they can to feed the appetites of the dominant industry players, who are the marketers. This means, although an author might be able to visualize their story quite clearly and be adept enough with language to flesh it out in good, solid scenes, they don’t have time. They must be content with sketching the story in exposition—practically essay—and shoving it on down the chute.

    Now, does this phenomenon mean that exposition-heavy fiction is the best fiction?

    Absolutely not.

    The preponderance of cheap plastic crap in our society does not make that stuff the best quality stuff in existence. It just means it makes money the fastest for the people who produce it. Not over the long haul. Only in the moment. Enormous waste.

  2. The modern shift away from description dates from the 1940s

  3. The difference between the opening pages of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, published only a few years apart, is simply amazing.

    On page one of The Maltese Falcon, we get a meticulous, detailed description of the face of Sam Spade. (Just as Hammett’s colleague, Raymond Chandler, devoted the first chapter of more than one novel to a meticulous description of a house.) Boy, did Hammett love the idea that Spade’s face is designed in a series of v’s! We also get a detailed description of how her dress clings to the body Spade’s Girl Friday, Effie, who plays a minor role in the story. And Hammett gives us the fake name of the villain—which will be discarded long before the end of the novel—and the fact that Spade is willing to see pretty much any ‘customer’ who’s a good-looking woman.

    That’s all the information.

    One page one of The Thin Man, on the other hand, we get half-a-sentence of exposition about waiting for ‘Nora’ (the protagonist’s wife, his comic foil and the source of his character layering—even, at one point, the author’s mouthpiece, exhorting both reader and other characters to believe the protagonist is a brilliant detective although he hasn’t actually shown himself to be anything but a wiseacre and a serious alcoholic—Nora appears in pretty much every single scene of the novel) to do her Christmas shopping (placing the story in the time of year, as the chronology of events over previous months is pivotal to the plot).

    Then we immediately get a little action, some sketchy description, and a bunch of extremely pertinent dialog. In the dialog, we learn the name of the murder victim as well as that of his daughter, who is the character speaking to the protagonist and a very major character indeed, the protagonist’s main link to the victim throughout the novel. We also learn the Backstory of how long it’s been since the protagonist last saw the murder victim (eight years), the victim’s current marital status with the girl’s mother, who turns out to be the main red herring of the story (divorced), plus the victim’s current notoriety in the newspapers, which is the source of everyone’s motivation to believe the man is bonkers and has suddenly taken to running around New York murdering people.

    Character motivation! The single most important character motivation in Hammett’s entire story.

    And a bit of genuine wit (which, aside from engaging the reader, neatly establishes the protagonist’s character).

    “Listen: remember those stories you told me. Were they true?”

    “Probably not. How is your father?”

    Almost all of these basic building blocks of the novel right there on the first page—and in dialog!

    Not exposition.

  4. The modern shift away from dialog is quite recent

    Actually, you can learn this from Armistad Maupin, whose Tales of the City of the 1970s and ’80s are almost entirely dialog. When sitcom-watching was first becoming a 24-hour American lifestyle, dialog absolutely took over fiction.

    But even before that, dialog had a long and respected history as the main staple of literature.

    However, now that hyper-emphasis upon making a quick buck, big-box outlets that churn books for maximum bookseller profit like Barnes & Noble and Walmart, and the omnipresence of blogging are all the focus of modern publishing, even dialog isn’t slick enough for those making the decisions high up on the industry ladder.

    Is this because dialog doesn’t work as well as exposition?

    Of course not.

    But exposition is just that much easier to read when you’re not really paying attention—say, while you’re texting your friends or watching your favorite television show or toying with your blog (or your own novel) or just standing in line waiting to buy a bunch of cheap plastic crap.

    (I have a whole lot of things I could say about the relationship between this development and the rise of the dimestore novel in the 1930s, but it would be quite a serious tangent, so I will spare you.)

  5. The resulting dependence upon action coincides with the rise of stories dependent upon the physical rather than the perceptive

    And this is a really interesting development.

    What happens when you suck the bulk of your description and dialog out of your scenes? You wind up stuck with action.

    Thriller (violence). Romance (sex). The biggest-selling modern genres by a very large margin.

    Think about it.

  6. Therefore, for lack of most scene techniques, modern writing leans toward exposition

    And this is what happens when your novel is neither violent action thriller nor soft-core p*rn romance: you have no adrenalin-triggering actions left to put into your scenes. And you can’t write actions that don’t trigger intense pre-programmed adrenalin because, you know, that’s what everyone else is writing, and industry marketers want you to compete.

    So you wind up falling back on exposition—trying to talk your reader into caring about your characters and your story.

    “They’re really nice people!” you see yourself typing. “They’ve always been good neighbors, taken good care of their elderly parents, worn the right brand-name clothes [insert brand name here], watched the right TV shows [insert names], listened to the right music [insert names]. They’re very upset when bad things happen to them!” And then you write a nice little essay on the bad things that happen.

    Sadly, essay is not fiction.

  7. It is not true that a writer can’t plan where to put their lines of exposition

    Actually, it’s not true that a writer can’t plan any of the techniques they use. That’s just silliness. . .promoted by the people in the industry who have not studied literature and therefore have no idea why fiction works the way it does.

    “We don’t know!” Palms up, shrug. “It’s the magic of those wacky successful writers!”

    No, it’s not.

    It’s technique.

    Identify what steps your characters must take between the hook and the climax of every single long scene. (Don’t use too many steps, though. I know exactly how many you can get away with, and if you read my blog and books you know, too.) Identify what the little tiny climaxes of those steps are going to be. Write something really good for each of those tiny climaxes. (Cut out all the uninteresting stuff.)

    After each tiny climax, throw in a brief, vivid, perhaps unexpected action, a bit of significant description, or—if you must—a very nice line of essential exposition. A very nice line. Then hook the reader into the next step of the long scene. Develop it a bit and give it a little tiny faux resolution before the next little tiny climax.

    If it’s a short scene, do this and then hook the reader into the next scene.

    Lather, rinse, repeat.

UPDATE: I’ve gotten more than one comment asking for the definition of exposition, so I answered the first (from Susan Kelly) on my advice column: Growing plot out of character, situation out of need.

Please be aware that “exposition” is one of the most confusing of the terms used in fiction today, defined in different places as everything from backstory to narrative to data. It is none of these, although it can be used for the purposes of any of them. I take my definitions from the OED and the great editors of the twentieth-century, such as Maxwell Perkins, who told an author, “You have too much explanation, too much exposition,” which, he advised, should be cast into scenes.

23 thoughts on “6 Things I Learned from Dashiell Hammett

  1. Rebecca says:

    I am really enjoying this series of posts. Very thought-provoking.

    I wanted to ask if you were familiar with the idea of color-coding text outlined in this post http://cristinterrill.com/2010/11/07/revising-by-color/ and what you think of it? (I don’t know the blogger at all, a friend of mine linked to it.)

    1. Victoria says:

      Haven’t seen it. I color-code sometimes when I’m editing, but as the White Knight says, “It’s a system I invented myself.”

  2. Clothdragon says:

    Husband and I were discussing these the other day. I read Maltese Falcon a few years ago and thought it was okay. Good to read as a beginning of detective fiction. I read The Chill just a few days ago and liked it much more — right up until the sudden convenient end.

    I don’t read much detective fiction though so this might be normal. One of the fascinating bits about the both of them was that I don’t remember being pushed or tugged along. The characters did this and that and the other and they solved the case and we found out with the big reveal. Which is probably what you’re meaning with the exposition.

  3. Susan Kelly says:

    So, a scene with hardly any exposition would consist of dialog and description of people and places? That’s like real life: we look at and listen to and feel the “scene,” where we are, and somebody talks to us and we talk back. There is no running commentary that informs it.

    I get that, I think, but what makes the whole thing go, if there’s no adrenaline-inducing action?

    Is it still that our hero *wants* something, and something else opposes him?

    Victoria, you talk about the hero having “wants” and “needs,” and how the two should conflict. But the need and the want aren’t the story situation, I think? I’m a little confused about this.

    1. Victoria says:

      Susan, let me answer this on the advice column later in the week, okay?

  4. Susan Kelly says:

    I shall look for it – – big thanks for all you do for us struggling authors!

  5. Interesting post, Victoria.

    I see yet another parallel. Written novels are known for doing exposition better than television or film, because the novel can get into a character’s head in a way that those other media cannot. I wonder if the shift toward exposition is a response to that; an attempt to avoid competing with moving pictures, because they do dialog and description so well.

    I also wonder if that’s a trend we want to fight against. The novel is better at exposition than other media. (It’s also arguably better at action. Action on film is often confusing, and you can’t go back and re-read to figure out what happened.) Authors may want to continue playing to the strengths of written prose rather than return to the old focus on description and dialog, where the novel now has serious competition.

    1. Victoria says:

      Hey, I agree, it’d be nice if modern mainstream fiction were attempting to avoid competition with film and TV. Sadly, it’s the opposite. The best-selling novels are those that have been sold to the movies or television.

      This was true even in Hammett’s day. There’s a reason I could use The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man as examples of his writing that modern readers might recognize.

      The strengths of literature are the many complex and varied techniques of the written word. Those occur in all aspects of fiction, but they’re hardest to master in exposition.

  6. Victoria, I LOVED this post. Mostly because it feeds into my existing love of dialogue and hatred of exposition. If I get more than a few paragraphs of exposition in my scene, I get twitchy.

    I try to develop almost all my characters and scenes through dialogue and body language because that’s what I like to read. What’s the old advice? Try to leave out the parts that you skip reading? (That’s not even close to the actual quote, sorry.) But that describes me and exposition perfectly!

  7. Susan Kelly says:

    Sometimes exposition is a part of a work of fiction to such an extent that the work would become a pale ghost of itself without it. Think of Lord of the Rings without all the background mythology about elves and dwarves and Sauron. Or Les Miserables without all the detours into the French Revolution and the Paris of the time (nine small-print pages on the history of the sewers, one action scene in the sewers). I think the deal is, not many people have the time or the skill to undertake a reading project like that now. It takes less effort, and is enough of an escape, to read a popcorn romance or detective story.

    1. Victoria says:

      Ah, Susan, I’m afraid nobody these days will read a technical treatise in mid-novel like what went into Les Mis or Moby Dick. They didn’t have the Internet in those days to keep them educated on random weird stuff.

      With Tolkien’s work, I believe you’re thinking of the writer’s notes, which is a bit different from the exposition. In fact, I’m just writing about that today for Monday’s blog post on Henry James.

  8. Brian says:

    This might seem like a naive or overly-optimistic comment, but it some of this feels like really over-thinking the whole thing. Just write something entertaining, interesting, or both. Why isn’t that the only rule?

    1. Victoria says:

      It is.

      It’s just a whole lot harder than it looks.

  9. Mark Capell says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article. I thought it was just me who thought there was too much exposition in the modern novel.

    To my mind, exposition sucks the life out of a story.

    I disagree with you on one point. I find stories with a lot of exposition harder, not easier, to read. I invariably find my eyelids closing when an author is endlessly ‘filling me in’.

    In my own work I place the emphasis on keeping the story rolling along. And the quickest way to do that is having characters in conflict, with themselves or with each other.

    Great article. Thanks again.

    1. Victoria says:

      “Exposition sucks the life out of a story.”

      I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  10. An agent who recently passed on my novel said, based on an 82 page partial, that it had too much dialog. I was taking that criticism to heart, but now, based on your post here, I’m wonderning what to do.

    I’m also wondering if your “scenes” and “exposition” mean the same thing as what I call “dialog” and “narrative”. My novels seem to me to be 100 percent scenes, in that everything involves a character in the story, with actions and reactions sometimes told through dialog, sometimes through narrative. Is exposition, as you use the word, different from the narrative portions of a scene?

    1. Victoria says:

      Hi David—Susan Kelly asked exposition, above, so I answered it on my advice column. It’s a confusing issue, I know.

      I can answer your question about what to do when you get a pass based on “too much dialog” on the advice column next week, if you like. It is a phenomenon my clients struggle with as well.

      1. Hi Victoria:

        Yes, I’d like to read something more from you on that. Thank you.

        I read several of the advice column entries that came up when searching for “expositon”. Thanks, they were quite helpful. In my completed novel (currently on query to an agent), I have a scene where two people have flat tires, one the protagonist and one a girl he meets who becomes his girlfriend. I don’t say in the scene that both flats were purposeful. The girl did her own flat to manipulate the protag into being her hero to get a chance to meet him. The protag’s flat was done by an antagonist to disrupt his life. But I never tell the reader both of these were purposeful, hoping they’ll get it. If, in a later scene, after the protag finds out his girlfriend was a fraud, I insert [Ronny thought back to how me met Sarah, to her flat tire, and wondered whether it was a ruse to inject herself into his life.] that would be exposition. Since my beta readers didn’t get it, maybe I need to add that.

        1. Victoria says:

          This is an excellent question. There is a lot of great stuff you can do with this situation.

          Let me work on it, okay? I’ve been just swamped with editing this week, and I forgot this morning that I’m taking next week offline. So if you don’t see this on the advice column today, I’ll get something written for you the week after next.

          I’ll post something here to let you know when it goes up.

  11. Jeffrey Russell says:

    Dashiell Hammett and I went to the same high school. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

  12. Victoria says:

    David, the answer to your question about Ronny and Sarah is up on my advice column now: Listening & not listening to beta readers.

    Good luck!

Comments are closed.