Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Lessons from Dashiell Hammett

I'm reading a collection of Dashiell Hammett short stories, "Lost Stories". I highly recommend it. The book is full of jewels. Here's an example of his skill.
"A shriek, unmistakably feminine, and throbbing with terror, pierced the fog. Phil Truax, hurrying up Washington street, halted in the middle of a stride, and became as motionless as the stone apartment buildings that flanked the street."
Not only is it a surprise and an exciting way to start a story, he also creates a picture of the setting and the main character, without interrupting the action with disjointed descriptive passages. Phil Truax "strides". He is also alert, able to go from striding to "motionless" in an instant. That tells you something about him already. He doesn't walk. He strides. The setting, an urban street, lined by apartment buildings and enveloped in fog, gets described within the context of active sentences.
Here's how NOT to write it.
"Phil Truax walked up Washington Street. The apartment buildings that lined each side were nearly hidden by fog. He heard a terrified woman shriek and stopped."
The story is called "Laughing Masks".