I tend to leave out description. When I'm in a first draft, I'll write, "the Nightlight was a dark, smoky club," and go straight to dialogue. I really have to make an effort to write, "A wall of smoke and noise assaulted his senses when he walked into the Nightlight. He hadn't smoked in years, so the reek of cigarettes and pot grated on his sinuses and brought tears to his eyes. He looked across the room to make sure the sound he heard really was a guitar solo, and not someone running a garden rake over chalkboard."
I think I do this because I spent most of my adult life reading, acting, and directing stage plays, in which there is no description. Instead, you get "Scene 1: Nightclub. Andy: Can we go outside? I am about to heave, and I can't hear myself think." Cut to the chase, as they say in Hollywood, or so I'm told.
Still, if I'm going to write fiction, I have to write description. The questions are when to include it and how much. There is no rule about this, although Stephen King lays down some good rules of thumb, (On Writing, pp. 173-180). I've decided to answer this question by reading books I like and noticing how those authors have answered these questions.
The Brown Bag Mystery Readers at The Mechanics Institute Library recently discussed D is for Deadbeat by Sue Grafton. In the discussion, one reader said she likes K is for Killer. Grafton's conversational voice makes the reading a pleasure, and she's not afraid to take a few paragraphs or pages to let her sleuth, Kinsey Milhone, describe the scenery. It feels leisurely, but I'm with her all the way.
Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith were geniuses at making the bad guy the hero. They didn't invent the idea. For instance, Shakespeare gave us a heroic villain in Richard III. But Highsmith and Thompson created an American art form based on following the bad guy instead of the good guy. Their work carries on today with books like Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, in which, as many have pointed out, every character is a scoundrel.
They seem to have accomplished this almost simultaneously. Thompson published his first suspense novel in 1949; Highsmith published hers in 1950. Thompson published arguably his greatest work, The Killer Inside Me, in 1952; Highsmith published hers, The Talented Mr. Ripley, in 1955.
Their careers ran parallel in several ways. He published twenty-five novels; she published 22. Both of them saw many adaptations for film and television, and their stories continue to be adapted to this day, although Highsmith had notably better luck in her lifetime, beginning with her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's classic film of the same title.
Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921 and grew up there. At that time, Thompson, lived in Fort Worth, working odd jobs, selling his first stories, and gathering experiences that would turn up in his novels.
But for all that, they seem to have been unaware of each other. Andrew Wilson's biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadows, makes no mention of Thompson; Michael J. MacCauley's biography of Thompson, Sleep with the Devil, makes no mention of Highsmith.
Their careers also differ in several ways. Highsmith methodically published a novel about every other year throughout her adult life. Thompson published almost half his novels in just three years: two in 1952, five in 1953, and five in 1954. His biographer, MacCauley, notes these were essentially the only years of his life when he was sober.
The most important difference between them was the point of view they used in their novels. Highsmith wrote in the third person, thus referring to the hero-bad-guy as "he," and she had a good reason for doing so: "I have quite a bit of introspection in my heroes, and to write all this in the first person makes them sound like nasty schemers, which of course they are, but they seem less so if some all-knowing author is telling what is going on in their heads."
Apparently Thompson wasn't concerned what his bad-guys sounded like. He wrote in the first person, referring to the hero as "I." Here's a bit of introspection from Nick Corey the hero of Pop. 1280, recalling why his father beat him, "The fact was, I guess, that he just couldn't stand for me to be any good. If I was any good, then I couldn't be the low-down monster that had killed my own mother in getting born. And I had to be that. He had to have someone to blame."
A fellow writer asked what I was reading. When I said Jim Thompson, she asked what kind of novels he wrote. I told her The Killer Inside Me, published in 1952, is considered his masterpiece. It's a novel about Lou Ford, whose father, a physician, explained to him that his personality fits the definition of psychopath.
"Like Dexter," said my fellow writer, referring to the popular TV series with Michael C. Hall. True, except that Lou Ford's father does not teach him a moral code. Lou freely indulges his sadistic tendencies and does whatever serves his own interests. Since he is the sheriff in his hometown, he remains above suspicion.
As if that weren't chilling enough, The Killer Inside Me is in the first person. Lou Ford tells his own story. He speaks directly to us. The Killer Inside Me is not Thompson's only first-person, bad-guy novel. Pop. 1280, A Hell of a Woman, and Savage Night are also fine examples.
Though most critics think Thompson was at his best with this type of novel, I think his others are well worth reading. The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, and The Getaway are powerful examples of noir suspense told in the third person.
The Talented Mr. Ripley was my introduction to stories in which we root for the bad guy. I may have read the book before seeing the 1996 film version by Anthony Minghella, with Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwynneth Paltrow, and Philip Seymour Hoffman among others. Either way it was an eye-opener.
Patricia Highsmith's hero, Tom Ripley, seems an ordinary man, just getting by in life, though he does so by running petty scams. In the course of the story he progresses to greater crimes and reaps greater rewards. I admit I was delighted to see it all work out for him. When I shared that with a friend, he said, "No, that movie was a little too dark for me."
Why would we hope he succeeds? Whenever I have encountered grifters and con artists in real life, I have loathed them.
Matt Bird, in The Secrets of Story, says an audience will empathize with any character who is making decisions, doing something difficult, and having to improvise. His prime example is the second half of Hitchcock's Psycho.
So perhaps it's not so much that we are rooting for the bad guy, but rather that we empathize. And maybe we wonder what it would be like to take whatever we want without being bothered by feelings of guilt. But, of course, we would never do that.