Dialogue by Joseph T. Shaw

Joe Shaw is the former editor of Black Mask and holds many warm personal friendships with authors he coached in the years he worked with the Warner Publications. At present Shaw is an agent, and does editorial assignments for various publishers.

Joseph T. Shaw

Joseph T. Shaw

In a writing job, dialogue stands out the most; it is also the potent element and certainly the most versatile. Excellent dialogue appears rarely, but it then invariably commands its just reward; and for that reason it certainly deserves your careful study and attention.

A cardinal rule in practically all writing is that the author should keep out of it entirely and allow his characters to tell the story. Nothing weakens or spoils even good dialogue so much as to have the author act as interpreter between the quoted lines.

Bill swung around upon Ed.

“You blankety blank blank!”

And the eager author, while his readers await Ed’s comeback, writes: “Bill was not smiling when he said this. He was angry. Moreover, he wanted to make Ed angry, force him to make the first move, to reach for his gun.”

“Now, Bill, you just oughtn’t to use names like that.”

And the eager author again: “Ed was a mild-mannered man. He didn’t relish a fight and he had a very wholesome respect for Bill’s speed on the draw and the accuracy of his shooting. He obviously preferred to swallow the insult than to risk the test.”

One must never even think of employing dialogue as a filler of space, without purpose, to break the long run of descriptive matter. I’m sure you have frequently seen stories where it seemed that the author, discovering pages without a spoken word, has suddenly decided that there must be a bit of dialogue thrown in here. Then comes the query, to himself: “Who shall I have talk? What will I have them say?”—and the compromise, “Oh, I’ll give them a half dozen lines about the weather.”

You are right. I’ve seen that far more often in manuscript than in published form, unless, indeed, you want to go back to the older, traditional English style with its inconsequential wordiness.

Dialogue should never be used without purpose, without a definite contribution to be made. If it needs introduction—and it can itself introduce a story, even a book—its most natural entrance is in the logical evolution of a situation, where characters have reached a point when they must talk it out, where the story demands it. Then let the characters you have portrayed tell the story you have set up, themselves; not in your language and with your own expression, but in their own.

For, essentially, dialogue must be real. It can be smart, if your characters are smart; it can be original, if your characters have that spark. But it must always be in character, not only with respect to the personalities to whom you give speech, but also with regard to the actual situation and its natural requirements. If it’s real, it strikes you pleasingly; if incongruous, it hits you like a slap in the face.

Of course the attempt for realism can be carried too for. Several writers have gained a measure of renown for their reproduction of what purports to be actual speech; but what is good in one medium is not so good in another. Most people say too much anyway, and are often repetitious. If you have to read every word they say, even in a short dialogue, it grows monotonous and you easily lose the thread of the discourse. Written dialogue should be edited, like everything else borrowed from another medium. As a rule, it should be terse, with only significant expressions remaining.

The staccato form is often effective in stepping up the speed when approaching a climax. Here, however, is an example of the reverse, and is given to show not only how suspense is sustained right up to the instant action breaks—and incidentally bringing the book to its peak—but also to indicate the calm steadiness of the speaker who, facing a seemingly unbeatable opponent, a moment later very nearly kills him with his bare hands. Moreover, in this instance, the ordinary short, sharp speech would be insufficient, since the “I” character feels it necessary before they fight to make absolutely clear to the third person, the woman, exactly what the situation is, to which she in a way has contributed.

“I will tell you, my dear,” I said, smiling at her, “it is because we are men and you are only a woman. And we are men in the raw, too, for things have come to that pass where you are no longer to be wooed but only to be won. Edward Leng, the Oriental barbarian, will have it so, and I, the Celtic one, am no better. You have proclaimed your very splendid ideals and given us an unmistakable dismissal, but the ultimate and lustful savage in us has no use for these things. We are going to fight savagely for you, and notwithstanding ideals and dismissals, you will be the chattel of the victor. Now, my pagan woman, if you will stand aside, we will settle this small matter of ownership. You will be safe in that doorway, or if you want to escape the victor for the time—only for the time—you can flee while we struggle….”

Leng… was now laughing in grim merriment.

“You surprise me pleasantly, King,” he said. “You and I are the same man at bottom. You have proclaimed my philosophy better than I could myself.”

“I know that,” I said. “It was your philosophy I proclaimed.”

“Come on then and throw me outside,” he said; and before he had finished speaking I was on him.

This is a rare passage. In the space of a paragraph it sets up the whole situation, makes the purpose, of the antagonist, brutally clear, exposes his character to the last fiber, and while extolling the woman, leaves no possible doubt of what she faces in the event that Leng is the victor. At the same time, it shows the high quality of King who, having found no other way to solve the situation, gives himself willingly to the test. Needless to say, it is a passage from a very thoughtful book, the sort we all hope to write someday.

Here’s another example of careful writing of a different type, sharper, yet made more impressive by its restraint. Nick Charles tries to talk a man away from an idea of using his gun.

Nora was saying: “He made me let him in, Nick. He said he had to—”

“I got to talk to you,” the man with the gun said. “That’s all but I got to do that.”

I said: “All right, talk, but do you mind putting the gun away?”

He smiled with his lower lip. “You don’t have to tell me you’re tough. I heard about you.” He put the pistol in his overcoat pocket. “I’m Shep Morelli.”

“I never heard about you,” I said.

He took a step into the room…. “I didn’t knock Julia off.”

“Maybe you didn’t, but you’re bringing the news to the wrong place. I got nothing to do with it.”

“I haven’t seen her in three months,” he said. “We were washed up.”

“Tell the police.”

“… But listen; what’s the law doing to me? Do they think I did it? Or is it just something else to pin on me?”

I shook my head. “I’d tell you if I knew…. I’m not in this. Ask the police.”

“That’d be very smart. That’d be the smartest thing I ever did…. The boys would like me to come in and ask ‘em questions. They’d like it right down to the end of their blackjacks. I come to you on the level. Studsy says you’re on the level. Be on the level.”

“I’m being on the level,” I assured him. “If I knew anything I’d—”

Knuckles drummed on the corridor door, three times, sharply. Morelli’s gun was in his hand before the noise stopped….

And here’s Nick and the copper, after Nick was shot:

“… How’d you people happen to pop in?”

The copper … said: … “Mack here sees this bird duck in, he gives us a ring and we … come on up, and pretty lucky for you.”

“Yes, pretty lucky for me, or maybe I wouldn’t ‘ve got shot.”

“This bird a friend of yours?” “I never saw him before.”

“What’d he want of you?”

“Wanted to tell me he didn’t kill the Wolf girl.”

“What’s that to you?”


“What did he think it was to you?”

“Ask him. I don’t know.”

“I’m asking you.”

“Keep on asking.”

“I’ll ask you another one; you’re going to swear to the complaint on him shooting you?”

“That’s another one I can’t answer right now. Maybe it was an accident.”

These two bits are either side of a shooting, and one point of interest is that both give practically the same impression of Nick Charles, cool, with his wits about him and apparently unworried. In the first of the two scenes, Nick knows very well that Morelli, a gunman on the dope, will shoot, as he does, on the slightest suggestion that he is being crossed; yet there is nothing flurried or strained in Nick’s talk; nor in Morelli’s either, which makes him a more dangerous, deadly type than if he were hysterical or threatening. Nick admits that he “could hear the blood in my ears and my lips felt swollen,” yet he holds the same poise under the gun to mask his own action. It can be noted that the restraint of this dialogue renders the action that follows, and the whole scene, more real and impressive.

The full effect of the action is accomplished because the emotion produced by it is not anticipated, and therefore not spoiled, by exactly similar emotion being exploited before it actually occurs.

I often have had reason to think that most dialogue is done too hastily. It is possible that the writer has his mind preoccupied with the action toward which he is approaching and, considering that it is the all-important part of the story, gives divided attention to the buildup and particularly to the talk that introduces it.

Dialogue has practically all the properties which a story demands. It can be both a story builder and a character builder. Of Mice and Men employed the functions of dialogue to their fullest extent. A sparse word of setup—the scene—a meager description of one big man and one small man, and dialogue supplies all the rest.

“Lennie! Lennie, for God’s sake don’t drink so much. Lennie, you gonna be sick like you was last night.”

“Tha’s good. You drink some, George You take a good big drink.”

“I ain’t sure it’s good water. Looks kinda scummy.”

Then Lennie makes ripples in the water. “Look, George. Look what I done.”

George looked sharply at him. “What’d you take outa that pocket?”

“Ain’t a thing in my pocket.”

“I know there ain’t. You got it in your hand. What you got in your hand—hiding it?”

“I ain’t got nothin’, George. Honest.”

“Come on. Give it here.”

“It’s only a mouse, George…. I don’t know where there is no other mouse. I remember a lady used to give ‘em to me….”

“… An’ she stopped givin’ ‘em to ya. You always killed them.”

“They was so little. I’d pet ‘em and pretty soon they bit my finger and I pinched their head a little and they was dead—because they was so little….”

“Well, you ain’t pettin’ no mice while you walk with me. You remember where we’re goin’ now?”

“I forgot again.”

“We’re gonna work on a ranch like the one we come from up North. Now, look—I’ll give th’ boss th’ work tickets, but you ain’t gonna say a word. You just stand there and say nothin’. If he finds out what a crazy bastard you are, we won’t get no job, but if he sees ya work “ before he hears you talk, we’re set. Ya got that?”

“Sure, George. Sure I got it.”

“O.K. Now when we go in to see the boss, what you gonna do?”

“I… I… I ain’t goin’ to say nothin’. Jus’ gonna stand there.”

From even these few lines there can be no question of the characters of the two men; in fact, the whole setup of the story is here, even to the planting of the first indication that big Lennie is a killer, not through any “meanness,” but because of his enormous strength, the feeble mind that controls his impulse to bear down when the object of his petting resists. The work is open to criticism as a book. It is to all intents a play presented in book form, for when dramatized, the descriptive passages were used as stage directions. But it does show the extent to which dialogue can be employed; for here, almost unassisted, dialogue not only makes characterization brutally clear, but it also exposes the motive of the story, expresses thought, outlines the action and carries on and develops the story. Such dialogue cannot well be broken down or substituted by another type. This dialogue is the story.

While not so definite in characterization, another excellent example of the employment of dialogue to forward the story is Octavus Roy Cohen’s popular Collier’s serial, “I Love You Again.” And perhaps of more immediate interest is the work of a writer who a few short years ago was a leader in rough-paper detective fiction and is now pointed to by the smooth-paper editors for his outstanding ability in story construction.

Now, if you analyze those older stories of Frederick Nebel, you will observe that they are very close to ninety percent dialogue. Years ago, as it has been suggested in the beginning of this paper, Nebel set himself definitely to study and acquire command of the various functions of dialogue, and he was one of the first of a particular group to use dialogue to develop his plot. That dialogue did not show the studied effect of smartness but in other respects it can be taken for a pretty safe model. For one thing, it was always in character. It was hardly necessary for the text to point out that MacBride said this, and Kennedy said that. Their respective speech was unmistakable and reflected clearly not only the character of each man but also his method of thought, mood and mannerism.

The talk between the two, and with the other characters, brought out the story, built it up and then introduced the action climax.

Kennedy in his quiet way has been snooping, found the trail of guilt leading to a man whom the blunt McBride has not suspected, and in place of telling it to McBride, lets the man implicate himself:

Kennedy said quietly: “… Torgensen was killed by a .38. That phone call I just had was from Headquarters. They’ve got the gun over there. I found it in a dump heap across the way from the station. Haims at Headquarters says it checks with slugs found in Torgensen. A dealer down in Beaumont Street told me how he sold it to Lewis Friel.”

Friel shouted: “That’s a lie!”

“You can’t prove it’s a lie.”

“Oh, can’t I,” snapped Friel. He pulled a gun from his pocket and said:

“There’s my gun and I’ll face that dealer and make him prove he sold me the gun you’re talking about.”

Kennedy said: “Steve, take a look at his gun.”

MacBride strode across toward Friel. Something snapped in Friel’s eyes and he jumped back. “Hold on there!” he said.

MacBride scowled. “Don’t point that gun at me.”

“I’m pointing it at you.”

Marcia said: “I’ve got them from this side, Lewis.”

Kennedy turned. Marcia Friel was holding a very small automatic.

Lewis Friel said to Kennedy: “You almost trapped me, smart boy.”

“What do you mean, almost?” Kennedy drawled.

And after the fireworks, MacBride, lying in a hospital bed, said:

“Talk to me, Kennedy… What about that gun you had Haims examine?”

“I did find it where I said I found it, down near the station. Some jumpy guy must have tossed it away. So when Haims told me over the wire that it didn’t check, I told Lewis that it did just as a gag. He pulled his gun and I meant to have you take that and check it.”

All of the foregoing are samples of good dialogue, and an examination of the fuller works, of which these are merely brief excerpts, will show clearly the important part they play in establishing the quality of the respective stories. If the dialogue was bad, in respect of being careless, out of character, faulty with regard to situation and emotion, without significant meaning, these books would not have achieved the success they did. And it should be borne in mind that the works of the writers quoted are all of outstanding merit and made so in largest measure because of the excellence of their dialogue.

A writer brought in a book-length script with the candid desire to learn why it had not been accepted by one of the very publishers to whom it had been offered. He believed his story was intrinsically a good one, and he was correct. The dialogue was thoughtful and meaningful and at times smart; but an analysis showed that the speech of his dozen or more characters had a notable sameness, expressing the thought, the method of thinking and the philosophy, not of the respective characters, but of the author himself.

Comparisons are odious; and it would not be in good part to reproduce a passage of some published story and attempt to pick upon its dialogue weakness and fault. But if your story does not sell—granted that essentially it is a good story—or if it sells but does not hit, you might have a look at your dialogue and see if it has taken enough part in the telling of the story, if it is in real, true character—that is, if it reflects truthfully the character of the respective person and the emotion of the particular situation—if it has significance of meaning or is merely a wasteful jumble of words hastily thrown together; in short, see if it correctly exposes characterization and develops the plot of your story; see if it produces any of the varied emotions or falls flat.

Your writing of good, effective dialogue can be improved by study and practice. First, you must know your respective characters thoroughly, just what sort and type of men and women they are, how they will act and react in a given situation. Of course you know your plot and just in what manner you want to develop it. Then cast yourself into the character that is to speak and express the thought, the feeling and the meaning that particular character would naturally express under the circumstances and in his language and in his way of speaking.

Dialect in dialogue is not a short cut to characterization. It may denote personality, whether a person be black or white, foreign or domestic, ignorant or educated. It should never be difficult to read and understand unless, in rare cases, the purpose is to cause the reader to pause in his running, to read slowly and thereby to get the full gist of the passage. But as a rule it should not check for a moment the run of the story and should be given in small doses. It can get monotonous and annoying. Often a suggestion of dialect is wisest, especially if the particular speaker has much to say. Its chief forte is color and glamour, when skillfully handled. And again we take a bow to Octavus Roy Cohen:

“How come you ain’t usin’ yo’ muscle mo’ frequent, Frenzy?”

“Is you incineratin’ I ain’t doin’ my share?”

“Well, you suttinly ain’t doin’ no mo’ than.”

“Ise expendin’ my full stren’th.”

“Says which?”

“Says Ise puttin’ out my foremostest muscle. An’ don’t you like it, you can lump it.”

“Life sho’ is queer, ain’t it, Frenzy?”

“Did I say it wasn’t?”

“You ain’t said nothin’. I jist ast you wan’t it?”

Authored by Joseph T. Shaw; from Writer’s Digest (June 1939).

Do You Want To Become a Writer Or Do You Want To Make Money? by Joseph T. Shaw

Two decades ago, Robert Thomas Hardy and Arthur Sullivant Hoffman were famed and loved by writers for their energy and patience in training and discovering new writers.

Today, both these men are agents.

Their successor in the hearts of hundreds of writers is Joseph T. Shaw, editor of Black Mask, and prince among editors. At 578 Madison Ave., New York, Joe Shaw, about whom an enemy once said, “If he likes you, he’ll do so much for you, it’s pathetic,” is building up and developing scores of new writers.

Shortly we hope to have Mr. Shaw send us one of Black Mask’s published stories with running fire critical comment on the story by Mr. Shaw.


Writer's Digest (May 1934)

Writer’s Digest (May 1934)

Do you want to become a writer or do you want to make money?

You think the two are synonymous? Not with the frequency you might suppose.

If you want to make literature and a name for yourself as a really fine writer, you must face the fact that your market will be confined to a few quality magazines that pay low rates and to book publishers. If you believe you have it in you to be another O’Neill, Lewis, Hergesheimer, and are willing to endure the necessary years of struggle and apprenticeship, go to it; you’ll succeed eventually and make enough money to live a very full and happy life.

If, however, you want to write not for the sake of making literature, but of making a living, making money, in what seems to you to be an agreeable way of doing so, and if you want to accomplish this with the least possible delay, then forget literary ideals and concentrate all your efforts on creating what the great mass of the reading public want and are willing to pay for.

There are two main divisions in this field—the white paper magazines and the rough paper magazines. It is in regard to the latter that we are concerned in this article.

Rough paper magazines—wood-pulps, to use their facetious moniker—are very numerous, roughly they number more than a hundred, and their reader following goes well into the millions.

From the few hundred thousand of the first years of rough paper magazine appearance, this market has broadened satisfactorily and has now attained proportions that are very worthwhile to reckon with. When you consider that in numbers, approximately one out of every twenty men, women and children in the United States each month read a wood-pulp, you have an idea of what a source of entertainment and enjoyment to the people of the country this type of periodical has become. It is too big a market to be taken lightly from any angle, too filled with possibilities to be looked upon disparagingly. Indeed, it is worthy and deserving of the most thoughtful consideration and serious effort not only to retain its present scope but also to increase its magnitude in possible and logical directions.

Granted a measure of natural gift and normal erudition, it should not be difficult to enter this broad field as a writer. To maintain it in an assured position of monetary success requires a measure of study, adaptability and whatever work may be necessary to attain facility and skill.

At the outset it might be helpful to the new writer to have a broad understanding of the field he is about to exploit.

In the first place, due to economic reasons, rough paper fiction attempts less to guide than it does to gauge and meet public taste.

Unlike the several contributing factors in the smooth paper magazines—format, illustrations, advertising, style, fad and what not—rough paper magazines are dependent for their circulation upon the popularity of their fiction alone. It must be popular, it must be what the majority of certain classes of the people want or they go out of business.

Under the circumstances you should not look for altruistic motives on the part of the editors and publishers of the pulps. No doubt many of them would like to see this distinctively virile field as a whole on a higher plane than its greatest volume typifies; but adventuring along such lines, commendable as it might be from certain points of view, is not warranted as a commercial experiment.

Popular taste—honest, in that it reads what it likes regardless of fads and the preferences and opinions of others—popular demand molds the character of rough paper fiction more than does editorial and writer inspiration. The editors act for the most part in an interpretive capacity; the writers deliver merchandise specified.

Get clear in your mind, then, at the outset that to be successful in the rough paper field you must write to popular taste.

In this connection I am reminded of one very successful writer in this field who has spent years patiently studying and analyzing public mental capacity and taste of various markets and framed his stories for the respective magazines accordingly. The interesting points about this are that he has made money and is versatile. He has hit his markets with rare shrewdness. He is accounted among the most popular writers in widely divergent fields, for his stories in one magazine, for example, are not read or liked by the audience of another.

The ability to gauge this taste accurately is the key to the success of the best paid writers in the field today, and if they are at all versatile they can employ this ability to advantage in as many markets as they are capable of supplying.

The earlier newsprint magazines covered a wide range of subjects. Shortly there followed the idea of specialization, that is, a larger number of magazines each devoting its contents to a specific subject or section of the field-adventure, romance, sex, war, aviation, westerns, crime, detective, mystery, the pseudo-scientific, fantasy, and the like.

The writer has a wide range here from which to choose and will no doubt make his first try in the particular subject in which he feels himself most familiar and to which he can give his most natural expression.

Generally speaking, the dominant demand in all sections of the field is in the matter of producing reader reaction or effects.

That these effects are exaggerated, often beyond the bounds of sane reason, must be put up to the tastes of this special reading public, many of whom seem not to quarrel with even absurdities so long as the particular story holds something of interest to them.

And now let us seek the elements which developed, will produce the most effective writing skill in this rough paper field, and particularly in its detective fiction.

Accepted a certain fluency and an adeptness in the choice of words to express the mental image simply, clearly and understandably, style has little to do with it and mannerisms far less if anything at all. Type and character of stories to be emphasized, likes and dislikes, the use or disuse of the familiar properties of the crime and detective story vary with the several magazines and can no doubt be ascertained by a study of the respective magazines or by inquiry of the editorial offices.

So far as Black Mask is concerned there is little we enjoy more in our editorial work than a chat with a serious writer of promise who wants to go somewhere.

With regard to our general requirements, we might say that Dashiell Hammett did his work very well. We are of course seeking another Hammett, but we distinctly do not want his imitation. And we expect it should be some time before we see another with his inflexible purpose and indomitable will that disregarded ill health, a measure of poverty, even the absence of an early scholarly environment and yet achieved their aim.

We are satisfied that Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Erle Stanley Gardner, Carroll John Daly, George Harmon Coxe, Eugene Cunningham, W.T. Ballard, Theodore Tinsley, Roger Torrey, are all doing their work exceedingly well, and we do not need material along their respectively different lines. We do want stories unlike those of any one of them in type, character and treatment.

But, as suggested, the requirements of the different magazines are superficial in many respects so far as the fundamental principles of writing skill are concerned, since the respective requirements can be expressed at will when writing skill is attained.

And among these cardinal principles simplicity and clarity must rank high. Your object is to accomplish an emotional effect upon your reader. You have a chance to do this if he can follow your story clearly and understands what it is all about. You have little or no chance, outside the sensation of shock, if your story confuses him, if it is too complicated in expression, structure or plot, or too subtle, so that he is at a loss himself to know exactly where his sympathy should lie or why it should be aroused at all.

Buyers in the majority of rough paper magazines want to take their stories in their stride, to read them while they run or ride. They do not want to stop in the middle of a story and go back to untangle confused threads or re-identify characters. It is for this reason that similarity of characters, particularly with respect to names of similar appearance, should be avoided.

Swift movement and speed of action are other essentials in this age of fast tempo, but speed of action should not be confused with many rapid, meaningless notions.

Long descriptive openings are for the most part taboo. For that matter these too often tedious stretches have little place in any part of a rough paper story of today.

Start your story in action if you can do so quickly. Identify your characters so that the action will be understandable to the reader; and keep it moving all the way to the end. To accomplish this, it is not necessary to stage a gun battle from start to finish, with a murder or a killing in every other paragraph. You can keep it alive and moving, when sympathy is once aroused, by tension and suspense, through dialogue or other form of plot development, when action is absent. Action in one form or another is, however, pretty generally in demand.

Logic and plausibility are much abused terms. As a matter of fact, although they are at times mentioned editorially, in by far the greatest volume of crime and detective fiction they are completely disregarded, while rapidity of motion, exaggerated menace and exaggerated action are substituted in their stead, and, let it be said, with the apparent approval of many readers of the crime magazines today.

While it must be admitted that their use can produce the strongest possible emotional effects-since the happenings carry the illusion of reality-the danger lies in the fact that unless skillfully employed, their demands tend to clog the smooth, swift run of the story.

After all, their acceptability depends upon the treatment, upon the manner in which the material is presented to the reader. If it is done in such a way as to seem logical, the writer has little further worry in that regard and he may speed up his action as much as he sees fit. Where plausibility enters the question, the writer merely has to have his characters move and talk, act and react as real human beings would do in like situation, however imaginary, and his task in that respect is done.

In addition to these elements there is one general principle that is quite fundamental. Unless you have a clear mental picture yourself, you can scarcely expect your reader to get a clear, understandable impression of your thought. If your own ideas are undeveloped or confused, your purpose in your story unclear in your mind, its presentation will not be less so. Thus it would seem that word choice and arrangement, diction if you will, come secondary to clear thinking. If your mental image is clear, you will have no difficulty in expressing it in the simple language and simple technique of rough paper fiction.

I often wonder if this preliminary fumbling at the typewriter, of which writers so frequently speak, is not due less to meager facilities of expression than to a confused idea of what it is desired to express.

It is hardly to be expected that you will have a clear image of your whole picture before you begin to express a part of it; and often it requires a partial expression of the whole before you observe that it is not complete.

Of course, where speed of production is so important to the moneymaker in this field, such reworking is apt to be costly, but is nevertheless practiced by many successful rough paper writers whose hold upon the audiences they have built up seems to warrant a greater care in workmanship than is typical of the great majority of this fiction of the moment.

Thus, if a writer enters this field with the sole purpose of making money in it, particularly if he wishes to cash in on the wild surges that endeavor to capitalize the utmost of popular fancy, he should start with no illusions of literary ambition. If he will train himself in clear thinking he will have an asset that will contribute greatly to speed of production. If he will attain a writing skill combining the various elements suggested, and is possessed of ordinary creative imagination he should have all that will be required.

Authored by Joseph T. Shaw; from Writers’s Digest (May 1934).

Joseph T. Shaw Offers His Thoughts on “Model Stories”

This month the Treasurer suggested that if we asked editors themselves to select their “model” stories for a given period, so that magazines running them would be procurable on the stands when this bulletin came out, we might accomplish the following:

  • Show writers what editors like, better than any exchange of letters might do.
  • Bring such stories, and their authors, to the attention, more forcibly, of motion picture story editors.
  • Show book publishers what those writers might do if encouraged to sustained effort, i.e. the writing of books.
  • Fulfill the project outlined on the separate card accompanying this bulletin, i.e. add to the fame of the writers mentioned.

In this connection you will note that only current magazines are selected, and that no attempt is made to confine selections to Guild members. In studying these models, don’t overlook the comments of the editors which may qualify their selections and help you to a better knowledge of just what is wanted. Let us know how you like this idea.

Editorial comments follow: (In instances where editors have not confined themselves to just one story, much may be learned by careful comparison of those named.)

Joseph T. Shaw, Black Mask:

Your request to select a “model” story in the July Black Mask, or in almost any issue, for that matter, cannot be fairly done without a word of explanation. You see, we follow the principle of “no dud in any issue”; therefore it is rarely that any one story stands out markedly from any other or all of the balance, although we hope that the magazine itself, as a whole, does.

So far as the writers permit, we select for an issue the best of as many types as are available; in consequence, readers naturally have preference for one over another in accordance with their individual tastes, and all may be equally good as to workmanship quality. There is a story in the July issue, however, which can be pointed to for a specific reason. It is “Nothing Personal,” by H.H. Stinson.

If a new writer should ask me to suggest what might be interesting to our readers, I would probably mention anything but what Mr. Stinson has in his story, in the way of characters, by name or position—that is, a reporter, an editor, a tough police official, and so on. They have been used so many, many times.

Yet Mr. Stinson has done something with these familiar identities, with the ordinary action, which, to many readers, will make this an outstanding, a “model” story, in any company. The one word to describe it is “treatment.” He has brought every one of his characters vitally alive. The fact that they are this, that or the other is less important than that they are “real” personages; not once do they speak, act or react out of character—with a more or less commonplace setup, his handling of story detail, of constant menace, of action, is masterly. One careful reader refers to one of his scenes as the most vivid, the best of its type since Hammett told about Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key.

The fact that Mr. Stinson is himself a newspaper man, a police reporter on one of the big Los Angeles papers, may have contributed to the sense of reality which he has infused into the story.

But it isn’t every newspaperman who can make a story live and throb like this one. If it were, editors would have an easier time.

A “model” story. No—except for treatment. A marvelously entertaining and vital one? Yes—decidedly yes.

Authored by Joseph T. Shaw; reprinted from the July 1, 1936 issue of American Fiction Guild.

Review of The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, Edited by Joseph T. Shaw

There’s no doubt that The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, published by Simon and Schuster in hardcover in 1946, is a landmark anthology. After all, the collection of 15 stories originally published by Black Mask was put together by the Old Man himself, Joseph T. Shaw.

But there’s two different editions of this book; when the softcover came out in 1952, it knocked out stories and juggled the running order of the survivors. Does this hurt or enhance the reading experience?

It depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re the type who reads through straight, the softcover version has a better running order, but it’s missing two good stories that were in the hardcover.

The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1952 paperback)

The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1952 paperback)

The cover of the Pocket Book edition (25 cents!) promises “12 of the toughest murder stories ever written,” but two of these stories don’t include any killings. There’s also another inaccuracy. The book claims to have “every word contained in the original, higher-priced edition,” but three pieces from the original edition were deep-sixed: “The Devil Suit,” by J.J. Des Ormeaux (Forrest Rosaire); “Murder Mixup,” by George Harmon Coxe; and “Sister Act,” by Charles G. Booth.

“The Devil Suit” was the leadoff story in the hardcover edition. Although it drags a bit, it shouldn’t have been dropped altogether. The plot was interesting enough to hold a reader for the 50-odd pages it ran, but maybe not for the very first story. “Sister Act” was also a good story featuring two pairs of sisters and breaks away from the typical blazing-guns formula.

I agree with the cut of “Murder Mixup,” a story featuring Coxe’s series character Flash Casey. The exaggerated tough-guy antics of Casey haven’t aged well.

The softcover leads off with Lester Dent’s mighty fine “Sail,” featuring the vertically-unchallenged detective Oscar Sail. Deftly written, there’s an atmosphere of corruption and menace sure to hook readers in right from the start. This story had been in the middle of the book and it plays better being up front.

Next is Reuben Jennings Shay’s “Taking His Time,” an amusing short-short (five pages) about a flim-flam in a small town. It fits in fine as the second story, where it was in the original. There’s a complete absence of violence in this piece, and yet there’s no mistaking that it is hard-boiled. It’ll crack up any Black Mask fan.

Batting third is the first of two stories by Shaw favorite Raoul Whitfield, “Death in the Pasig,” a Joe Gar short written under his Ramon Decolta pen name. Readers can feel the hot and humid Manila air as Gar slowly but surely makes his way to fingering the killer.

Then there’s Raymond Chandler’s “The Man Who Liked Dogs.” Supposedly the story appeared in the collection without Chandler’s consent, but the book notes the story was reprinted “by permission of the author,” as the original did. Whatever the circumstances, this is great writing and great reading.

Ditto for Dashiell Hammett’s “Fly Paper,” which follows Chandler like the second half of a one-two punch.

Whitfield’s second story, “Inside Job,” is a letdown, and not only because it follows Hammett and Chandler. The killer and the method are just too obvious, even before the murder is committed. This story should have been cut instead of “Sister Act,” which would have fit well here.

Norbert Davis’s “Red Goose” rights the ship again with a well-mixed assortment of personalities in an art-world theft. It’s funny in a way that only Davis could have done, along with his killer ear for dialog.

Another story from the immortal Paul Cain, “Red 71,” raises the bar higher. This story of double-crossing, savage brutality and a tender marriage proposal is already well-known by readers of Cain’s Seven Slayers collection.

The last four stories in the collection remain unchanged in order from the original. Three of them in a row zip by: “Best Man,” by Thomas Walsh; “Kick-Back,” by Ed Lybeck; and “Clean Sweep,” by Roger Torrey. There’s nothing too distinctive here, but they’re not lousy. Time hasn’t been kind to stories that stuck too close to “run and gun” formulas, which these three slip into at their worst.

The last story shows the sentimental side of Shaw. “South Wind,” by Theodore Tinsley, doesn’t get more violent than a broken arm. What drives the story is the interplay between the two leading columnists for the newspaper, not unlike Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. In fact, the man’s name is Tracy.

“Hey hardboiled,” calls the woman before a train whisks her away, “any time you get sick of this crooked game, come on down to Thunder Run. I’d be awful glad to see you.”

“South Wind” is a wistful ending to a great anthology, in either version.

The Hard-Boiled Omnibus
Edited by Joseph T. Shaw
Review edition published by Pocket Books, 1952
324 pages

Authored by Ed Lin.