Seduction, Not Instruction (Part II)

by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, July 1998
Last month I made the point that instruction (tell) makes everything explicit and seduction (roughly show) "pulls in" the reader, requiring his or her involvement in the fullest understanding of the work. My belief is that instruction bores, kills writing, seduction, through its reader-involvement makes the reading process richer and more long-lasting. This month I'd like to continue this theme and discuss other ways where seduction is part of the delivery of meaning. A while back, discussing openings I posted Chandler.

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

This is a fascinating opening, in my opinion wonderful writing. First, look at the directness of that first and second clause, It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October… Would you be surprised to discover this was a hard-bitten PI talking? It even feels like voice-over, noir-speak. With the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. Now this is lovely too. With the sun not shining? Not, "there was no sun", or "it was overcast". The point here is the reference to the sun and the fact it can't be bothered to shine. For me this is attitude, the narrator, Marlowe. And hard, wet rain? Like it or not, this is poetry, a touch of Jack Kerouac's On the Road even if it pre-dated him by a few decades. The next sentence, Marlowe's clothes, is just straight delivery. Tell? Not to me. It's what is being described and how - an image is being created and at the same time we are being set up for the close of the paragraph. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

This last example is a good illustration of show-that-looks-like-tell, direct instruction with a deeper informational element. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, implies maybe he isn't always? Otherwise why say it? and I didn't care who knew it. Confirmation. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. Does this mean he's pulled himself together for a big assignment? I was calling on four million dollars. Factual delivery but the manner is seduction, it contains the personality and attitude of Marlowe.

What is not said is often important. How something is said is often important. The context of what is said (and how) is important. So, for example, if I wrote a "telly", instructing paragraph, some old man's obsessive thoughts, in great detail, about cleaning, his kitchen, his garden, the car. Stood alone, these may have no other meaning. But, what if we now see that the man's wife is lying on the den floor with an ice-pick in her skull? Now this tell is show, this "instruction" is, in fact, "seduction"… we are asked to realize that because of the context, this man's thoughts are a symptom of derangement.



Another aspect of seduction, of meaning beyond the superficial first scan of the words, is rhythm, pacing, poetry, perhaps, Here:

Saturday afternoon and Dai Griffiths sits with his finger-polished roll-up tin. He is patient, fixated, listening. His tongue protrudes slightly as he makes his careful, half dog-end tobacco, half Old Holburn, delicate, thin cigarettes. It is raining outside the pub and along the valley side snake-terraced roofs glisten. The afternoon light closes.

Note the way He is patient, fixated, listening is actually delivered in a slow-beat way and how when we read as he makes his careful, half dog-end tobacco, half Old Holburn, delicate, thin cigarettes there's an extra clause, delicate, then another thin cigarettes, all representative of the old-timer concentrating, taking lots of care to roll his cigarettes. Rhythm, music, the pace and beat of prose often carries great meaning. Fast action requires short sharp words and sentences, restful passages require a slower, gentler cadence. But it's all seduction because you are whispering, persuading, not simply telling reader.

Words don't just have meaning, they also evoke, have a sound, a shape, a look on the page. It's often the case that a better word here, the perfect word there can transform the meaning of a passage. Here in Making a Go, Bridie has gone back to London (which she loves) to pack her bags and say goodbye, to go back to her empty marriage for the sake of the children.

When she got to Paddington she popped down to the underground, took the Circle Line, changed once, and left one stop before Tottenham Court Road. She walked down Oxford Street to see the lights. It was alive with people. Black taxis throbbed, stalled behind red buses, and shops tinkled and pinged.

Now in truth, do we care that she changed stations? Ask yourself then, why is the description there, why do we show "changed once" in parenthesis. But notice Bridie "popped" down, not trudged, not walked. I would argue that her "popping" is alive, vibrant (she has, after all, discovered herself, got a lover, found she is loved, respected)… but the stretched description of the subway journey is a pause, a pause before she leaves one stop before her usual stop.

Notice, we don't say, "she stopped at Oxford Circus so she could walk down Oxford Street for the last time, to absorb the special atmosphere", we merely say "She walked down Oxford Street to see the lights". and then "It was alive with people". And then lastly we picture paint, "Black taxis throbbed, stalled behind red buses, and shops tinkled and pinged.

"Throbbed" is a specially chosen word, "black taxis throbbed" is a special and specific image, "London" when you add the red buses. And shops tinkling and pinging? Very unusual, a glance at Bridie's world, how she is seeing it, loving it, smelling it.

All this, the images chosen, the avoidance of explanation, the sounds and shapes and rhythms of the text which are part of the feel and meaning, all this is seductive, involving, expecting the reader to divine from the complete text, the total meaning, expecting the reader to apply his or her intelligence, experience, to think popped, pinged, tinkled and from these tips of icebergs sense more of the body of the berg, the deep ocean beneath, the currents in Bridie's life.

Word shape, word sounds, whether they are hard or soft, wooden, juicy or metallic, their combinations, increased softness, melifluousness, or the short sharp attackattackattack of words of violence delivered rapidly with few or no distractions, all this is seduction, the green hillsides, far away from the boring lecture hall of instruction.

In the following extract, Caz Flood has been for a very long run, she's mellowing, having a glass or two, then she begins to think of work, then she clicks back into cop-speak, shorter, sharper, ack-ack, profane. But she loves her boss.

She bathed - more usually she would shower - and she wallowed there in a slightly ludicrous pink froth listening to Harry Chapin aching through the flat from the stereo in the lounge. She had a tall glass of Mosel Sahr Ruwer Kabinet on the bathside (it was only one glass) and she let Harry's voice roll over her, slowly making her sad. She thought about her fellah and gave out a little sigh. She needed Val to be back.

After her bath, Caz strolled through the flat. She was wearing an extra-large T-shirt sprayed orange and yellow and demanding Independencia! She had poured another cool glass of the German wine and swapped the Harry Chapin CD for Joe Cocker. When she came out of the kitchen she had a crispbread spread with peppered brie and the postcard from the Florida Keys. She picked up the phone to ring Tom MacInnes.

The DI's phone rang out in an empty room. Caz waited for an answering machine to cut in. When none did, she counted another ten rings, cut the call and dialled the nick. Joe Cocker barrelled out Delta Lady while she listened to fifteen more rings. Finally, a voice answered.

"John Street."
"Caz Flood. Is DI MacInnes there?"
"He's off-duty today."
"I know that. Is he in?"
"What do you think?"
"Is that Bob Allen? Stop fuckin round, Sarge."
"OK, Flood. Putting you through."
After two clicks, she heard Tom's voice. He sounded frail. "Hello, Caz."
"How about lunch?" she said softly.
"Your place or mine?" he said, just a little brighter.



So in the first paragraph we stock up with m's, l's, longer, hush-words, more parentheses, asides, beats, longer sentences. Caz wallows, let's things roll over her, listens to easy music. In the next, picture-painting Caz thru her dress and food - and she puts something heavier on the stereo - less of the wallow-sounds. Then in the third, The DI's phone rang out in an empty room. Shortening sentences. Caz getting into the mood. Caz waited for an answering machine to cut in. When none did, she counted another ten rings, cut the call and dialled the nick. Joe Cocker barrelled out Delta Lady while she listened to fifteen more rings. Finally, a voice answered. And note too, that the stretched final sentence equates with Caz actually waiting. And now…

"John Street."
"Caz Flood. Is DI MacInnes there?"
"He's off-duty today."
"I know that. Is he in?"
"What do you think?"
"Is that Bob Allen? Stop fuckin round, Sarge."
"OK, Flood. Putting you through."
After two clicks, she heard Tom's voice. He sounded frail. "Hello, Caz."
"How about lunch?" she said softly.
"Your place or mine?" he said, just a little brighter.



Caz the cop, her harder, deal-with-the-guys side.

Alex KeeganBritish Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.



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