Four Surprising Lessons

© 2011 Dennis E. Hensley

Someone sent me an email recently with the header, “Twenty Classic Novels You’ve Probably Never Read.” Since I consider myself to be a well-read person (hey, I do have a Ph.D. in English, after all), I decided to download this list and prove the sender wrong. However, I got a surprise because I actually had not read nine books on that list. I determined to get those nine books and read them, pronto. It proved to be one of the worst goals I’ve ever set.

The first book on the list was Riders of the Purple Sageby Zane Grey. That book should have been titled Writer of the Purple Prose. It’s terrible. It is hundreds of pages long, with fainting women who beg (for five pages at a time) their men to resolve their issues without six-guns.

When I finished, the thing that amazed me was I could see that all westerns written (or filmed) after it had used this one novel as the cornerstone of what should go into a classic western saga. If I could do the Reader’s Digestversion and delete all the filler, editorials, and melodrama, it would make a heck of a thrilling story.

Which leads me to the four surprising lessons I learned by reading this drawn out, boring novel.

1. Writing is improved when it is tightened.

Even for fiction the journalistic adage of “less is more” is true. Be merciless on your copy. Eliminate redundancies. Use visual nouns and action verbs and delete adjectives and adverbs. Make the speaker obvious and delete attributions. Compress scenes. Get to the point.

2. Show, don’t tell, as often as possible.

Don’t spend 30 pages expounding on the need to preserve Native American culture. Have one character pick up some broken pottery and say, “This is beautiful. It should be preserved. Any way to protect these things?” Readers are bored by lectures. Action holds their attention.

3. Give readers what they paid for.

Audiences loved Shakespeare’s plays because they got sword fights, witty dialogue, political scandals, murders, ghosts, music, dancing, and heroes and villains. If what readers want from a western are shoot ‘em ups, mob scene lynchings, bank robberies, and guys on white horses, then deliver the goods. Maintain momentum. Cut out the filler. On with the show!

4. Let the good guys win.

Zane Grey’s novel ends with the wealthy female landowner riding off into the sunset with the notorious gunslinger, but only after her cattle have been taken by rustlers, her home burned to the ground, her hired hands shot or driven off, and all but three of her horses stolen. What kind of justice and fair play is that? I’m all for including a touch of romance, but please, we also need to see the varmints get what’s comin’ to ‘em.

I will confess I did benefit from reading Riders of the Purple Sage. It taught me those four valuable lessons. Because of that, when I see my writer friends, I ask, “Hey, read any bad books lately?”
Dr. Dennis E. Hensley is a regular speaker and mentor at ACW conferences. He is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. His more than 50 published books include How To Write What You Love and Make a Living at It(Random House).

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