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Writing flat and writing deep

The book I’m reading in the bath at the moment is the controversial American Dirt. The controversy is a bit silly, I think, but I’m not going to talk about that here. Rather, what I want to look at is two different ways of writing.

Here’s one way. The excerpt comes from the very start of the book – the mother (Mami) shoving her boy (Luca) towards safety during an attack on their home:

Her hands are not gentle; she propels him towards the shower. He trips on the raised tile step and falls forwards onto his hands. Mami lands on top of him and his teeth pierce his lip in the tumble. He tastes blood. One dark droplet makes a tiny circle of red against the bright green shower tile. Mami shoves Luca into the corner. There’s no door on this shower, no curtain. It’s only a corner of his abuela’s bathroom, with a third tiled wall built to suggest a stall. This wall is around five and a half feet high and three feet long – just large enough, with some luck, to shield Luca and his mother from sight. Luca’s back is wedged, his small shoulders touching both walls. His knees are drawn up to his chin, and Mami is clinched around him like a tortoise’s shell. The door of the bathroom is open, which worries Luca.

Now, it’s not just the content there which strongly suggests a thriller. The prose does too. In fact, this chunk has all the flavour of Modern American Thriller – clean, deft, unyielding. Writers in other genres and from other countries sometimes write this way, but there’s no question that American writers first constructed this way of writing and that they’re still the best at delivering it.

But before we discuss it in detail, let’s try to understand the beast. The writing involved in this MAT standard is typically:

  • Present tense.
  • Factual and declarative – not many qualifications or uncertainties.
  • Sentences are typically short.
  • Vocabulary is typically uncomplicated.
  • Point of view is often objective rather than personal. There are only two phrases in this passage which identify Luca as the point-of-view character (“He tastes blood” and “which worries Luca”.) Mostly, the viewpoint feels neutral and external.
  • Centred on factual / physical reportage, rather than emotional / intellectual reflection
  • A collage of one-off snapshots, more than a broadly connected picture. So if you look at the passage above, you could remove almost any sentence or clause and leave the rest of it undamaged. So “He tastes blood” stands alone – a specific snapshot of a specific sensation. Yes, the sentence makes sense given what has immediately gone before, but you could remove this sentence and the passage would still make perfect sense. That’s true, give or take, of nearly all of it.

It’s pretty obvious why thrillers work well this way. There’s something uncompromising in this kind of language. Something warriorlike. In battle, there’s no room for complex reflection or sifting through of what-ifs and maybes. You just need facts. You need to remove emotion from those facts. You tell it like it is.

There is a kind of simplicity in this writing, but there’s a simplicity in the workings of a well-made handgun too. It’s the same kind of simplicity and has nothing to do with a lack of sophistication. George Pelecanos is a particular adept, but there are plenty of others. It’s like these authors have taken the lessons of Hemingway and Chandler and polished them up into a silver pebble, round and indivisible.

But that’s not the only way to write. Here’s how you could take the same material and deliver it in a way that largely breaks those MAT rules:

With ungentle hands, she propelled him towards the shower. Clumsy with shock, and her attention still pulled to the sounds of the intruders outside, she misjudged things, or Luca did. He tripped on the green tiled step and fell forwards, face-first, biting his lip in the tumble. Mami scooped him up and held him close, her body a shield for his. The blood from his lip looked astonishingly bright on the green tiles. Mami, automatically, wiped the blood away, but her thoughts were elsewhere. The shower had no door or curtain, only a low tiled wall that formed a kind of stall. It was pitifully little by way of hiding place. Nothing at all, by way of shelter.

In that passage, the series-of-snapshots quality has largely gone. The sequence of actions and consequences is all made clearer and more smoothly joined. Mami pushes Luca. He trips. He cuts his lip. Mami cuddles him and wipes away the blood. They take stock of where they are, and its limitations. And the reflections / qualifications / uncertainties are there too. Why did Luca fall? Well, Mami ‘misjudged things, or Luca did.’ Reality isn’t always quite clear, and this kind of writing picks up on those unclarities.

Is that rewritten passage, better or worse? Well, neither really. It's just different. Let’s call this kind of prose writing deep rather than flat; the equivalent of painting with oils rather than acrylics.

Very broadly speaking, the more character-centred your story, the more you will tend to paint with oils, the more you’ll want to write deep.

The more your interest is in action-reportage, and especially thriller-action reportage, the more you are likely to write flat.

But you can mix them up. As your story floats in and out of reflective moments and action moments, you can adapt your prose style accordingly. Indeed, although I’ve quoted Jeanine Cummins / American Dirt for this email, most of her book isn’t really written in MAT. It’s more character-led, more reflective.

And if your story is mostly ‘written deep’, then passages of ‘writing flat’ will be that much more powerful, that much more shocking. Your action scenes will gain a sense of edge and that exciting lack of compromise. The mild disconnectedness between the sentences can almost suggest a mild shock or altered emotional response on the part of your protagonist. Those are things you can emphasise a bit with your dialogue and your character’s other responses to the situation.

My own writing borrows a lot from MAT and I have a lot of fun with it – including actual fun, as in making jokes. So here, for example, is my character, Fiona, who has just had an altercation with a couple of thugs. She’s broken the jaw of one of them, then ran away. She’s safe now, but in shock. She arrives at a bus-shelter, where there’s a man also waiting:

‘Hi,’ I say.

‘Hi.’

After a bit, he says, ‘Are you all right?’

I say, ‘I don’t know.’

I want to ask him to punch me on the arm, to see if I can feel anything, but I don’t.

He smiles and shifts his weight.

We stand there together until I see a taxi. I try to flag it down, but walk straight into the glass wall of the shelter instead. My bus-stop buddy does the honours, flags the taxi and sees me into it. He handles me as you’d handle a figurine of antique china.

Nothing there says, ‘I am in shock’ yet Fiona’s shock reverberates all through the passage. There’s no obvious joke / punchline in the text, but Fiona’s ability to walk straight into a glass wall is sort of funny all the same. Fiona doesn’t directly reflect on how she must look or is behaving but, because the man asks ‘Are you all right?’, we understand that she must be giving off something quite odd.

And so on.

This kind of writing fun comes directly from the tools and resources of MAT – writing flat, not writing deep. (More prose writing tips here.)

Have fun with it. Tomorrow week, Saturday 14th, I’m going to be in London talking about self-publishing and author-led marketing generally. We still have a few tickets left for that, so do come along if you can.

But tell me: how do you write? Do you paint with oils or acrylics? Do you write flat or write deep? Or do you mix em up? Tell me what works for you, and let's all have a Heated Debate.

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Comments (13)
  • Great post. Very interesting! I didn't realise short, sharp punchy prose like this was called MAT. I definitely prefer it to a flowery, deliberate, don't-I-know-big-words style. 

    And MAT can be incredibly emotional. If we're talking about Hemingway, I'm sure most of us know his famous six-word story: 

    For sale. Baby's shoes. Never worn.

    Phew! The power of that. I think he also said good writing is more about what we leave out than what we put in. So for me, I try to say it simply. Make it accessible. Make the reader feel things without noticing they are. 

    This being said, 'deep' writing done well is spellbinding. I'm thinking of F Scott Fitzgerald and John Banville (particularly The Sea). My personal feeling though is that unless you're at that level it can read as overly sentimental, slightly pompous, and incredibly hard work. 

    (Why is American Dirt controversial?)

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    • Interesting piece. Action scenes are hard to write, far harder than dialogue and are the ones that I constantly feel the need to fiddle with. 

      I was writing one yesterday in which my central charater is dragged forcefully from a room in the midst of a shocking incident - it forms part of the central pivot of my novel and will echo through her behaviour and beliefs in the second half, so pretty important. Also in itself a thrilling moment I hope. When I go back to refine it, I'll bear these theories in mind - although I tend to favour a halfway house.

      Just to observe 'Modern American Thriller' does not come up when you google it - could it be a phrase that Harry himself has coined?

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      • Great article - lots of food for thought and I've studied it in the context of a novel I'm currently writing. My genre is an unusual mix of rom-com meets psychological thriller. It starts with a motorbike accident which leaves the main protagonist, Jake, wheel-chair bound for life. His story is one of character evolution and triumph over tragedy; the scenes in his POV are therefore written deep (but sometimes humorous) and in third person. The plot is interspersed with short stream-of-consciousness scenes in which a schizophrenic killer encounters an imaginary able-bodied version of Jake; I've been constructing these scenes (scary killer POV) in flat MAT style and also in first person. Is the switching between not only deep/flat but also third/first person within the 'acceptable rules'?

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        • Yes. Different tenses for different PoVs is quite common, from what I've seen. As are different writing styles.

          So long as each is consistent within itself, and your story works, go for it.

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        • I should have made it clear that I also switch from past to present tense for my killers POV! Is that allowed?

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          • Thoughts: I prefer the rewrite. The original slows me down with too much description. It's as if it's trying too hard to create a sense of place. It's awkward for me, and it slows me down when I read it. The rewrite hits me powerfully. It elicits emotion, which I find more pleasing than descriptions of inanimate objects. 

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