John Grisham’s novel The Last Juror (Doubleday 2004) is told through the first-person viewpoint of young journalist Willie Traynor. Willie goes through culture shock when he is transplanted from the big city to the small town of Clanton, Mississippi, as the new owner of the town’s weekly newspaper.
The novel has the usual elements of a legal thriller: murder, vengeance, romance, and courtroom drama. Another important element is Willie’s adjustment to the small-town South. Grisham does a masterful job of bringing this setting to life through young Willie’s perspective. He makes it look easy. But is it? Does this kind of writing flow effortlessly from John Grisham’s brain and through his tapping fingertips onto his computer screen?
No. It takes time and effort to write the way John Grisham writes. Unfortunately, not all writers are willing to put in that time and effort. Below are some passages from The Last Juror. Before each one, I want to show you how it might have been written. The first is a description of the office building that becomes an important setting in the story. Here’s the way it could have been described:
The Times was housed in a decrepit old building on the south side of the Clanton square.
Here’s the way John Grisham chose to describe it:
When I bought the Times, its prehistoric building came with the deal. It had very little value. It was on the south side of the Clanton square, one of four decaying structures built wall to wall by someone in a hurry; long and narrow, three levels, with a basement that all employees feared and shied away from. There were several offices in the front, all with stained and threadbare carpet, peeling walls, the smell of last century’s pipe smoke forever fused to the ceilings.
In the rear, as far away as possible, was the printing press. Every Tuesday night, Hardy, our pressman, somehow coaxed the old letterpress to life and managed to produce yet another edition of our paper. His space was rank with the sharp odor of printer’s ink.
Besides giving a physical description of this building, Grisham does a marvelous job of getting across its personality. (I especially like the way he characterizes the basement.) Keep in mind that this description of the building is given to the reader through the viewpoint of Willie, a young man from a big city. If the description had been given through the viewpoint of, say, the old man who owned the newspaper before Willie bought it, the description would probably be much different. It’s likely that the old man would see the building as a proud old monument rather than a decaying structure. By taking the time to consider how his protagonist would see this physical setting, Grisham reveals something about Willie while at the same time giving the reader a good look at this building.
In the next example, Grisham introduces an important supporting character to the reader. Here’s how it might have gone:
On Friday afternoon, Harry Rex Vonner paid me a visit. He was a big man in a wrinkled suit. When he introduced himself, I recalled that Baggy had said he was a divorce attorney.
He sat down across from me and put a pistol on the desk in front of him. “You got one of these?”
If Grisham’s only goal was to introduce Harry Rex into the story and include a plot element by having him give Willie the gun, then the above accomplishes that. But Grisham has another goal, of course, and that is to entertain the reader and keep him or her turning pages. Using colorless language to introduce dull characters won’t do it. Instead, here’s how Grisham introduced Harry Rex:
I was alone in my office early Friday afternoon when someone made a noisy entrance downstairs, then came clamoring up. He shoved my door open without so much as a “Hello” and stuck both hands in his pants pockets. He looked vaguely familiar; we’d met somewhere around the square.
“You got one of these, boy?” he growled, yanking his right hand out and momentarily freezing my heart and lungs. He slid a shiny pistol across my desk as if it were a set of keys. It spun wildly for a few seconds before resting directly before me, the barrel mercifully pointing toward the windows.
He lunged across the desk, thrust out a massive hand, and said, “Harry Rex Vonner, a pleasure.” I was too stunned to speak or move, but eventually honored him with an embarrassingly weak handshake. I was still watching the gun.
“It’s a Smith and Wesson thirty-eight, six-shooter, damned fine firearm. You carry one?”
I shook my head no. The name alone sent chills to my feet. Harry Rex kept a nasty black cigar tucked into the left side of his mouth. It gave the impression of having spent most of the day there, slowly disintegrating like a plug of chewing tobacco. No smoke because it wasn’t lit. He dropped his massive body into a leather chair as if he might stay for a couple of hours.
“You a crazy sumbitch, you know that?” He didn’t speak as much as he growled. Then I caught the name. He was a local lawyer, once described by Baggy as the meanest divorce attorney in the county. He had a large fleshy face with short hair that shot in all directions like windblown straw. His ancient khaki suit was wrinkled and stained and said to the world that Harry Rex didn’t give a damn about anything.
In order to compose that introduction of Harry Rex, Grisham first had to decide what kind of character he needed for that role in the story. Then he had to think about the best way to let the reader meet that character in a way that would instantly grab the reader’s attention. Then he had to compose the narrative in a way that would make it interesting.
As I said at the outset, Grisham makes it look easy. For the reader, it takes a minute or less to read the opening of this scene. I don’t know how long it took Grisham to conceive of it and write it, but my guess is that he spent a fair amount of time staring at the screen, waiting for inspiration. It probably took him at least a couple of hours to get this scene launched in the right way.
Many writers wouldn’t be willing to invest that much time in a few paragraphs. Many would have written something much like the shorter version. If the writer’s only goal is to get Harry Rex into the story and have him give Willie the gun, this shortened version does the job. But I hope you can see that Grisham accomplished so much more than that by taking some time to think about the right scene elements and for working the prose until it sparkled.
Now for another example. Harry Rex invites Willie to a goat barbecue, which leads into the next scene as Willie arrives at Harry’s place. Here’s how it might have gone:
My Spitfire looked out of place when I parked it among the other vehicles at Harry Rex’s cabin. Pickup trucks outnumbered cars by at least two to one. Harry Rex took me to the pit where the goat was roasting, then showed me around and introduced me to an odd assortment of guests: a lawyer, a bail bondsman, a car dealer, a farmer, a secretary, a “crooked real estate agent,” the current wife of Harry Rex.
That’s the quick and easy version. It took me less than a minute to write it. But Grisham wasn’t satisfied with the easy version. Here’s the way he wrote it:
There was a barbed-wire fence with an open metal gate, and I stopped there because the young man with the shotgun wanted me to. He kept it on his shoulder as he looked scornfully at my car. “What kind is it?” he grunted.
“Triumph Spitfire. It’s British.” I was smiling, trying not to offend him. Why did a goat party need armed security? He had the rustic look of someone who’d never seen a car made in another country.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
I think the “Willie” made him feel better, so he nodded at the gate. “Nice car,” he said as I drove through.
The pickup trucks outnumbered the cars. Parking was haphazard in a field in front of the cabin. Merle Haggard was wailing from two speakers placed in the windows. One group of guests huddled over a pit where smoke was rising and the goat was roasting. Another group was tossing horseshoes beside the cabin. Three well-dressed ladies were on the porch, sipping something that was certainly not beer. Harry Rex appeared and greeted me warmly.
“Who’s the boy with the shotgun?” I asked.
“Oh him. That’s Duffy, my first wife’s nephew.”
“Why is he out there?” If the goat party included something illegal, I at least wanted some notice.
“Don’t worry. Duffy ain’t all there, and the gun ain’t loaded. He’s been guardin’ nothin’ for years.”
I smiled as if this made perfect sense. He guided me to the pit where I saw my first goat, dead or alive. With the exception of head and hide, it appeared to be intact. I was introduced to the many chefs. With each name I got an occupation—a lawyer, a bail bondsman, a car dealer, a farmer. As I watched the goat spin slowly on a spit, I soon learned that there were many competing theories on how to properly barbecue one. Harry Rex handed me a beer and we moved on to the cabin, speaking to anyone we bumped into. A secretary, a “crooked real estate agent,” the current wife of Harry Rex. Each seemed pleased to meet the new owner of the Times.
Again, Grisham manages to get across a description of the physical setting, as well as its personality as Willie experiences it. Yes, he could have given this to the reader in the short version. But he was willing to put some time and effort into composing the right scene with the right elements, and thus breathed life into the scene.
My last example takes the reader to Willie’s apartment and gives some background information about his quirky landlords. If Grisham had been in a hurry to wrap things up so he could get to the golf course, here’s how he might have written it:
I lived above a garage next to a rundown old mansion known as the Hocutt House. Besides me, the Hocutts, three elderly sisters and a brother, also shared the property with dozens of cats. I was told, in no uncertain terms, to respect the cats.
Here’s Grisham’s version:
At the time I lived above an old garage next to a decaying but still grand Victorian mansion known as the Hocutt House. It was filled with elderly Hocutts, three sisters and a brother, and they took turns being my landlord. Their five-acre estate was a few blocks from the Clanton square and had been built a century earlier with family money. It was covered with trees, overgrown flower beds, thick patches of mature weeds, and enough animals to stock a game preserve. Rabbits, squirrels, skunks, possums, raccoons, a million birds, a frightening assortment of green and black snakes—all nonpoisonous I was reassured—and dozens of cats. But no dogs. The Hocutts hated dogs. Each cat had a name, and a major clause in my verbal lease was that I would respect the cats.
Respect them I did. The four-room loft apartment was spacious and clean and cost me the ridiculous sum of $50 a month. If they wanted their cats respected at that price, fine with me.
Their father, Miles Hocutt, had been an eccentric doctor in Clanton for decades. Their mother died during childbirth, and, according to local legend, Dr. Hocutt became very possessive of the children after her death. To protect them from the world, he concocted one of the biggest lies ever told in Ford County. He explained to his children that insanity ran deeply in the family, and thus they should never marry lest they produce some hideous strain of idiot offspring. His children worshiped him, believed him, and were probably already exposed to some measure of unbalance. They never married. The son, Max Hocutt, was eighty-one when he leased me the apartment. The twins, Wilma and Gilma, were seventy-seven, and Melberta, the baby, was seventy-three and completely out of her mind.
It was Gilma, I think, who was peeking from the kitchen window as I descended the wooden stairway at midnight. A cat was asleep on the bottom step, directly in my path, but I respectfully stepped over it. I wanted to kick it into the street.
Two cars were parked in the garage. One was my Spitfire, top up to keep the cats out, and the other was a long, shiny black Mercedes with red-and-white butcher knives painted on the doors. Under the knives were phone numbers in green paint. Someone had once told Mr. Max Hocutt that he could completely write off the cost of a new car, any car, if he used it for business and some sort of logo was painted on the doors. He bought a new Mercedes and became a knife sharpener. He said his tools were in the trunk.
This is a great example of how to give background information to the reader in a way that keeps the reader fully engaged with the main character. Grisham could’ve written the shorter version in a few seconds. Instead, he took some time to conceptualize background information that he could turn into bright, funny prose. In other words, he didn’t take the easy way out. If John Grisham was a writer who always sought the easiest way to write a scene, he would still be practicing law right now instead of writing one bestseller after another.
We can’t all write like John Grisham, of course, but we can all work hard to make sure that everything we write is as good as it can be. If you’re writing a novel and you reach a scene that requires the introduction of a supporting character and a plot element like a gun, don’t think in terms of the easiest, quickest way to accomplish that. Back away from your keyboard, close your eyes, and take some time to think about how you can fully engage the reader in that scene, how you can introduce the supporting character in a way that will make the reader eager to see that character in action as the story progresses. It isn’t as easy as it looks.
For a glimpse of what it’s like to be a bestselling novelist, check out Charlie Rose’s interview of John Grisham at http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/8910.