Monday, March 7, 2011

How to write like Zane Grey

The success and popularity of Zane Grey continues to puzzle me. Reading the opening chapter of his novel The Drift Fence (1933), I stopped after the opening chapter to consider why I had little desire to read farther. So I have to wonder why the man's writing had the opposite effect on his legions of fans.

Surely contemporary western writers of the 1920s and 30s must have wondered the same thing as they tried to emulate him. Studying this book, they could well have derived the following rules for writing a compelling first chapter:

1. Introduce lots of characters and a couple place names in the first paragraph. This will get the story started off with a bang and give the impression that there's lots going on.

2. Write in short, choppy sentences. Some readers can process only one detail at a time.

3. Make your main character a sixteen-year-old. That way you don’t risk telling the story through someone smarter than your reader.

4. Provide all the exposition through dialogue. This is another advantage of a young point of view character. Everything has to be explained to them, so it’s easy for the reader follow.

5. Have characters speak in a drawl. This adds amusing local color.

6. Introduce a hopelessly stupid character. This will show the superior intelligence of the central character even though they know little themselves.

7. Keep it generic. Don’t confuse a reader with details and specifics that might challenge their vague ideas of geography and history.

8. Keep it simple. Your characters should all be recognizable types. Readers don’t want to be reminded that humans are infinitely complex.

9. Mix in some multi-syllable words. Using words that your characters would not use themselves shows off your vocabulary. Words like: insidious, imminence, wherefore, affirmative, nonchalant, and so on.

10. Feel free to over-dramatize. Don’t say, “When he was done talking, no one spoke.” That's too matter of fact. Say, “His ominous reasoning had a silencing effect upon his hearers.”

I could go on.

The irony is that in spite of all this, Grey became a hugely successful and wealthy writer. His novels were best sellers, with sales of 100,000 copies and more. Many were made into movies. Today he is one of the few remembered by the general public as a writer of westerns.

You might expect that his contemporaries wrote no better. Reading early western fiction, the great surprise to me is that so little of it seems dated. The writing is typically fresh, sharp, interesting, well crafted.

Apparently, even today, these aspects of craft somehow don't matter much to the average reader. For me, you can’t have a well-told story without them. Anyone out there attempting to do both, whether they find a big audience or not, has my complete admiration.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Sam Brown, The Big Lonely


  1. I had a similar reaction to the first Zane Grey I read, which I no longer even remember the title of. I didn't read another for 20 plus years until I finally listened to "riders of the purple sage" on my Kindle this last year. I found I kind of enjoyed listening to it, though I don't know about "reading" another one.

  2. You nailed it, Ron. I enjoy his old pulp magazine but rarely read any of his own stories featured in that quality mag.

    Main reasons for me is #5 and 6.

  3. I first read "Shane", some considerable time ago. It had a very odd effect on me. I found it somewhat un-engaging? Maybe I wasnt ready. Having said that, I was given a copy of "Shane" as a gift from a friend of mine. I think he meant well, started reading it, and only got to the start of chap:3! Still find it hard going? Is it me?

  4. I think if I had to pick one word to describe Zane Grey's writing it would be 'drama.' His books are packed full of drama, frequently spilling into melodrama. Lots of emotion and inner turmoil for his characters. I wouldn't name him among the authors I'd try to emulate, but I did go through a period where I read a ton of his books one right after the other (when I first began to read Western fiction) and there are several I wouldn't mind going back to. The Drift Fence is one, incidentally.

    But your #5 point, the drawl...that drove me nuts in Grey's books. You've got to be really, really good at dialect to pull it off, and I thought his attempts were over the top.

  5. I'm still trying to get my hands on some westerns in this country. I Like the list though, Ron.

  6. His biography is a lot more fun than his stories! He sure had trouble hewing to the straight and narrow.

  7. I've only read two of his books--Riders of the Purple Sage and Under the Tonto Rim (the last I actually listened to). I read Purple Sage because of living in Mormon country. But after the second book, I wasn't interested in any others of his.

  8. Zane Grey's grandniece gave me a copy of The Drift Fence, her favorite Grey novel. She explained that its heroine, Molly Dunn, is actually a remarkable portrayal of an independent, self-sufficient, fully realized American woman. She felt that Grey had led American authors in the portrayal of women. She also felt that Grey knew and wrote about women better than any other male author of the period.

  9. I've always had problems with Zane Grey also, and like Ron, I've wondered why he was so popular. I think part of the reason may be because he started writing westerns early in the 1900's when readers were starved for western fiction. He just happen to benefit from the popularity of the west in books, pulps, and movies. He was one of the early writers so he got in on the ground floor and had a major publisher advertising and distributing his novels.

    Probably, if he had come later in time, he would not have achieved the vast popularity among readers. But anything to do with the west was very much in demand during the early and middle 1900's.

  10. Hello

    A question from a novice western reader in Denmark. How do you compare Zane Grey to writers like Max Brand and Louis Lámour ?
    Best regards Niels Lofgren Denmark

  11. My grandfather-in-law loved him because he said nothing fancy got in the way of the story. I guess by that he meant any semblance of craft.

  12. Walker, Richard, Elisabeth, Patti, thanks for your thoughts, and I'm responding to them in the follow-up post "How to write like Zane Grey, cont."

    Charles, I'm guessing that Grey's style works better in audio. It may even be a style that is meant to be read and heard aloud, as if written for a dramatic reading.

    David, it's a pleasure to share an opinion with you.

    Cheyenne, SHANE really reads like young adult fiction, and that's partly due to the narrator, who was a boy at the time of the story in the novel.

    David, the best bet for western fiction in the UK these days is probably ebooks.

    Sage, HERITAGE OF THE DESERT is also about Mormons, though it's a more sympathetic portrayal than RIDERS.

    OGR, there your are.

    Jason, I'm not an authority on either Brand or Lamour, but I'd guess they owe a lot to Grey. My impression is that their style is more economical and more legitimately dramatic.

  13. Glad to know I'm not just a freak. I've always felt like I should be a Zane Grey fan but I've never been able to get past chapter one of anything he wrote. Oh well, it wouldn't suit us all to be the same.