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
Sam Brown, The Big Lonely