Thursday, December 29, 2016

Pulp, Noir, and Hard-Boiled: You Got Your Chocolate in My Peanut Butter!

Obviously, as pulp and adventure writers we all know that Noir is a film term and that pulps helped birth hard-boiled stories, but there is no denying that the terms get sort of all mixed into the batter of a detective-ish cake -- and even by folks who are "masters" of the medium such as film critics and fiction reviewers. So, in light of that, I figured it was time to talk about why and how the grandchild of the group (Noir) reached back up the line and influenced the future of it forebears.

Pulp, Noir, and hard-boiled... Academics and casual fans alike blend them together like ingredients in the same soup. Why is that so easy to do?

Pj Lozito: "Noir" is a film term, really. Although the French had Série Noire books most of the folks who (mis)use the term never heard of that. I'm sure we all have ! Film Noir was named after it. "Pulp" was fiction-delivery system. It contained many types of fiction, Western and romance being the most popular. You could even say science fiction was the next most popular as ASTOUNDING is still with us as ANALOG. Certain pulp mystery stories were filmed and came be called "film noir" (after the fact). But other film noir, like KEY LARGO, derived from a play. I had a film professor who held HIGH NOON can be seen as flim noir. He had us go see BODY HEAT, as a modern noir. So they are noir without being pulp. Other pulp was filmed, The Shadow and The Spider, for example, and have nothing to do with noir. "Hard boiled" fiction was grown in the pulps but a hard-boiled writer like James M. Cain were never in pulps.

Scott Rogers: It's easier to blend them together - visuals are similar, character archetypes are similar, many of the stories fall under the thriller or crime category.

Gordon Dymowski: I think all three genres have the same basic ingredient: stripped-down, straight-ahead prose. All three are "gut" literature, focusing more on direct emotions than, say, their more literary cousins.

Of the three, in regard to writing prose fiction, let's talk about Noir. What allowed it to jump from film into prose? What are the elements that separate it from the other two?

Gordon Dymowski: Unlike pulp and hard-boiled, I think noir tends to be "darker", focusing on more base emotions and hard-scrabble lives. Noir also has a greater moral complexity to it - pulp and hard-boiled tend to focus on the "good-guys-must-always-win", while noir tends to have more pessimistic events play out.

The other distinctive aspect of noir is where it happens - in the shadows, in smoky out-of-the-way places, on the streets. Pulp can handle grand tableaus, and hard-boiled literature can have a wide range of settings....but noir is best kept on a "street" level, focusing on people trying to make their way in a very tough, harsh world. Writing from a more psychological perspective often leads to stronger, more atmospheric writing.

Scott Rogers: The theme of noir "no good deed goes unpunished"

What are the elements of Noir-storytelling that attract you as a writer? 

Scott Rogers: My favorite trope of noir is the voice over or narration. Although many hate it, it's my favorite part of Blade Runner and think it's what pushes it into noir territory.

Gordon Dymowski: One of the reasons why I enjoy writing noir is that it's easier to focus on character and setting rather than plot and narrative. At times, writing about people struggling and getting by can be liberating, even if the story is heading for disaster. Plus, noir allows for some nuance in character - many of the characters share some form of moral compromise, and so it provides an opportunity to explore the darker side of character.

How do those elements make you a better writer?

Scott Rogers: It helps me get into the character's head.

Gordon Dymowski: Focusing on more complicated morality and richer character exploration means that, as a writer, I have to make more of an effort to craft a three-dimensional experience. It's easy to throw in random "noir" elements (smoky bar, femme fatale, etc) - it's much harder to create and maintain a world that "feels" real. (While pulp and hard-boiled don't necessarily need to be "realistic", noir demands a form of realism.)

What works of both screen and prose would you recommend to writers looking to to develop a better understanding of and appreciation for Noir storytelling?

Scott Rogers: Dashiell Hammett, Frank Miller, Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, Jonathan Latimer, Billy Wilder

Gordon Dymowski: For writing, Jim Thompson - even if the only novel he wrote was THE KILLER INSIDE ME, he would still be a noir grandmaster. However, Thompson has a great body of work that *demands* you read it...and is definitely worth reading.

Another recommendation - CLEAN BREAK by Lionel White. It's a pretty taut example of noir (it was adapted by Kubrick & Thompson into the movie THE KILLING) and not coincidentally, available for download via