Sandra Neily here:
Are you, like me, pining for the world to get a bit more … Pithy?
A pithy phrase or statement is brief but full of substance and meaning. It often feels like a shot of truth.
(I don’t mean a hit of social media that assumes humans’ attention spans are shorter than a cream shot hitting expresso.)
Can a fiction writer be pithy? Use the pithy phrase successfully and not lose readers? Avoid that moment when readers feel an author reaching through to lecture … or (I’m cringing) hector them?
Wow them with that arresting moment that might define a character and have us thinking about a possible truth long after a page is turned?
Yes! Of course. But, like me, it might be surprising.
I’ve been listening to Agatha Christie’s short stories as I drive. The pithy is jumping out at me in the midst of bodies and more bodies, and even more bodies (and lots of stolen jewels).
So here she is.
From Agatha Christie’s fiction:
I do not argue with obstinate men. I act in spite of them.” Agatha Christie, The Mystery of the Blue Train
“A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity. It dares all things and crushes down remorseless.” Agatha Christie, The Hound of Death and Other Stories
“As a matter of fact it wouldn’t be safe to tell any man the truth about his wife! Funnily enough, I’d trust most women with the truth about their husbands. Women can accept the fact that a man is a rotter, a swindler, a drug taker, a confirmed liar, and a general swine, without batting an eyelash, and without its impairing their affection for the brute in the least. Women are wonderful realists.” Agatha Christie, Murder in Mesopotamia
“If you confront anyone who has lied with the truth, he will usually admit it – often out of sheer surprise. It is only necessary to guess right to produce your effect.” Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express
“Everybody always knows something,” said Adam, “even if it’s something they don’t know they know.” Agatha Christie, Cat Among the Pigeons
And a few from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels:
If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” Sirius Black, The Goblet of Fire
Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” Dumbledore, Deathly Hallows: part 2
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Dumbledore, Chamber of Secrets.
What’s comin’ will come, an’ we’ll meet it when it does.” Hagrid, The Goblet of Fire
I went back to look for pithy, truth-sounding moments in my novels and found them, but I think they should be Agatha-short. Or shorter. I thank her for being a pithy role model!
From my Deadly Trespass:
“… wild animal health depends on our setting up the outdoors as a zoo—a zoo without bars. I know it’s a contradiction, but today no animal can be free until we accept responsibility for its freedom.” (Patton)
It helped that I knew real conservation started in the human heart, not out where animals actually lived.
I replayed my mother’s message three times just to hear her voice, because a mother’s voice is a mother’s voice no matter what.
I thought I might understand his caution—his hard-learned silence. Sometimes I thought there was a whole tribe of men who’d forced women onto smaller, meaner plots of ground where we were also supposed to be content and silent. I knew the scale of intimidation was different. My relatives had never been hunted down and slaughtered …
[about moose poaching] Remote locations often seduce lawful people into criminal behavior.
[the girl-be-silent disease] We helped the disease metastasize to our brains so no one had to remind us that our words and voices needed careful pruning to get and hold jobs—get and hold most men we met. We carried scalpels inside to accomplish our own voice reduction surgery.
ps: From Agatha to us, from her autobiography:
“There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.”
“The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes. ”
Please, while enjoying your cocoa, send me a comment with a favorite pithy phrase, either yours or a favorite of yours! Thanks….
The second Mystery in Maine, Deadly Turn, was published in 2021. Her debut novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” won a national Mystery Writers of America award, was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, and was a finalist for a Maine Literary Award. Find her novels at all Shermans Books (Maine) and on Amazon. Find more info on Sandy’s website.
Per Tim Sample: “Our boy Hubert not only don’t know nothin’, he don’t even suspect nothin'”
HAHAHA! Peeeerfect, John. Thx!
What fun. Will go and look for one or two.
If you want to see the heart of a man look at his treatment of animals.
“It’s our choices that show what we really are”…the difference between heroes and criminals.
Julianne, Thank YOU! I especially like the heart of a man: animals. Much appreciated!
Wonderful!! I agree, and, I do appreciate “pithy”! And, I love your cup.
Whoops. Didn’t leave my name. I’m the one who loves “pithy” and your cup.
Thanks, Kathy. I do love the cup you sent. The pithy on it always makes my day!
I don’t know if this is pithy or not, but found it while editing and liked it:
The place stank of age and damp, of beer and unwashed bodies, of urine and garbage. The smells of poverty and despair and people who’d lost hope.
Sometimes he wished he could bottle scents like that and take them to city council and state legislative hearings, where poverty and the desperate need for housing were too easily viewed as abstract. He’d stand there and pour out the reek onto the floor and say, “See. This is what happens when people don’t have food and decent shelter and hope and it’s left up to us to clean up society’s messes.”
From my next Joe Burgess, Such a Good Man
oh my: The “smells of poverty and despair.” Quite! Thanks.
Answelica was a goat with teeth that were the mirror of her soul – large, sharp, and uncompromising. Kate DiCamillo
I do this this pithy captures the goats I’ve known: “uncompromising.” Great pithy truth! thx.
I don’t care about being dead. You don’t know about it. Being dead is like being stupid. It’s only painful for others. Ricky Gervais
I think I adore the “stupid” analogy w Pain for Others. Thanks!