Make It Move the Story: Howard Hopkins on Writing the West Part 2

“Above all else, Howard Hopkins can make a story rocket forward, make you shiver and look over your shoulder, make you chuckle–frequently on the same page,” said Matthew P. Mayo, author of such Westerns as Hot Lead, Cold Heart and non-fiction as Cowboys, Mountain Me, & Grizzly Bears: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of the Wild West.  “I read Howard Hopkins’ work for enjoyment–and as a bonus, I get to learn from someone who really knows how to tell a compelling story. I’ve also been fortunate to have him as my editor on a few projects, and I’ve learned that he applies that same detailed attention to other people’s work. 

Yesterday Hopkins and I talked about how he got into writing Westerns (and what he brought with him from the Horror genre) and why he writes them.  Today we get down to brass tacks–plot, characterization, dialogue, action, and writing fast.

“Howard’s been at the task of writing for a while–dozens of books in a variety of genres–and it shows,” added Mayo. “His work is solid, and well-formed and carries the confidence of experience. Howard Hopkins is a hard-working writer, and a true master of pulp (and that’s meant as high compliment).”

And without further ado…

You’ve described plot as your bete noir.  What is it about plotting that you struggle with?

Howard Hopkins:  Plot has always been the burr in my saddle. Has never come easy. I’ve read entire books on it and still there are days when plotting I’d rather sit on a hot poker.

Recently, I was finishing up two novels based on licensed characters for a publisher–I can’t say who they are at the moment because they’re classified top secret, but hope to have an announcement soon. I can say one is a Western and one is 1930s based–and while the first novel plot came fairly easy the second one had me knocking my head against the wall. I had an idea, one involving Jack the Ripper again, oddly enough, and the first few chapters. I needed Jack in the 1930s, not as an old man, and possessed by an alien life-force. Strangely enough, that proved to be the easy part. What became tough was how to pit him against the hero, how they would meet, be integrated, instead of Jack just being plucked out of time and stuck there for no real reason other than to give the hero something to do. In this case Jack the Ripper is a very violent sadistic personality, amplified by a force that also feeds on hate and violence and rage. The hero is struggling with rage and violence issues, trying to get something within under control. That gave me a sort of parallel track.

So right after I introduced the initial hero scene… stuck. I had to bring them together for a legitimate reason. I had a link based on the nature of the hero, but I wanted something deeper, something running with the theme of the novel, in this case the question of violence—when is violence acceptable? Is it ever acceptable? Where is the line, and who decides whether it is used to butcher young strippers and prostitutes and who uses it to kill those who murder innocents? Is it okay to kill a killer? So I have a vicious killer and a hero who can be vicious and not in control always. What links them? (Other than their basic alien nature.) Why? How does one’s violence reflect the other’s? Teach the other? Change the other, or make the other question themself?

Then my hero told me what the link was. The hero had been briefly in a foster home at age seven or eight. This was established. The hero had one friend, always picked on by the other kids. This girl grew up to become the perpetual victim, getting into an abusive relationship and stripping for a living. The girl had choices in her life; mainly, to accept the violence against her or break the chain. This immediately tied her to her old friend, the hero, and suddenly the plot was open, and from elements already in the story and character bios. The girl’s life choice had made her an eternal victim… with the hero in the role of her protector at the home, and suddenly again her protector against a man who craves victims. Whether that works out well for the girl, I can’t reveal, but it worked out very well for unsticking the plot. I suddenly had a triangle that connected my theme–the pondering of the question of violence—to the hero, the villain, and the ultimate fate of the victim.

But it came hard. Gave me fits. I have never not resolved a plot, but they are never easy for me. I try to make sure everything relies on everything—take one part out and the rest wobbles. I despise loose ends or the type of plot where someone engages a hero, who is then the target of the antagonist, when it would have ended the book in the first chapter just to kill the someone who brought the hero in when it was simple to do so. And in the Western, you can’t have someone (usually) go to their computer and search the internet for a clue. There are a limited number of ways for things to happen, with limited technology, so plotting becomes even stickier, and has to hold together. Things can’t be coincidental. Well, they can be, I suppose, but I find it unsatisfying.

You’ve described the setting of Hell on Hoofs as a “bleak vista”.  What role does setting play in Westerns in general and in your Westerns in particular?  Do you prefer a particular type of setting and how do you go about crafting it?

Howard Hopkins:  In many Westerns, and other genres, setting is the inanimate character. If you are trying to build a suspenseful mood, or any other mood for that matter, setting can add to painting it. I tend to go for the deep blues of the spectrum, though in the case of Hell on Hoofs the bleak vista probably refers to the soul and mood of the protagonist more than setting.

The Killing Kind relies heavily on dark and gloomy settings, some dream sequences where the Western sky rains blood, to reflect the dark nature of the killer stalking the young rancher, and to reflect the young rancher’s hidden past. He is struggling to find the sunlight, outrun the night. And the endless expanses of his ranch grounds echo that. If setting is important in your story, choose it carefully. Make it live; make it a character. If you wear black to a wedding… make sure there’s an intrinsic reason for it.

What makes for a compelling protagonist in general and a compelling western protagonist in particular?

Howard Hopkins:  You need to give a damn about them and their problem. It’s as simple as that. If your protagonist is a conniving, back-biting douche, you won’t care and the reader won’t care, unless the person falls into a vat of boiling oil. Each novel is a journey for the writer and the reader and nobody wants to be stuck in the car with a burping, farting, know-it-all who whines about lumpy seat cushions every mile. It is basically the same in the Western. We want to care if Johnny loses his ranch or ends up with the prettiest gal in town. People are people and through the ages what makes us human is basically the same. We want to know the human spirit can endure and thrive and persevere against all odds in the end.

What about an antagonist?

Howard Hopkins:  Make him a sonofabitch and give him a reason for being one. Make us hate his guts, but not in a way that makes him one-dimensional. And don’t make him stupid, doing stupid things just to make it easier on the hero. Make him give the hero hell. Give him an opposing goal we despise. Darth Vader was a mean SOB and we knew it. His goal opposed the protagonist’s, Luke Skywalker, and we had a reason for Darth being who he had become. But we wanted him to lose in the end and Luke to win. Those who didn’t, of course, should seek therapy…

Any advice for writing action scenes?

Howard Hopkins:  Look at them from the perspective of a choreographer. Plan them, reenact them with a friend, draw them out, even if you have to use stick figures. If you are doing a fight scene in a saloon, know where your people are in relation to tables, the bar, the piano, and use whatever props are available, such as a bottle on a table. Don’t stop for long periods of dialog or exposition in the middle of the action. Spider-man talks to his villains while fighting, but most real life people do not. If you can, research boxing and martial arts styles of fighting; it can be a big help.

In a genre known for laconic heroes, for the strong silent types, how do you craft compelling dialogue?  Do you have any advice for writing good dialogue in general and for Western dialogue in particular?

Howard Hopkins:  Dialog has always come fairly easy for me, so I’ve never really thought much about it. Use it, however. Even if it is internal dialog for those strong silent types. The strong silent type can work pretty well on TV or in movies, but in novels you have to fill that space. But for godssakes, don’t let the cowboy constantly talk to his horse—unless it’s Brisco.

And as I mentioned previously, read comic books—there’s no better way to learn how to move a story through dialog and thought dialog. In comics, you can’t use chunks of exposition to set a scene. Your artist draws it, but you are responsible for moving the story and making the characters live. While you do indeed have more room in a novel to paint the scenes, and more tools at your disposal in a literary sense, use dialog and make it sparkle. “Hi, how are you? My name’s Fred,” is boring. “What the hell were you doing with my wife in the back of that van last night, you no-good sonofabitch?” is less so. While you want the rhythm and feel of realistic speech in your book, you don’t want all the filler and banality of it. Ever listen to someone yapping away about nothing on a cellphone? Snooze. Don’t repeat that in your dialog. Make it move the story or character. It can really speed up a story.

If you had half the usual amount of time to write a Black Horse Western, how would you go about doing it? 

Howard Hopkins:  Check myself into an asylum with a laptop? I tend to be a very fast writer as it is, so it would be tough. I s’pose I would sit my butt in a seat and not move until I got a certain amount of words per day—which would have to be a lot, since I average 5000 per day and have many times hit 8-10,000—and make sure nothing—no family drama or TV or phones—could distract me. I would probably detail my plot a bit more than normal, so I’d know exactly where I was going, as often I don’t use more than a single line to point me in a direction. But other than that, I doubt much would change. I am a creature of habit.  Marathon write… then take weeks to recover.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.