Creative Writing Masterclass: O. Henry

O. Henry (real name, William Sydney Porter) was an American writer best known for his entertaining short stories about American life. Many, though not all of them, were set in New York and were usually about the poorer classes of society. A rather pompous journalist of the time had said that there were only “400 people who mattered”. Henry responded by saying there were 4 million people and that they each had an important story to tell. The following passage is an excerpt from from The Red Chief, a story set in Alabama rather than New York. Two desperate bandits kidnap the nine-year-old son of a wealthy Alabama landowner. They confidently expect to receive a large ransom, but it turns out the captive is so irritating that the father succeeds in making them pay him $250 dollars to take the boy off their hands. Henry has to establish in the reader’s mind how annoying the boy is – and he has to do it quickly and forcefully. How? In a brilliant piece of writing, he fixes on the way the boy talks, skipping from one tedious subject to the next, never giving his captors a moment’s rest. Thus, in one deceptively simple paragraph, we form a clear idea of the terrible problem they face.

Yes sir, that boy seemed to be having the time of his life. The fun of camping out in a cave had made him forget that he was a captive himself. He immediately christened me Snake-eye, the Spy, and announced that, when his braves returned from the warpath, I was to be broiled at the stake at the rising of the sun. Then we had supper; and he filled his mouth full of bacon and bread and gravy, and began to talk. He made a during-dinner speech something like this:

“I like this fine. I never camped out before; but I had a pet ‘possum once, and I was nine last birthday. I hate to go to school. Rats ate up sixteen of Jimmy Talbot’s aunt’s speckled hen’s eggs. Are there any real Indians in these woods? I want some more gravy. Does the trees moving make the wind blow? We had five puppies. What makes your nose so red, Hank? My father has lots of money. Are the stars hot? I whipped Ed Walker twice, Saturday. I don’t like girls. You dassent catch toads unless with a string. Do oxen make any noise? Why are oranges round? Have you got beds to sleep on in this cave? Amos Murray has got six toes. A parrot can talk, but a monkey or a fish can’t. How many does it take to make twelve?”

Every few minutes he would remember that he was a pesky redskin, and pick up his stick rifle and tiptoe to the mouth of the cave to rubber for the scouts of the hated paleface. Now and then he would let out a war-whoop that made Old Hank the Trapper shiver. That boy had Bill terrorized from the start.

“Red Chief,” says I to the kid, “would you like to go home?”

“Aw, what for?” says he. “I don’t have any fun at home. I hate to go to school. I like to camp out. You won’t take me back home again, Snake-eye, will you?”

“Not right away,” says I. “We’ll stay here in the cave a while.”

“All right!” says he. “That’ll be fine. I never had such fun in all my life.”

I teach Creative Writing. Click here to see more Creative Writing Masterclass posts and/or email me if you would like to take lessons:

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