BITER-BIT is a technical editorial term used to describe a story about aggression, in which the aggressor becomes the victim.
A college boy receives a letter from the sister of one of his fraternity brothers. In it, the sister tells about a $20 bill which her mother hid in her brother's Bible, thinking the boy would be nicely rewarded if he ever were to read his Bible as she wants him to. With this information, the boy rushes down to the Bible-owner's room and starts bargaining to buy the Bible from him. After considerable dickering, the Bible is sold for ten dollars. Rushing back to his own room, the boy who purchased the book madly searches through the pages for the $20. When he finds nothing, he returns to the seller's room. His frat brother is out, but has left on the desk a halffinished letter to his sister in which he explains that their ruse has worked again, and that he is enclosing the ill-gotten $10, $5 of which she is to put in the church collection basket the following Sunday.
A biter-bit story is usually told from the point of view of the eventual victim, who throughout the major part of the story seems to be the perpetrator of the joke, swindle, etc. At the close of the story described above, another biter- bit might begin. It would deal with the attempt of the sister and brother to cheat still another college student. At the story's close, they would find themselves undone by another party even shrewder than they. The biter-bit has two component parts: first, a fairly original situation in which one man is doing another dirt; second, an ingenious reversal whereby the dirt is done the doer.
Think over four or five jokes you've heard recently. Probably two or three of them are really biter-bit stories. In a sense, that is all the writer need know about the form. Essentially, the biter-bit is an extended joke or anecdote. Just as in so many jokes, there is the non-malicious aggression and then the sudden setback for that aggressor. As in the joke, too, the story first sets up a taut situation and then explosively loosens it with an unexpected reversal. As with a successful joke, also, the good biter-bit must have a spark. It is an exceedingly common story-form, not difficult to write. Consequently, what the editor pays for is the idea, the gimmick, the switch.
Really original biter-bit ideas are not easy to come by, either for writer or editor. Therefore, a good one will probably sell, even if it has been manhandled in the exec ution. That is how popular the type is with readers! An Inadequately written biter-bit which contains a sound, new, amusing gimmick will often elicit a request for a rewrite from an editor.
Here's a neat example of a biter-bit idea which received quite plain, breadlike handling. The idea was the one valuable component of the story.
Two truck drivers are told by their boss to drive a load of dynamite to a certain destination. En route, their brakes go bad while coasting down a long hill which leads into a small but densely populated town. In order not to endanger the townspeople, they risk their own lives in bringing the truck to a safe stop on the edge of a cliff. They call the boss to tell him of their heroic action and close escape. The boss is amused and confesses that the truck actually contained eggs. He had said the load was dynamite to assure careful driving. The drivers tip the truck over the cliff and then call to say they're sorry, but they couldn't save the truck. It slipped off the cliff. There is a very cute and appealing type of biter-bit which achieves a nice circular effect.
A recruit, taking basic training, goes to a camp dance and finds himself the object of the attentions of a lovely WAC. The pair wander out behind the Service Club where the WAC becomes amazingly friendly. The recruit's training sergeant discovers them and is coldly dismissed by the WAC. The sergeant has it in for the recruit all through his training. And for the sake of sheer survival, the recruit turns himself into an A-1 soldier. When at last basic is over, the recruit has done so well, he is made corporal by the company com- mander and becomes a training officer himself. That evening, when he goes to look up his WAC friend at the service club, he locates her exactly where the sergeant had originally discovered him. She is with a new recruit, saying the same things to the recruit she had said to him... .
Closing with the re-occurrence of an initial situation is an ancient, time-honored gimmick, used and abused many times over. But done with a certain amount of verve, it always seems to tickle both editor and reader.
Editors are quick to locate flaws in the logic of stories. "Why would so-and-so do this?" "I don't think your heroine would have married the boy in the first place."
"Couldn't he have sold his car and gotten the money that way?" "We don't feel that such and such a character was clever enough to pick a safe deposit lock."... Questions like these are inevitable. Sometimes the apparent fault that the editor points to does not trouble him as much as some other failing he senses but cannot sufficiently isolate to describe. But, at any rate, if all stories containing peccadilloes in logic were rejected, magazines would have to hit the stands much thinner than they currently do. And with the biter-bit, it's almost impossible to develop a tricky situation which will stand close scrutiny for motive. When there are these basic inescapable flaws in the story-idea, they must be camouflaged. When the editor asks that you make your characters act more reasonably, all he wants is that you have them seem to act more reasonably. As an example of a really one-legged plot beautifully propped up, take this.
A newspaper man narrates the tale. He informs us that there was a terrible fuss in the newsroom the other day. It seems that the sports editor who had been losing money to the local bookie for years developed a scheme whereby he could regain all he had lost and then some. The local bookie hangs out in a restaurant across the street from the newspaper office. He gets his race results there by phone, but two minutes after the race the results come over the newspaper's ticker machine. The editor worked out a system with another em. ployee whereby the editor would stack soda bottles on a window sill and his confederate across the street, seeing the bottles, would bet the winner before the bookie knew the race was over. For two days, the system works. The editor plans to make his killing the third day. When the news of the key race comes through, the editor finds he does not have enough soda bottles to complete the code sign. A copyboy had cashed half the bottles for the deposit. And that, the narrator explains, was the cause of the mayhem in the office the other day.
The story as recounted here shows its flaw immediately. Actually there was no reason for the editor to get so excited. His scheme was not made useless by the want of enough bottles that one day. He could very well have won back his money the following day; in fact, gotten rich from the bookie, if he had worked the thing slowly enough. This implausibility no doubt was apparent to the author, for he is a frequent contributor to the slicks who takes special pains with his plotting. But it was an integral, indispen - sable part of the story. Since it could not be changed, it had to be hidden. What the author did was cover the blemish with speed, wisecracks, and the synthetic suspense he created by starting his story with the mention of mayhem and closing it as soon as the cause of the mayhem was explained. "Yes," the reader says, chuckles, and turns to the next story.