01 July 2013

Bruised, Wiser and Triumphant

Yesterday’s New York Times Book Review included Adam LeBor’s
essay on the challenge of writing thrillers after journalistic training:

In theory, writing a thriller is simple. The basic formula reaches back through the ages, to the “Odyssey” and the Bible. Take a flawed but likable hero, send him on a perilous journey where he is forced to confront his inner demons, increase the danger at every stage, have an ally or two betray him, but ensure that he eventually vanquishes the enemy, emerging bruised, wiser and triumphant.

The practice, however, is rather more complicated. At first, I found my experience as a foreign correspondent a positive hindrance when it came to fiction. . . . The essence of journalism is revelation and explanation: We present the causes and consequences of an event for the reader. We answer the questions, convey the complexities and do the thinking so you don’t have to. Or not too much.

The essence of fiction, especially thriller writing, is exactly the opposite: obfuscation, mystery and deception loop through a maze of switchbacks — ideally strewn with the dead bodies of double agents, dupes, femmes fatales, sinister businessmen. “It’s important to be judicious with the facts in a novel,” the writer Alan Furst told me in a phone interview. “Not to give too much away too soon and to move the story along to keep the reader hooked.” A large part of the reader’s pleasure in reading thrillers and crime and mystery books is finding his way through and making the connections himself…
I recall hearing Mark Peter Hughes, author of A Crack in the Sky, speak to the same point in a workshop. Part of making a good plot is to throw up obstacles and frustrations in the way of your protagonist, he said—but what you’re really doing is throwing obstacles and frustrations in the way of your readers.


Chaucerian said...

. . . which we hate.

J. L. Bell said...

Do we? Withheld information puts the thrills in thrillers, the mystery in mysteries, and any other sort of suspense in any other type of tale.

Of course, if readers start to think about how authors are withholding information from them, then the whole game is over and everyone loses.