Taking stick from Jason Bourne

To bor­row a chess term, the end game of my cur­rent nov­el is in sight. The end game rep­res­ents an attempt to weave the last of the story threads togeth­er in way that should be — as far as I can tell, since I only have the per­spect­ive of the writer, not a read­er — sat­is­fy­ing but not too neat.

Over the past few days, as my head fills with moments, mostly visu­al, that I want to present in the final pages, I’ve been think­ing about the genre of thrill­er. Here are a few improv’d thoughts. Remember that I’ve only writ­ten one thrill­er, and claim no expert­ise.

Are thrillers documentary-like entities, or do they have the gestalt power of metaphorical works?

By this I mean: The core of many thrillers lies in their intim­ate inter­face with the ‘real’ world. The ele­ments of polit­ics, con­spir­acy, high stakes and resource­ful prot­ag­on­ists com­bine to carry the read­er through the pages from, often, a ‘world in bal­ance’ at the begin­ning of the story to a ‘world in bal­ance’ at the end. In this sense, it is like a roller­coast­er, and should have the con­com­it­ant twists and turns. Now, against that inter­pret­a­tion is the view I hold to be true of all stor­ies: The story is a rari­fied, com­pressed and mean­ing­ful sequence; its resemb­lance to real­ity is super­fi­cial. All scenes, char­ac­ters, objects and dia­logue have been selec­ted on the basis of their mean­ing (either a mean­ing that is intrins­ic to the thrill­er, such as the role of light in Gilroy’s script of ‘The Bourne Supremacy’, or extrins­ic, such as the US President’s teen­age son in Forsyth’s ‘The Negotiator’, whose kid­nap rep­res­ents a attempt to murder the notion of poten­tial). It is a com­monly-held belief, I sus­pect, that a thrill­er must rep­res­ent real­ism on all levels, but one of the les­sons I’ve learned (I think!) in writ­ing ‘Flashback’ is that the power of meta­phor can har­nessed with­in the thrill­er genre. It is a rich seam and should be mined. Of course, any giv­en meta­phor is weakened the moment a read­er becomes con­scious of its mean­ing, and play­ing with meta­phor is like play­ing with dynam­ite. The trick is to handle it appro­pri­ately.

The thriller must progress, from page one, as a series of escalating emotional moments.

I’ve read sev­er­al thrillers over the past year where the author has sub­sti­tuted the rev­el­a­tion of inform­a­tion for points that would be bet­ter as char­ac­ter-focused, emo­tion­al moments. This sounds a bit dog­mat­ic, but let me explain: Popular fic­tion is tra­di­tion­ally par­ti­tioned into char­ac­ter- and plot-driv­en vari­et­ies. This can lead to the mis­con­cep­tion that plot-heavy books — as thrillers are wont to be — suf­fer from impov­er­ished char­ac­ter­isa­tion. Not so; more than likely, those thrillers that you regard as excel­lent are those where the author has fallen in love, just a little, with the main char­ac­ter, and painted this pres­sur­ized per­son­al­ity in rich col­ours. Into this cat­egory I’ll put Robert Harris’s Fatherland, whose story is viewed through the jaun­diced eyes of Xavier March, and the film The Bourne Identity, writ­ten by Tony Gilroy. So, at the close of my second thrill­er nov­el, I’ve learned that the engine of the book will nev­er rev high­er that iden­ti­fic­a­tion the read­er invests in the prot­ag­on­ist. An obvi­ous point? Possibly. But in the thrill­er world, where the con­straints of action, intrigue, cool gad­gets, and his­tron­ics can smoth­er char­ac­ter­isa­tion (and, let’s face it, the former are easi­er to pull off), it’s worth writ­ing this on a strip of paper and pin­ning it on the wall above your com­puter

The thriller writer must control tone at all times.

In my (pro­gress­ively less humble) opin­ion, the main­ten­ance of tone is para­mount. Whereas a lit­er­ary work might pass through joy, dread, anger, sym­pathy, and heart­break, when you find your­self put­ting a quip in the mouth of a minor char­ac­ter a la the com­ic relief in a Shakespearian genre, the effect is equal to sprink­ling salt on your break­fast cer­eal. In oth­er words, you bug­ger it up. In my first nov­el, some of my favour­ite bits were the gags. Since I also write com­edy fic­tion, such gags pop up on my writerly radar with some fre­quency. But the gags were the first thing to be excised by my edit­or, and my prot­est­a­tions fell upon jus­ti­fi­ably deaf ears. Why no gags? The thrill­er must be kin­et­ic; each emo­tion­al beat must fall and press upon the next, and those emo­tions will be fear, des­pair, entrap­ment — all those that make you root for the prot­ag­on­ist. If an Olympic sprint­er makes a gag at the start of an import­ant race, his or her com­pet­it­ors will ignore it. Why? Focus. These diver­sions are cracks, like met­al fatigue. The thrill­er is a sub­mar­ine and the high­er the stakes, the deep­er you make your depth. Humour-cracks in the hull are no good.

The thriller is a game played by the reader and the writer, but it is not a game for the protagonist(s)

It is some­times dif­fi­cult for the thrill­er to pri­or­it­ise on the story; and, as I sug­ges­ted above, I think the story is a series of emo­tion­al moments, not ‘what hap­pens’. The prob­lem comes with the manip­u­la­tion of inform­a­tion. Often, in the thrill­er, the audi­ence must be kept in the dark, so that sus­pense can be heightened. But the efforts of the author to reg­u­late the flow of inform­a­tion should not be pri­or­it­ised over char­ac­ter­isa­tion, because char­ac­ter­isa­tion is everything. I would argue the Da Vinci Code failed on this score. The res­ult: explos­ive com­pres­sion. The book founders. An example where the manip­u­la­tion of inform­a­tion com­bines well with char­ac­ter­isa­tion is in the work of Alastair Maclean. Maclean is sel­dom read these days, but when I read him as a teen­ager, I was truly gripped by his books in a way that no oth­er book — des­pite the claims of mar­ket­ing blurb on many — has gripped me since. True, his plots were often cliched, his female char­ac­ters unwrit­ten or absent, and his her­os inex­haust­ibly resourceful…but those books flew. I remem­ber read­ing ‘The Dark Crusader’ with my mouth agape. So too ‘Fear is the Key’. And my favour­ite, per­haps, is ‘Ice Station Zebra’. I sus­pect that if I re-read those books ten years later (now), they would not have the same power, but MacLean, like the team behind the Bourne Identity, had the essence of a good thrill­er: high stakes, a com­pel­ling main char­ac­ter, extraordin­ary cir­cum­stances, and a plot to make you think.

Oddly — because my thrill­er is word-based, not pic­ture-based — I’ve been mak­ing a study of ‘The Bourne Identity’ and ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ over the past few weeks. There are gems in the director’s com­ment­ary (sadly, no com­ment­ary exists on the Identity Special Edition), and the casts’ thoughts about the story, why it works, and how they tried to main­tain the tone. I’m partly drawn to these works because the char­ac­ter of Jason Bourne shares some char­ac­ter­ist­ics with my own prot­ag­on­ist, Saskia Brandt: Both are cap­able killers once con­trolled by a shad­owy organ­isa­tion, both have lost their memory and wish to redis­cov­er their pasts; cf. The Long Kiss Goodnight. Don’t worry about pla­gi­ar­ism, by the way! I’d fin­ished the first draft of Déjà Vu long before before the first Bourne film was released in 2002, and I’ve nev­er read a Ludlum book (though I know I should). I see Saskia Brandt and Jason Bourne as char­ac­ters in the long tra­di­tion of fic­tion explor­ing iden­tity. I’m inter­ested in the Bourne Identity because of the flu­ency with which the cre­at­ive team have com­bined the thrill­er plot with excel­lent char­ac­ter­isa­tion, and stuffed all that into 119 minutes; and only using as many words as a longish short story. When I write a scene in Flashback, I ask myself, ‘Does this reach the same qual­ity as a scene from Identity/Supremacy?’

Well, does it? I don’t know. But it doesn’t hurt a hope­ful long-jump­er to mark the world record length with a bit of gaf­fer tape.

Current pro­gress on Flashback:

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meterZokutou word meter
109,704 / 120,000
(90.0%)

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

7 thoughts on “Taking stick from Jason Bourne”

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  2. Hey Ian,

    What’s your thought on dis­cuss­ing the plot etc of your unfin­ished nov­el in a set­ting like this? I see you didn’t men­tion much about it here.

    I’m work­ing on some­thing of a thrill­er nov­el also, sort of a Boys from Brazil meets Kane and Abel, but am uncer­tain if I should dis­cuss much before it’s actu­ally pub­lished (if ever, of course). Hm.

  3. I’ve writ­ten four thrillers. Only one of these I would con­sider as rub­bish. (although not bey­ond sav­ing.) The oth­ers I know, are mar­ket­able with the right guid­ance.

    Unfortunately I don’t know any­one in the publishing/agency busi­ness. I have no drama exper­i­ence or advert­ising agency exper­i­ence; no con­tacts in the crim­in­al journ­al­ists’ world and no degree. All I have are 25 years Police Service, 10 years Royal Naval ser­vice and 45 years actu­ally writ­ing.

    No one is inter­ested because, in the words of one agent. ‘I like your work, but I have to think in terms of your future earn­ing poten­tial.’ A euphem­ism for ‘You’re an old man, in a young per­sons’ game.’

    Am I bit­ter? No. Am I giv­ing up?
    You bet your life I’m not.

    See you on the shelves in Waterstones!

    Best of luck. Don’t waste your youth and tal­ent because those are the two greatest, non-crim­in­al evils.

    Regards
    John

  4. Hi John

    Thanks for your com­ment. It’s put a real smile on my face. I agree — bug­ger ‘em.

    It sounds as though you’ve got an inter­est­ing couple of nov­els there, and one poten­tial route would be via a small pub­lish­er will­ing to take a risk. Then you can get some reviews and come back to the lar­ger pub­lish­ers. There’s also the self-pub­lish­ing option. Lulu.com is pretty good, and it’ll get you a phys­ic­al copy of your book without too much expens­ive, plus an ISBN so the thing will show up on Amazon.

    Best of luck — see you on the shelves!

    Ian

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