Saturday, March 11, 2006

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

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Blogger SAND STORM said...

Great Post! Read Ludlum you are missing out on a decent body of work.

1:04 PM  

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1:06 AM  
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5:39 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

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.

5:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.


8:06 PM  
Blogger Dr Ian Hocking said...

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. 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!


8:38 PM  

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