Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The future of the thriller

with 2 comments

John le Carré

I became a suspense novelist by accident. As I’ve mentioned before, when I first started writing in a serious way, I was drawn less by a genre than by a general idea of the stories I wanted to tell and of how I wanted to spend my time. I wanted to write books set in the present day, and to craft stories that would allow me to explore aspects of the world I didn’t know firsthand: for me, being a writer has always been an excuse to learn things, to read widely, to wander, and to put myself into places and situations far outside my own experience. I also love elaborate plots and layered structures, and I was particularly interested in the problem of momentum—of drawing the reader from first page to last in as seamless a way as possible. It was these factors, rather than an existing love of the form, that drew me to suspense, which sometimes seems like the last refuge in popular fiction of the qualities that matter to me the most: plot, ingenuity, detailed research, pacing, and an prolonged engagement with ideas and systems in the real world.

Suspense, of course, is a quality common to all fiction, popular and otherwise: John Updike has spoken of a novel’s “obligation to generate suspense,” and all good stories hinge on the reader’s anticipation of what will happen next, either in the story itself or, more subtly, in the artistic decisions that the author makes. What fascinates me about suspense as a category is how it surrounds its primary obligation to engage the reader with secondary qualities that have emerged, over time, as elements that audiences have come to expect. There’s the issue of violence, for instance, either explicit or implied, as well as the more important quality of anticipation. This goes hand in hand with a certain kind of verisimilitude, in which the author is expected to know the details of weapons and arms smuggling and other arcane facts that contribute less to the narrative itself than to its overall air of expertise. And thrillers tend to return to the same handful of cultures—law enforcement, organized crime, your choice of secret societies—that serve as a sort of scaffolding for a wide range of possible stories.

Ian McEwan

These were all things that I figured out after the fact, once I realized that suspense gave me the most useful set of tools for the kind of intricate, highly structured contemporary fiction I wanted to write. But since publishing The Icon Thief and City of Exiles and putting the finishing touches on Eternal Empire, I’ve started to think more clearly about the genre and its limitations, as well as its potential. On a superficial level, suspense seems like a category for grownups: it avoids the fantastic or paranormal in favor of stories that deliver what feels like real insight, or at least accurate research, about the world in which we live. Yet much suspense fiction is grounded not so much in reality as in a heightened version of it, which feeds us information in as artificial and calculated a way as any kind of worldbuilding. It differs from other genres primarily in that it takes pains to make its fictional world resemble the real one as much as possible, only more orderly and exciting. As a result, much of its interest comes from the way it pushes against the real world while still honoring the conventions of popular fiction.

And I still think the genre has enormous potential. The line between suspense and literary fiction is more porous than in most other categories: I’ve noted elsewhere that a writer like Ian McEwan is essentially a brilliant suspense novelist who is classified as a literary author because of his sheer talent, as well as his focus on everyday life. (You could say much the same about John le Carré, whose ascension was long delayed because of his commitment to the structures that I’ve mentioned above.) There’s still a tremendous amount of freedom in the form: within the obligation to deliver action and surprises, an author has enormous latitude to explore, think, and play. Ideally, the conventions of suspense serve as a sort of machine for sustaining the reader’s interest, and the future of the form lies with authors who can build beautiful clockwork toys—which is a tough problem in itself—while also realizing their potential to deliver challenging ideas and characters that would be harder to manage in a less structured story. It’s certainly the genre in which I’m personally happiest. And at its best, its possibilities are limitless.

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2013 at 9:52 am

Posted in Books, Writing

Tagged with ,

2 Responses

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  1. I’m sure that you yourself will go on to write literary fiction as well as genre fiction. The great novels are all suspenseful. As a teenager I was riveted by the climax of The Portrait of a Lady—no more than Isabel alone in a darkened room, contemplating her fate. What will be her decision? Suspense through character, not action. I enjoyed The Icon Thief very much, by the way, aware this was a young writer full of potential, at the early stages of his career. You would not want it otherwise—your career peak is still to come. I follow your work with interest!

    Catherine McCallum

    March 22, 2013 at 7:55 pm

  2. Thanks, Catherine—that means a lot to me! And I’d definitely like to think I’m getting better. :)


    March 22, 2013 at 8:04 pm

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