Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Day of the Jackal

“The need for change is there…”

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"The need for change is there..."

Note: This post is the sixty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 60. You can read the previous installments here.

Vladimir Putin is still here. I type these words not because we need to be reminded of that fact—I can’t think of another foreign political leader whose shadow has loomed so ominously over a peacetime presidential race—but to consider what it means. When I began writing The Icon Thief, more than eight years ago, Putin was ostensibly on his way out: he was ineligible to run for a third term, so the reigns of power were passed to Dmitry Medvedev, his chosen successor. Instead, Medvedev appointed him prime minister, and a few years later, Putin was back in the presidency, as if he’d never been gone. It isn’t hard to imagine him pulling the same trick forever, or for as long as his health holds out, which might be for quite some time. He’s only in his early sixties now, which is practically his young adulthood compared to some of the decrepit Russian leaders of the past, and he’s in what he takes pains to assure us is peak physical condition. It’s a situation that ought to keep most of us up at night, but it’s also a boon to suspense novelists. As I once pointed out, Putin’s name is the most evocative word in the lexicon of the modern thriller: it calls up an entire world of intrigue and implication, allowing a novel to do in a few sentences what might otherwise require five pages. As a rhetorical device, it isn’t just confined to fiction, either. Putin wouldn’t be evoked so often in this election if he didn’t have such a powerful hold over our imaginations, and recent events have only confirmed, as I’ve said from the beginning, that nothing that a writer can invent about Russia can possibly compare to the reality.

Incorporating a contemporary or historical political figure into a thriller is nothing new, of course. The gold standard was set, as it was in so many other things, by Frederick Forsyth, who built The Day of the Jackal around an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle, and who gave prominent speaking parts to Margaret Thatcher in several of his later novels. It’s a trick that grows stale when a writer uses it too often, as Forsyth sometimes does, but its easy to understand its appeal. For a certain kind of thriller, the story is less about something that could happen than about what might be happening right now, or that has already happened without our knowledge. Such novels often set up a sliding scale of verisimilitude, starting with big, obvious figures like Putin, working their way down through historical figures or events that aren’t as familiar, and finally entering the realm of pure fiction. Even if you’re reasonably conversant with current events, you can have trouble telling where fact leaves off and invention begins, especially when the novel starts to show its age. (For instance, I have a feeling that most contemporary readers of The Day of the Jackal aren’t aware that the opening sequence, which depicts a failed attempt on de Gaulle’s life, is based on fact—an interesting case of a novel outliving the material that it once used to enhance its own credibility.) Ideally, the transition from someone like Putin to the fictional characters at the bottom of the pecking order should be totally seamless, at least in the moment. We know that Putin is real and that most of the other characters aren’t, but in some cases, we aren’t sure, and the overwhelming fact of Putin himself serves to organize and enhance the rest of the story.

"The protesters were wearing white ribbons..."

Eternal Empire is literally framed by Putin, both in terms of how the novel was conceived and of how it was finally published. It opens with an epigraph from Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, which describes how Putin asked to have a fragment of the polar seabed brought back to him as a nod to the underground kingdom of Shambhala, and it ends with an excerpt from a New York Times article from December 10, 2011, which describes the abortive protests that flared up that year against the Putin regime. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the entire novel unfolded like a paper flower from those lines in Polonsky’s book, and it isn’t hard to see why they struck me. In juxtaposing the steely figure of Putin, the ultimate pragmatist, with the gauzy myth of Shambhala, it encapsulates the tension that defined the rest of the series, which in many ways is about the collision between practical spycraft and the weirder elements that have a way of impinging on the rational picture. (As Powell says to Wolfe of the Shambhala story: “That doesn’t sound like the Putin I know.”) The closing epigraph attracted me for many of the same reasons. Its image of protesters with white flowers and ribbons was derived from an actual event, but it could easily stand for something more. A white flower can mean just about anything, so it wasn’t hard for me to tweak the story so that the protests seemed to emerge from the Shambhala plot. And the entire narrative was timed to culminate at this moment, which would serve as the visible eruption of the forces that my characters had spent the entire book marshaling in secret.

Now that five years have passed, the image that concludes the trilogy, of Maddy watching the protesters on television, feels very different in tone. The protests themselves are little more than a footnote, and Putin’s hold on power has never been stronger. Since the plot hinges on a plan to change Russian politics from the inside, the historical outcome might seem to undermine the whole story. I’m not sure it does, though. Maddy notes that Tarkovsky has bought himself “a few years” to prepare, which might well mean that his plan is underway even now—although I doubt it. More pragmatically, the characters observe, both here and in the epilogue, that most attempts at reform are crushed, and that a revolution is more likely to die than to endure. (You can picture me typing those lines, more than three years ago, as a way of hedging my bets.) But if there’s a thread that runs through all these novels, it’s the importance of small, private victories in the face of the indifference or hostility of larger systems. I began the series with a conspiracy novel, which is a genre that implicitly raises the issue, even in its pulpiest incarnations, of the relationship between the individual and the impersonal forces to which he or she is subjected. All three books conclude on a similar note, which is that we can try to get glimpse behind the mask, if only for a moment, and then return to the more achievable task of establishing what little order we can in our own lives. It isn’t much of an answer, but it provides just enough consolation to see us through, both in a novel and in the real world. Putin survives, as I suspect I always knew he would. But so do Wolfe and Maddy. And that’s how their story ends…

The prop master

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Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal

When we break down the stories we love into their constituent parts, we’re likely to remember the characters first. Yet the inanimate objects—or what a theater professional would call the props—are what feather that imaginary nest, providing a backdrop for the narrative and necessary focal points for the action. A prop can be so striking that it practically deserves costar status, like the rifle in The Day of the Jackal, or a modest but unforgettable grace note, like the cake of soap that Leopold Bloom carries in his pocket for much of Ulysses. It can be the MacGuffin that drives the entire plot or the lever that enables a single crucial moment, like the necklace that tips off Scotty at the end of Vertigo. Thrillers and other genre novels often use props to help us tell flat characters apart, so that an eyepatch or a pocket square is all that distinguishes a minor player, but this kind of cheap shorthand can also shade into the highest level of all, in which accessories like Sherlock Holmes’s pipe or summon up an entire world of romance and emotion. And even if the props merely serve utilitarian ends, they’re still an aspect of fiction that writers could do well to study, since they can provide a path into a story or a solution to a problem that resists all other approaches.

They can also be useful at multiple stages. I’ve known for a long time that a list of props, like lists of any kind, can be an invaluable starting point for planning a story. The most eloquent expression of this I’ve ever found appears, unexpectedly, in Shamus Culhane’s nifty book Animation: From Script to Screen:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

A list of props can be particularly useful when a story takes place within a closed universe with a finite number of possible combinations. Any good bottle episode invests much of its energy into figuring out surprising ways to utilize the set of props at hand, and I used an existing catalog of props—in the form of the items available for purchase from the commissary at Belmarsh Prison—to figure out a tricky plot point in Eternal Empire.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

What I’ve discovered more recently is that a list of props also has its uses toward the end of the creative process, when a short story or novel is nearly complete. If I have a decent draft that somehow lacks overall cohesiveness, I’ll go through and systematically make a list of all the props or objects that appear over the course of the story. Whenever I find a place where a prop that appears in one chapter can be reused down the line, it binds events together that much more tightly. When we’re writing a first draft, we have so much else on our minds that we tend to forget about object permanence: a prop is introduced when necessary and discarded at once. Giving some thought to how those objects can persist makes the physical space of the narrative more credible, and there’s often something almost musically satisfying when a prop unexpectedly reappears. (One of my favorite examples occurs in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. During the sequence in which Faye Wong breaks into Tony Leung’s apartment to surreptitiously rearrange and replace some of his possessions, she gives him a new pair of sandals, throwing the old pair behind the couch. Much later, after she floods his living room by mistake, one of the old sandals comes floating out from its hiding place. It only appears onscreen for a moment, and nobody even mentions it, but it’s an image I’ve always treasured.)

And in many cases, the props themselves aren’t even the point. I’ve said before that one of the hardest things in writing isn’t inventing new material but fully utilizing what you already have. Nine times out of ten, when you’re stuck on a story problem, you’ll find that the solution is already there, buried between the lines on a page you wrote months before. The hard part is seeing past your memories of it. A list of props, assembled as drily as if you were a claims adjuster examining a property, can provide a lens through which the overfamiliar can become new. (This may be why histories of the world in a hundred objects, or whatever, are so popular: they give us a fresh angle on old events by presenting them through props, not personalities.) When you look at it more closely, a list of props is really a list of actions, or moments in which a character expresses himself by performing a specific physical activity. Unless you’re just giving us an inventory of a room’s contents, as Donna Tartt loves to do, a prop usually appears only when it’s being used for something. Props thus represent the point in space where intention becomes action, expressed in visual or tactile terms—which is exactly what a writer should always be striving to accomplish. And a list of props is nothing less than a list of the times which the story is working more or less as it should.

“Wolfe lowered herself into the basement…”

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"It was probably nothing..."

Note: This post is the eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 9. You can read the previous installments here.

When you’ve read a novel or seen a movie so many times that you practically know every line, your perspective on its strengths and weaknesses inevitably differs from that of someone who only experiences it once. It’s a little like the difference between a tool that you use just occasionally and one that becomes a regular part of your working life. If the blade on a vegetable peeler is slightly dull, it’s only a minor annoyance if you peel potatoes a couple of times a month; if you’re peeling a hundred a day, it’s a tragedy. And you find yourself correspondingly grateful for features that a more casual user would never notice, like an eye gouger or a handle that fits comfortably in your hand. The hard part about buying tools intended for ongoing use is that you often don’t know what you need until you’ve lived with it for years, and a quick glance in the store won’t tell you much. Experience helps, as do reviews and advice from others, but there’s no substitute for an ongoing trial in the field, which is why a site like The Sweet Home revisits every product it recommends after a year of regular usage. And the same holds true for works of fiction, which don’t often reveal their quality until after an extended period of engagement. (Authors try to replicate this process by reading a manuscript repeatedly over a shorter length of time, the artistic equivalent of accelerated life testing in engineering.)

I’ve probably read The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris more often than any other work of popular fiction, and I’m frequently surprised by what parts hold up for me the best. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie just once, you tend to remember a few big set pieces—Lecter’s escape, his exchanges with Starling, the final showdown in the killer’s darkened basement—and with good reason: they’re all great scenes, and it’s unlikely we’d be talking about this story at all if Harris hadn’t conceived and executed those pivotal moments so expertly. As time goes on, though, the sequence that I find myself revisiting the most, especially with an eye to the writing, is the early scene when Starling explores the storage unit belonging to the late Benjamin Raspail. It covers about twelve pages in the paperback edition, and although it climaxes on the memorable image of a severed head in a specimen jar, for most of its length, it’s merely tense and methodical. Yet I honestly believe that this is some of the best writing that Harris, or just about anyone, has ever done in the field of suspense. And along with Frederick Forsyth’s loving account of testing the rifle in The Day of the Jackal, it’s the scene I read whenever I need to be reminded of why I fell in love with this genre in the first place.

"Wolfe lowered herself into the basement..."

So what makes the chapter live for me, when more conventionally dramatic moments in the novel have faded with time? As with most great scenes in fiction, it’s an instance of pleasure in craft unfolding in parallel with the action itself. Starling is excited, but very careful, and the chapter provides her with many small moments of delightful ingenuity—using oil from a dipstick to lubricate a stubborn lock, raising the rusted gate of the storage unit with the jack from her car—that put us permanently on her side, if we hadn’t already been won over by her competence and determination. We’re won over by Harris, too. In outline form, the scene could have been routine in a way that, say, Lecter’s jailbreak would never be; we’re pretty sure, given the buildup, that Starling is going to find something interesting, but it’s too early in the story for us to really be concerned for her safety. So what Harris does is build the chapter up detail by detail, never hurrying, leaving us confident that we’re in the hands of a writer who knows his stuff. The writing is effective but never showy, as it can sometimes be when Harris indulges himself, with a lot of nice turns of phrase (“The padlock jumped like a frog in her hand”). And you feel that Harris lavished even more care on this scene than usual, since it works only to the extent that it gives us our first real taste of Starling in action.

It was perhaps inevitable that I’d try writing an extended homage , which we find in Chapter 9 of Eternal Empire. Looking back, I’m not sure how conscious this was: I knew that the scene opened with a promising lead and ended with the discovery of a body, and I had a limited number of pages in which to pull it off. Following Harris was a case of taking a useful model and trying to stick to best practices, and while I can’t claim that this scene is the equal of its inspiration, it’s still one of my favorites. Like Starling, Wolfe has to solve a succession of small problems to end up where the story needs her to be, and I tried to make each step as logical as I could, although I didn’t have room to be too clever or complicated. This involved a few pieces of sleight of hand, all designed to make the contrivances go down a little more smoothly: Wolfe finds the address because of a page that’s missing from an old road atlas, which I thought was more acceptable than having it written down in plain sight, and once she’s down in the basement, I have her look in the wrong place first—finding a mouse’s nest—so it doesn’t feel that the body was waiting for her on a silver platter. The first draft was cut to the bone, just to keep things moving along, and the result, at least to my eye, is a nice tight string of beats. Whether or not it holds up on the twentieth reading is something I can’t really say. But I’ve read it a lot, maybe more than I wanted, and it works pretty well for me…

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February 19, 2015 at 10:19 am

“Most of the assembly was already done…”

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"Among the electronic parts..."

Note: This post is the forty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 41. You can read the earlier installments here

Hardware, as I’ve noted before, lies at the heart of a certain kind of thriller, and a lot of suspense novels seem to have written solely to showcase a particularly seductive bit of weaponry. (Two that come to mind, out of many possible examples, are Ken Follett’s The Hammer of Eden and Frederick Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol, not to mention the Tom Clancy novel of your choice.) At times, the thriller comes startlingly close to science fiction in its fascination with technology, often in the form of gadgets and devices that don’t yet exist, at least not for the likes of us. In the Bond books and movies, hardware serves as another form of escapism, a sort of consumerist fantasy with Q as a combination of personal shopper and bespoke tailor. And even in superficially more realistic stories, technology feeds into the fantasy in a subtler way. An author’s familiarity with the details of guns or other tools of the trade grounds the more extravagant inventions of the plot, and we’re supposed to assume that if our writer knows what kind of holster would go best with a Walther PPK, he’s equally knowledgable about elements of spycraft and backroom politics that we have no way of verifying independently.

Of course, like all good narrative tricks, this one has its pitfalls, especially when the writer loses sight of the original intention. At its best, hardware can clarify and deepen a certain type of character: the heroes and villains of international suspense tend to be hypercompetent at what they do, even if they’re flawed in other ways, and we learn a little more about them as they go about handling their complicated equipment. All too often, though, technical details turn into an end in themselves, and we end up watching a name on the page take us through the fictional equivalent of a user’s manual. As with most descriptive or decorative elements, the amount a reader can tolerate is directly correlated to its apparent importance. When hardware isn’t essential to a particular plot point, the writer can, and should, get away with an evocative detail or two: an author like Thomas Harris, for instance, is a master at using bits of jargon or terminology to flesh out a passing moment. (“Lieutenant, it looks like he’s got two six-shot .38s. We heard three rounds fired and the dump pouches on the gun belts are still full, so he may just have nine left. Advise SWAT it’s +Ps jacketed hollowpoints. This guy favors the face.”)

"Most of the assembly was already done..."

When we’re dealing with an item of hardware that plays a more central role, we can indulge ourselves a bit more, and if we’ve handled it properly, the details enhance the story that follows: the object becomes a supporting actor in itself, and the action benefits in the same way in which a touch of backstory can enrich an important character. The ultimate example here is the rifle in The Day of the Jackal, which is more memorable than many of the human players involved—although it’s worth noting that we only care because it’s the weapon designed to assassinate Charles DeGaulle. On a more modest level, this also applies to the lethal device in City of Exiles. For most of the story, it’s a MacGuffin, designed only to push the characters from one violent appointment to the next, but as the climax nears, it becomes necessary to see exactly how it works. In Chapter 41, I devote a fair amount of time to describing how Karvonen puts it together, with particular emphasis on the cell phone detonator he constructs. All in all, it takes up about two pages at at point where the book has just over a hundred pages left to run, and I wouldn’t have sacrificed so much space to it if the effect hadn’t seemed worth it.

And there are a few distinct threads here. On the most basic level, I’d like to think that it creates a sense of anticipation: with every step in the process, we start to get a better idea of what this device is designed to do, even if the full details are withheld until the decisive moment. It gives us one last look at Karvonen as we’ve known him before, a careful craftsman, a few chapters before his plans start to spiral out of control. And it gives the reader just enough information to make the workings of this slightly implausible gadget more convincing. If I emphasize the detonator, rather than the heart of the weapon itself, it’s both because I didn’t feel entirely at home with the technical specs—which, thankfully, are hard to track down—and because I didn’t want or need to actually provide the reader with a handbook on building a particularly unpleasant device. In the end, Karvonen observes that the weapon isn’t exactly a thing of beauty, with three separate devices cobbled together with tape, but it works well enough for the task at hand. Which is more or less how I approached it in the writing process. It isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done. And we’re about to find out its true purpose…

Written by nevalalee

July 31, 2014 at 10:12 am

“Karvonen set his hands on the container…”

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"The highway toward Namur..."

Note: This post is the twenty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 28. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When you’re doing research for a novel, you’re really searching for two separate but related things, which can be conveniently described as the how and the what. The how—the aspect of research that focuses on factual details and bits of description—is the part that gives the entire process its bad reputation. When you’ve roughed out a story and are starting to fill in the outlines with experience, observation, and reading, it’s tempting to put in everything you know, to the point where the narrative is overloaded with background information that you’ve gathered and can’t bear to cut. That material has its place as a kind of seasoning, and I enjoy it as much as every other writer, but I’ve learned to cut it down to a minimum, and it’s usually only after several drafts that I figure out how much color and reportage to include without overwhelming the plot. Fortunately, after a few revisions, you start to forget where fact leaves off and invention begins, allowing you to regard it all with the same eye. Once you’ve lived with a novel for a while, it no longer matters whether a detail was spun out of whole cloth or painstakingly unearthed: if it fits, it stays, and if it doesn’t, it goes.

The other half of research, the what, is a lot more fun. I’ve found that the best time to begin research is when the general subject matter of a story is clear but the particulars are still unresolved. That way, when you find an especially lovely piece of material, you can adjust the plot to accommodate it. This may seem like a backward kind of approach—in theory, the story should unfold organically from an initial situation—but in practice, you’ll often find yourself making room for pieces that you want to include just because they’re beautiful for their own sake. When I read Ian McEwan, for instance, I’m often conscious of him bending the story slightly to make room for things he simply wants to talk about, like the digression on the Monty Hall problem that takes up several pages of Sweet Tooth or many of the more vivid moments in the Dunkirk evacuation or military hospital sequences in Atonement. Writing, as I’ve said before, is a kind of bricolage, with the author scrounging through whatever is at hand and arriving at a structure that covers as much of it as possible, and if you take that away, you’re robbing yourself of one of the profoundest pleasures that writing can afford.

"Karvonen set his hands on the container..."

Occasionally, you’ll come across a building block of material so promising that it ends up shaping entire chapters or sequences that never would have occurred to you otherwise. The prologue of The Icon Thief, for example, arises from a vivid anecdote in Stephen Handelman’s Comrade Criminal about an art smuggler being detained by bandits on the road to Hungary: as soon as I read it, I knew that it would make for a great opening for a novel, even if I wasn’t sure how it would fit in with the rest. Similarly, when I stumbled on the account in Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin’s The Sword and the Shield of the weapons caches that the KGB hid throughout Europe for use by undercover agents in case of a violent uprising, I knew I wanted to build a scene around it in City of Exiles. When you’re doing research, you count yourself lucky if you make even one discovery like this in five hundred pages of reading, and this tidbit—which includes a verbatim memo with step-by-step instructions on how to locate the cache and disarm the explosive it contains—seemed too good to pass up. And since Karvonen was already going through Belgium, which is one of the countries in which such caches were kept, it was easy to send him on this errand.

The result is a conscious pastiche of that gorgeous sequence in The Day of the Jackal when the titular assassin tests out his rifle in the forest of the Ardennes, the very same forest, in fact, in which Karvonen finds himself here. (Both men take take the highway from Brussels to Namur, and I’d like to think that the spot where Karvonen digs up the cache is only a stone’s throw away from where the Jackal held his target practice.) While I can’t say what I’ve written here is nearly as good as Forsyth’s scene, which I seem to reread every six months or so, I’d like to think that it captures some of the same spirit. It’s definitely a hardware chapter, complete with inventories of tools and detailed technical background, and it doesn’t serve any larger purpose in the story except in providing Karvonen with a shotgun and pistol that will pay off later on—weapons that I could have given to him in any number of ways. In its own modest fashion, through, it fills in the world and the background of the story, provides a touch of authenticity, and gives Karvonen something interesting to do on his way to his final destination. Best of all, it provides me with a literal example of Chekhov’s gun. And we all know that it’s going to go off sooner or later…

“Karvonen headed for the platform…”

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"Karvonen headed for the platform..."

Note: This post is the twenty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 26. You can read the earlier installments here.)

These days, we think of an “airport novel” as a thick little paperback sold at Hudson News, designed to give travelers in business class a few hours of diversion, a category in which my own books have occasionally been classified. In the past, though, it meant exactly what it said: a novel in which much of the action took place in airports. They emerged in the Mad Men era, when air travel was accessible for the first time to large swaths of the population, and even if you couldn’t afford a ticket on Pan Am, you could buy a book in which the glamour of modern transportation was evident on every page. If I were doing academic research on what it was like to travel in the sixties and seventies, I’d turn first to the likes of Arthur Hailey and Robert Ludlum, and it’s still true of thrillers today. Suspense novels engage in such loving descriptions of the railway terminals, airline lounges, and private planes that the characters use to get from one point to another that they double as a stealth advertisement for stylish travel. Hence the Falcon 2000EX corporate jet with its dual Pratt & Whitney engines that pops up randomly in The Da Vinci Code, or the line in Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow that Anthony Lane thought was the most boring sentence imaginable: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.”

Why do thrillers love this sort of thing? In part, it’s just a particular example of the suspense novel’s usual fascination with hardware, which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is both designed to appeal to readers who like a side of facts with their violence and to enhance the verisimilitude of an otherwise implausible story. But there’s also something especially attractive about transportation itself. Thrillers, especially those that center on the chase, are often about moving a character from point A to point B—ideally with his adversaries in hot pursuit—and the means by which he gets to his destination inevitably takes up a large part of the narrative. Here, as in so much else, the template was set by Frederick Forsyth in The Day of the Jackal, in which the antihero of the title spends much of his time ingeniously circumventing various forms of transit security. In thrillers, as I’ve said elsewhere, movement across geography often stands as a surrogate or metaphor for narrative motion, and the protagonist’s progress in physical space mirrors the act of turning the pages. Such stories are a sequence of arrivals and departures, and it’s no accident that so many of them, including The Icon Thief, began with a key character arriving at passport control.

"His passport had not been scanned..."

When I was in London doing research for City of Exiles, I bought a ticket to Brussels, boarded the train, spent maybe three hours in Belgium, then came back in time to spend the night at my hotel room near King’s Cross. I wasn’t even particularly interested per se in Brussels: once I arrived, I spent a rainy afternoon doing little more than wandering around until it was time to head back again, although I did make a pilgrimage to the Royal Museums to see The Death of Marat, which had played an important role in the epilogue of the previous novel. What I really cared about was the terminal and the train itself. I knew that much of Part II would consist of Karvonen’s journey to Helsinki, and while I wasn’t able to take the entire trip myself, I wanted to at least be able to describe its beginning and end. Before leaving for London, I had mapped out his itinerary as best I could, using travel guides and online railway schedules, and I knew more or less where he’d be and when, although I wasn’t entirely sure what would happen there. That was one of the peculiar things about this trip: it took place before I’d even outlined most of the novel, so I had to single out specific locations, neighborhoods, and landmarks in hopes that I’d find a place for them later.

The total cost of the trip was about three hundred dollars, all for the sake of a page or two of detail, which counts as one of my priciest expenses per word of material. (Still, the champion here is probably what I dropped on Philippe Duboy’s ridiculous book Lequeu, which I bought for $125 in hopes of finding a few tidbits that I could use in The Icon Thief, only to end up not using a word of it.) But it was money well spent. My discoveries included such minutiae as the look of the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras, the security and immigration procedures, and the seating arrangements on the train itself. Some of this was important to the plot—I wanted to see how hard it would be for Karvonen to get certain items past security, and whether or not his passport would be scanned on his departure—but for the most part, it served as a kind of background murmur of authenticity against which more interesting events would take place. None of this should be visible to the reader, but its absence would be noticed, at least subconsciously. If nothing else, it seemed necessary that I see it for myself, if only so I could forget about it when the time came to write the scene. In the overall scheme of the story, the train itself is much less important than where Karvonen is going. But it’s good that we travel with him at least part of the way…

“The police already have your picture…”

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"The police already have your picture..."

Note: This post is the twenty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 24. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In his invaluable book Writing Popular Fiction—now out of print, although used copies are readily available online—Dean Koontz notes that there are three reliable methods of producing suspense: the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event. Obviously, there’s some overlap here, and many of the best suspense novels, like The Day of the Jackal or the early works of Thomas Harris, deploy all three at once. And it’s also worth taking a closer look at these formulas to see what they have in common. All are about anticipation, or about giving the reader a clearly defined end point toward which the events of the story are converging. As such, they also serve to organize the intervening narrative material, which is arguably their most valuable function. Exposition, character development, atmosphere, theme, and all of the less tangible elements of fiction acquire greater shape and urgency when delivered via the throughline of a plot with a specific destination. In practice, this throughline can take the form of any concrete objective on the part of the protagonist, which is an essential part of most stories, but these three building blocks of suspense have the advantage of having been tested by time.

As with any good device, though, there’s the danger of taking anticipation too far. Narrative of any sort amounts to a balancing act between the reader’s interest in what is happening now, what will happen next, and the real meaning of what has happened already. What we call structure is essentially a series of strategies for modulating between these focal points, allowing the reader to look ahead to the next development while still paying attention to the events on the current page. We’ve all had the experience of reading a thriller that kept us turning pages until the end, only to leave us curiously unsatisfied, mostly because we were so eager to get to the climax that we barely saw the words in front of us. Even experienced writers can fall into this trap. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, there’s a moment in which the lead character seems to have suffered a grievous injury to the most delicate part of his anatomy. McEwan, cunning as he is, delays the revelation of what exactly happened for several pages, and while our sheer curiosity moves us forward at a fast clip, I have a feeling that most male readers only take in those paragraphs with one eye, impatient for the author to get back to the point. It’s a disservice to the story itself, and it’s one instance in which McEwan may have been a little too clever for his own good.

"He swung inside..."

Of the three major suspense strategies, I’ve found that the chase is the most versatile and useful, at least when it comes to extended chunks of plot. The race against time has become a cliché in itself, and I’m getting tired of thrillers that arbitrarily give the heroes forty-eight hours to stop the bad guys simply to give the action a little more juice. (Used more subtly, as in Red Dragon, in which Will Graham needs to track the killer down before the next full moon, it can still be very effective.) Anticipation of a violent event can be great for a story’s third act, but over the course of an entire novel, it can grow monotonous, which is which most thrillers offer up a sequence of escalating crises for the protagonist to confront. The chase, by contrast, is infinitely flexible, encompassing a wide range of locations, confrontations, and complications. It can take the form of the hunt for an unknown killer or an actual pursuit across an immense expanse of geography, and unlike the other two formulas, it designates a clear interpersonal conflict between the hunter and the hunted—as well as the possibility that the two players will occasionally exchange roles. And it’s no accident that City of Exiles, which in some ways has the most straightforward and propulsive plot of any of my novels, takes the form of an extended chase, especially in its second half.

Chapter 24 is where the chase begins in earnest, with Karvonen on the run from the killings at the Olympia Exhibition Centre, his face known to the authorities and police. For the rest of Part II, he’s going to be on the move, drawing ever closer to his appointment in Helsinki, and from a novelist’s point of view, this kind of narrative structure is a dream come true—it offers a clear objective, a series of intermediate steps, a lot of interesting locations and paraphernalia, and the sense that there’s a destination on the horizon. (You could write an entire essay on how geographical and narrative movement are really one, which is why the road movie provides such a convenient structure for telling an otherwise episodic story.) Here, Karvonen gets in touch with his handler, retrieves a few useful items from his apartment, and destroys some incriminating evidence, keeping his eye out all the while for both the police and his employers. It may not seem like much, but in a novel where motivations are often deliberately complex and the true significance of the action may not become clear for hundreds of pages, this kind of thing is glorious, and it provides some necessary moments of clarity within an increasingly convoluted plot. Karvonen may be the novel’s most engaging character, because with him, we always know where we stand. And although we aren’t sure where he’s going yet, or why, we know it can’t be good…

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2014 at 9:35 am

My ten great books #9: The Silence of the Lambs

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The Silence of the Lambs

(Note: For the last two weeks, I’ve been counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

What makes a novel worth reading more than once? In the case of a mystery or thriller, the answer isn’t always clear. After our first read, we know who did it and why, whether the hero will survive, and whether the villain will get away with it: we’ve seen every chase, every reveal, every twist of the plot. If enough time has passed, the details can get a little fuzzy, so it can be fun to revisit the mystery again—I’m not sure I could tell you who the killer was in The Three Coffins or Rim of the Pit, mostly because the culprit’s identity is secondary to more immediate pleasures. But after you’ve revisited a novel enough times, it can be hard to explain what keeps you coming back. I’ve read The Silence of the Lambs from cover to cover on perhaps ten occasions, and I’ve seen the unsurpassed movie version at least as many times, so it’s safe to say that it no longer holds many shocks or surprises. Yet I know I’ll keep reading it for as long as I enjoy popular fiction, and I suspect that it may eventually become the novel I’ll read more than any other. The reasons are hard to pin down, but they clearly don’t have much to do with the specifics of the story, as much as I still admire the ingenuity with which it unfolds. Rather, as with most great suspense novels, it’s more a question of detail, craft, and attitude, which the best works of Thomas Harris—which also include Black Sunday, Red Dragon, and even long sections of Hannibal—display to greater effect than any other novels of their kind. And The Silence of the Lambs remains the best of them all, the one book, along with Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, that epitomizes the heights of the genre in which I’ve unexpectedly found myself making a living.

Harris is first and foremost a master of detail, both in terms of lavish research—I’ve seen Red Dragon recommended to aspiring thriller writers simply as a primer on criminal investigation—and in small, telling moments of observation and character. The scene I’ve reread the most isn’t the first one that might come to mind: it’s the tense, beautifully rendered chapter in which Clarice Starling searches the storage garage that might hold the key to an unsolved murder. In the hands of another writer, the sequence might have been a routine nailbiter, but Harris enriches it with countless lovely touches: the way Clarice, resourceful as always, fixes a stuck lock with a few drops of oil from a dipstick, or how she uses the jack from her car to lever up the rusty door. (Chapter 9 of my novel Eternal Empire is basically an extended homage to this scene, as my own heroine Rachel Wolfe, who owes a great deal to both Clarice and Dana Scully, searches for evidence in the basement of a derelict house.) Plenty of thrillers are filled with such lore, of course, but Harris delivers the goods with a panache inseparable from his larger themes. The Silence of the Lambs is a relentlessly grim story, but it’s also a celebration of intelligence and competence even under the bleakest circumstances. In the figure of Hannibal Lecter, this tendency is taken to an almost inhuman degree: Lecter has nothing but his mind, and his ability to transcend his physical prison is what makes him so improbably seductive. (It’s also why he’s so much less interesting when he isn’t confined to his cell.) And I can’t help but take the story’s most vivid characters as reflections of the author himself. All novelists live by their wits, whether to escape their own prisons or to explore the world’s darker corners, and for a few—too few—great novels, Harris was one of the best explorers we had.

The hardware of suspense

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Sean Connery as James Bond

Suspense novels, as we all know, have a lot of hardware. As regular readers are probably aware, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the role of hardware in my own books, which contain detailed information on guns, weaponry, and tradecraft to an extent that might seem surprising in the work of a confessed moderate liberal. When I wrote The Icon Thief, I don’t think I spent much time worrying about this: to my mind, it was a convention of the genre I was happy to embrace, since it fit in nicely with my love of research and real-world information. Later on, I began to see it as a way of enhancing verisimilitude: if the writer can describe small technical details accurately—or at least convincingly—the reader is more likely to accept the story’s larger leaps of logic. I still believe this, but I’m also uncomfortably aware that it can be taken too far, as in the corporate jet with its “dual Pratt & Whitney engines” that intrudes into one scene in The Lost Symbol. And it’s only recently that I’ve begun to figure out why certain forms of hardware are distracting while others immerse you more fully into a novel’s world.

My initial clue, oddly enough, came from Ian Fleming, who might not be the first novelist you’d consult for advice on the unobtrusive use of detail. Fleming once wrote an excellent essay called “How to Write a Thriller,” which while amusingly dated in some respects—he says that his books “are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, aeroplanes and beds”—is surprisingly insightful on the subject of hardware. Fleming writes:

My plots are fantastic, while being often based upon truth. They go wildly beyond the probable but not, I think, beyond the possible. Even so, they would stick in the gullet of the reader and make him throw the book angrily aside—for a reader particularly hates feeling he’s been hoaxed—but for two technical devices: first, the aforesaid speed of the narrative, which hustles the reader quickly beyond each danger point of mockery and, secondly, the constant use of familiar household names and objects which reassure him that he and the writer have still got their feet on the ground. A Ronson lighter, a 4.5 litre Bentley with an Amherst-Villiers supercharger (please note the solid exactitude), the Ritz Hotel in London, the 21 Club in New York, the exact names of flora and fauna, even Bond’s Sea Island cotton shirts with short sleeves. All these details are points of reference to comfort and reassure the reader on his journey into fantastic adventure.

Ian Fleming

At first glance, the 4.5 litre Bentley with its Amherst-Villiers supercharger may not seem that far removed from Brown’s dual Pratt & Whitney engines, but there’s a crucial difference. Brown doesn’t give us any indication that the character in this particular scene would take any interest in the engines flying his plane, but Ian Fleming is talking about James Bond, who might well be expected to care a great deal about the specifications of his Bentley. In short, the details here tell us something about the protagonist, his point of view, and the things he finds important, from his martinis to his weapons to his custom-made Morland cigarettes with the three gold bands on the filter. Fleming, as it happens, smoked the same brand of cigarettes himself, and he gave Bond many of his own personal habits, such as his love of scrambled eggs, which only helps with the identification between the author, the character, and most of all the reader. The brand names and hardware in these books are an expression of Bond himself—as if he’s willing the world around him into existence—which is a point often lost on Fleming’s many imitators.

In other words, hardware in a thriller works because it’s an expression of the personality that occupies the center of the narrative, whether it’s a cop, a spy, or a hit man. The novelist Steve Rasnic Tem has a wonderful essay called “One View: Creating Character in Fantasy and Horror Fiction,” available in this collection, in which he compares this approach to the way dreams are created:

An analogy I’ve always found useful for the relationship between characters and their settings is the relationship those same elements have in dreams. A particular theory of gestalt dream interpretation suggests that every object in a dream is a piece of the dreamer. A chair, a table, a car, another human being—each would represent some aspect of the dreamer…But whether you agree with its validity as a method of dream interpretation or not, I think it suggests a useful approach for fiction making…[And] the approach to characterization I’m suggesting here puts increased weight on the individual details that make up a story.

Tem is speaking mostly of fantasy and horror, but this approach also has fascinating implications for the thriller. If every aspect of the story and setting is expressive of the protagonist, the details will naturally tend to center on what he notices and cares about the most, which in suspense is likely to revolve around hardware. When it’s done poorly, it’s less an issue of excessive research than a failure in point of view: those Pratt & Whitney engines reveal less about the character than about the writer. When done well, as in The Day of the Jackal, it functions as a sort of metonymy: the Jackal is his rifle, just as Bond is his martini, and we learn a great deal about both men in the process. Ultimately, hardware is all very well and good, but character is the software that makes it run.

Written by nevalalee

May 1, 2013 at 8:52 am

“Standing before the counter of the hardware store…”

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"Standing before the counter of the hardware store..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-third installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 32. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Writers are craftsmen. At least, that’s how we like to think of ourselves. “Poetry” originally comes from the root word meaning to do or to make—trust me, I spent years studying this stuff—and it’s not surprising that writers often talk about themselves as if they were blue-collar workers. Television writers talk about “laying pipe,” novelists spend almost as much time discussing structure as engineers do, and much of the language of revision sounds like it’s talking about wood carving: we cut, trim, and shape, even if we’re doing nothing more than moving digital representations of words around on a screen. As my trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary points out, a draft was originally any kind of drawing on paper, and more specifically a design, sketch, or blueprint for a more complete work of art, and only later assumed its current meaning as something that causes writers to tear their hair out. And this is part of the reason I often turn for instruction to such varied trades as architecture, animation, and the visual arts.

This also explains why writers tend to be so fascinated by the lore of other crafts and trades. Moby-Dick is a manual of whaling. James M. Cain teaches us a lot about murder, but also insurance investigation. Foucault’s Pendulum includes an entire chapter on the workings of a modern vanity press. These digressions are partly a way of filling out the world of a novel—if a writer gets these kinds of details right, we’re implicitly more likely to trust what he says about the subtleties of human behavior—but they’re also a reflection of how writers see themselves. This is a peculiar craft we’ve chosen, and it results in something so intangible that physical books themselves are no longer necessary, but the work it requires is tedious, solitary, and painstaking. As a result, we tend to be drawn to examples of skill and artistic dexterity wherever we find them, and take pleasure in translating these trades into the only medium we know how to use, as if we’re secretly talking about ourselves all the while.

"Looking for signs of craquelure..."

When it comes to suspense and mystery fiction, this impulse can take authors to strange places. Thrillers have often been criticized for laying out the details of illegal activity in ways that seem to glamorize or encourage it: The Day of the Jackal is a miniature textbook on passport fraud, for instance, and plenty of technothrillers go on for pages about the intricacies of weaponry and improvised explosives. In The Icon Thief, we’ve already seen Ilya construct a handheld laser from a flashlight and optical drive—although this information is readily available online—and City of Exiles shows its villain constructing a workable cell phone detonator, although I kept certain details deliberately vague. Not surprisingly, some readers don’t care for this sort of thing: one very intelligent review on Goodreads says that the latter novel has “that kind of fetishism of hardware that thrillers seem to require.” But really, every novel fetishizes its subject to some extent: it’s just that suspense happens to concern itself with hardware that runs toward the lurid or criminal.

Chapter 31 of The Icon Thief is a nice example, to the point where it actually begins with Ilya paying for his purchases at the counter of a hardware store. In terms of plot, it’s a relatively quiet scene that lays the groundwork for a series of more kinetic chapters to come. But it also provides a quick rundown of Ilya’s preparations for a life on the run: he disguises himself with a few items from a drugstore, steals a driver’s license from a bicycle rental kiosk in the park, and takes apart a stolen painting to make it more portable. These are all details I could have skipped, but I liked writing about the process of undoing the canvas from its wooden frame—which is something I did a lot in painting classes in college—and rolling it up into a tube, “looking for signs of craquelure.” (Honestly, I suspect that I wrote this entire chapter just to use the word “craquelure.”) And it serves a useful purpose: Ilya can now carry the painting around for the rest of the book without making a point of it. Which just gives me more time to write about hardware…

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2013 at 9:50 am

Using the narrative funnel

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A funnel

Good stories, whether the length of a joke or an epic fantasy series, tend to fall naturally into threes. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s something satisfying about the basic structure of a beginning, middle, and end that makes it useful even for narratives that don’t follow conventional plots in other ways, which is why I tend to structure everything I write, from the level of an entire novel to individual scenes, with a threefold structure in mind. This also appeals to my obsessive, orderly side, which loves all forms of symmetry—hence the fact that nearly every post on this blog falls neatly into four paragraphs of roughly equal length. Yet it’s a mistake to think of a story as a neat triptych, in which every section takes up approximately the same number of pages. Such a structure might look good in an outline, or on a stack of index cards, but in practice, a reader reaching the end of a long novel is likely to be grateful when the final section moves quickly to its conclusion. Even if Part III is exactly the same length as Part I, when it’s being experienced by a reader looking forward to the last page, it tends to feel much longer.

Instead, it’s often best to structure a novel like a funnel, with a relatively lengthy opening followed by a shorter second act, topped off by a swift climax. Planning a novel using this kind of structure—which shouldn’t be confused with the inverted pyramid—has a number of benefits. A good book, at least in the suspense genre, ought to feel as if it’s accelerating with every page, and a funnel structure bakes this kind of momentum into the shape of the story itself. The funnel forces you to be more concise when it matters most: by the end of the novel, there isn’t time for digressions or diversions from the main line of action. It keeps you from wasting too much time on denouement. And it brings the story more rapidly to the last page at a time when even a sympathetic reader is likely to be feeling a little tired. This is why many of the best suspense novels become increasingly compressed as the story unfolds, not just in terms of raw page count, but in narrative time: the first part may cover a period of many days or weeks, while the conclusion takes place over the course of a few hours, so that events, rather than unfolding successively, seem to be happening all at once.

Funnel physics

This kind of structure is beautifully obvious in a novel like The Day of the Jackal, which remains, on most levels, the single best template for any suspense novelist to follow: the second and third parts are each about half the length of the one before, and its conclusion unfolds across forty tense pages. The same structure works in all kinds of genres: you see it in novels as different as The Collector and Pet Sematary. It’s also standard in screenplay format, in which about thirty pages tend to be spent on Act I, fifty on Act II, and something like twenty-five on Act III, although for novels, I’ve found that it’s usually best if your second act is a little shorter. (After all, everyone has second act problems.) And even if you’re more of a gardener than an architect, it’s usually a good idea to look back at a manuscript to see if it can be nudged into this sort of shape. If nothing else, it helps to give the story the appearance of momentum, and as in most other forms of faking it, once you’ve done what you can to impose this structure from the outside, you’ll often find the story shifting to accommodate it in subtle ways.

As a result, this is the structure I’ve ended up using for all of my novels, initially by accident, but increasingly in a more systematic fashion. The Icon Thief fell naturally into this kind of form: Part I covers about ten days of narrative time, Part II slightly less, and Part III only one day, not counting the epilogue. City of Exiles and the upcoming Eternal Empire both do the same, partially because I reverse engineered them to look and move more or less like their predecessors, but also because the structure just works. It also has surprising benefits for the novelist. After wading through hundreds of pages of material in various drafts, the writer, even more than the reader, is likely to want to wrap things up as soon as possible, and I can tell you from experience that it’s nice to know that you only have ten chapters left to write, rather than twenty-five, once you reach Part III. In short, the funnel structure in fiction works a lot like a funnel in real life: it gathers up a large amount of material and concentrates it down to a nice tight line. It’s a useful thing to have in your bag of tools.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2013 at 9:50 am

“Tell Sharkovsky that I’m coming…”

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"In the early morning..."

(Note: This post is the twenty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 28. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In his very useful book Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz points out that there are three basic narrative techniques used to generate suspense: the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event. The best thrillers, like The Day of the Jackal or The Silence of the Lambs, often use all three elements at once, and it’s rare to find a good suspense novel that doesn’t draw on each one at some point or another. Of the three, the chase may be the most straightforward, simply because it lends itself so organically to an exciting sequence of events. As Koontz writes:

Each step of the chase should build suspense by making the hero’s hopes for escape grow dimmer. Every time a new ploy fails to lose the chasers, the hero’s options should be narrowed until, at least, it seems that each thing he tries is his only hope, each momentary reprieve from death looking more like his last gasp than the reprieve before it.

I may as well note here again that I’ve never been a fan of the innocent man wrongfully accused. It lends itself too easily to victim stories and idiot plots, with their endless string of misunderstandings, and when I see this kind of story locking into place, I tend to get impatient. If you’re Hitchcock, you might be able to make it work; otherwise, I’d much rather see a movie, or read a book, about an otherwise innocent man rightfully accused.

That said, I love chase stories, and my second novel, City of Exiles, is largely one long chase, as Rachel Wolfe works to track down Lasse Karvonen before he can put his violent plan into action. (Note that the story also includes a race against time and an anticipation of a violent event, a structure that was entirely conscious on my part. Even more than the novels that came before or after it, City of Exiles was my attempt to build a thriller essentially on first principles, and it was planned as such from the ground up.) The Icon Thief is a more curious hybrid, with elements of a conspiracy thriller and police procedural that don’t fit neatly into the suspense category, but a chase occupies much of the second half of the novel, as my thief and assassin Ilya Severin tries to keep one step ahead of the police, while also taking out his revenge on the men who betrayed him. And the result is a structure that carries the reader neatly through the complicated developments of Part II, which otherwise might start to seem a little shapeless.

"Tell Sharkovsky that I'm coming..."

The chase story really begins here, in Chapter 28, as Ilya makes his way through a quiet neighborhood in the Hamptons and breaks into a deserted home to acquire the tools he needs. This sort of scene is the meat and potatoes of a novel like this, and I had a lot of fun imagining it, as well as the ensuing chapters in which Ilya obtains identification and begins to lay the groundwork for his next move. And it’s important to note that he isn’t a victim. He’s on the run, yes, and he doesn’t have a lot of resources, but he’s still the one driving the story: he knows that his survival, over the long term, depends on figuring out why he was betrayed, which means he needs to seek out the very antagonists he might otherwise want to elude. This kind of reversal, in which the hunted becomes the hunter, is crucial in this kind of plot, which otherwise tends to degenerate into a long series of close calls and narrow escapes. It’s because the structure of a chase is so intuitive that you need to be careful here: the temptation to deal your hero one setback after another is hard to resist, but it isn’t interesting unless he can also take matters into his own hands.

Another issue with chase stories is that after a certain point, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Koontz ticks off a handful of possible variations, all of which have been done to death: a spy chased by enemy agents, a killer pursued by a detective, or, if you must, an innocent man eluding the authorities. After you’ve written this kind of story once, it can be hard to find reasons to do it again. We see this in a movie like The Bourne Legacy, which fluently copies the chase structure of its predecessors to no real purpose: in the end, the chase serves only as an end in itself, with nothing of interest revealed along the way, which is why the air ultimately goes out of the movie like a deflated balloon. This is also why I decided, while writing City of Exiles, to abruptly switch gears halfway through. I’d already written about Ilya on the run for what seemed like hundreds of pages, and I didn’t feel like writing that novel again, so I finally upended the stakes in the only way I could. Those of you who have read that book will know what I mean. At this point in The Icon Thief, though, the story was still fresh, and I was having a good time. But things are going to get much harder for Ilya soon…

“Ilya moved silently through the mansion…”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-second installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 21. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of the greatest challenges in writing fiction, especially suspense, is the problem of showing simultaneous action. In film, it’s easy: cinema is essentially the art of montage, of the suspenseful juxtaposition of unrelated events occurring in different places, and it’s been used to build satisfying tension ever since Battleship Potemkin. I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but I have a hunch that the problem of intercutting in fiction didn’t become pronounced until novelists had the chance to see how it was done in the movies. Traditionally, chapters in novels have tended to stick to one place, allowing suspense to build organically over the course of a self-contained scene, but as soon as film demonstrated how powerful this kind of intercutting could be, writers began to do the same, only to discover that books aren’t nearly as suited for this sort of thing. (For a vivid illustration of this, consider the brilliant fakeout at the climax of the movie version of The Silence of the Lambs, in which a SWAT raid is intercut with scenes inside the killer’s house, only to reveal that these sequences are taking place in two entirely different locations. The book attempts a similar mislead, but it isn’t remotely as effective.)

Nevertheless, writers have attacked the problem in a number of different ways. The most obvious solution is to render simultaneous action as a kind of prose montage, with short sequences from different points of view cut together into a single chapter, often with the individual sections set apart by a line or two of white space. In the right hands, this can be a powerful tool, and for a master class in the form, there’s no better example than the last ten pages of The Day of the Jackal. To my eyes, however, this kind of thing can seem choppy and gimmicky, as if the book is struggling to replicate an effect that could be better achieved on film. A novel shouldn’t seem like a flawed simulacrum of a movie: it should tell a story using all the best resources of prose fiction. In particular, novels aren’t great at simultaneous action, but they’re unmatched for showing us events through the eyes of particular characters. In my experience, scenes tend to be most compelling when we stick with the same character for an extended period of time, rather than jumping from one perspective to another. And at first glance, this might seem to preclude the kind of simultaneous action that we often see in the movies.

In my own fiction, however, I’ve arrived at what strikes me as a pretty good workaround, which arose, as such things often do, from the constraints of my own style. The Icon Thief and its sequels are all written in the limited third-person, alternating between three or four primary characters, with each one providing the sole point of view for a given chapter. (There are a few exceptions when the point of view character changes halfway through a chapter or scene, but I only do this when absolutely necessary.) Similarly, each chapter tends to depict a continuous line of action: they usually unfold in narrative real time and keep internal transitions of time and place to a minimum. There’s no particular reason why I do this; it’s just the mode that seemed most natural to me. For most of the novel, this approach was fine, but it posed a problem during many of the big set pieces, which depict action unfolding simultaneously from the point of view of multiple characters. And what I soon discovered was that the best way to stage these scenes within the constraints I’d imposed was through a kind of narrative rewind: I’d show the action from one character’s perspective, then backtrack to narrate the same events through someone else’s eyes, while also moving the story forward through this new point of view.

At first glance, this may seem complicated and a little unwieldy, and in practice, it does require a lot of phrases like “A few minutes earlier” or “A moment before…” What I’ve found, though, is that this is a flexible tool that works better, in some ways, than pure intercutting, because the reader, having seen one continuous piece of the action already, knows more about what’s going to happen—and this kind of foreknowledge is the key to effective suspense. I’d like to say that this approach occurred to me after a careful process of rational thought, but in fact, it was basically worked out on the fly, as I was writing Chapter 21 of The Icon Thief. Ilya has just entered the mansion to steal a painting, and Maddy and Ethan are downstairs at the party. Clearly, these two threads are going to collide, but I couldn’t show both at once, so I simply wrote a chapter about Ilya preparing to break into the art collection, followed by another chapter showing what Maddy was doing at the same time. I also departed from my usual practice of writing the chapters in order: instead, I wrote all of Ilya’s material on one day, followed by Maddy’s the next, and intercut them later in four big pieces. The result works nicely, and it incidentally taught me a narrative trick that I’ve repeated in both of the novels I’ve written since. And I don’t think readers mind the temporal shift. They know a collision is coming…

Written by nevalalee

October 18, 2012 at 9:57 am

“He checked the assembled device, then switched it on…”

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(Note: This post is the seventeenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 16. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Suspense novelists love information. The tradition of loading a thriller with arcane detail, especially involving exotic weaponry and the nuts and bolts of various cloak-and-dagger activities, goes back a long time, but probably reached its high point with The Day of the Jackal, the most memorable sections of which recount the acquisition, testing, and use of a deadly assassin’s rifle, as well as serving as a comprehensive manual of passport fraud. No one has ever done it better than Forsyth does here—including Forsyth himself—but we all keep trying. As I’ve mentioned before, this peculiar urge to combine the content of an action movie with the tone of a PowerPoint presentation can lead to unintentionally humorous accretions of detail, as in the famous line from Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow that critic Anthony Lane has called one of the most boring sentences ever written: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.” And at its worst, as in many of Tom Clancy’s novels, the level of minutiae can render the underlying story unreadable.

So why do we do it? The obvious explanation is that showing your work in certain ways is designed to appeal to the traditional readers of big suspense novels—hence the emphasis on firearms, spycraft, and modes of transportation. (One could assemble a trainspotter’s guide to Europe entirely from the descriptions of continental railway stations in countless suspense novels, including mine.) At the same time, the fact that we see different kinds of arcana in books aimed at other audiences—think of the forensic expertise in the novels of Patricia Cornwell—makes me think that the impulse amounts to more than just a mere fascination with hardware. Information, in the thriller, functions as a kind of synecdoche for the overall plot: by describing functionally minor elements of the story with apparent expertise, the author subliminally persuades us that major aspects of the novel are equally accurate. The Day of the Jackal may be wildly implausible in its larger details, but we wouldn’t know it, because Forsyth describes that rifle so well.

This is all preface to explaining why I spend the better part of two pages in Chapter 16 of The Icon Thief describing how Ilya builds a handheld laser, MacGyver style, out of a flashlight and the diode from an optical drive. The details are accurate enough, as this sort of thing goes—you can watch someone build a similar device here—but on a structural level, the scene isn’t really necessary. I could have shown Ilya with the laser without any explanation, or, even better, dispensed with its construction in a sentence or two. Instead, I spend a fair amount of time on it, not so much to provide instructions on how to build a laser of your own, but because this kind of scene can be pleasurable for its own sake, and it adds to the verisimilitude of what I wanted to come off as a fairly realistic thriller, however outlandish it might be in other respects. (In fact, this is a good time to admit that I came up with the image of Ilya building the laser first, with only a general sense of how it would fit into the rest of the plot—and it went on, as we’ll see, to play an important role in the story at several crucial points.)

Perhaps most important of all, the scene tells us something about Ilya himself. This is the first time we’ve really seen him alone, and like his brief flashback later in the chapter to an exchange in Yekaterinberg, it reveals elements of his character that will pay off down the line: he’s smart, methodical, and capable of doing a lot with limited resources. It’s no accident that he builds his laser himself, with ordinary components: I don’t have much interest in spyware of the James Bond variety, but I’m very interested in seeing characters solve problems when they have almost nothing to work with, which is what Ilya does, on a number of levels, throughout the entire story. And I don’t think this impression would be conveyed nearly as well without the attention to detail we see in this scene. Information, in a thriller, can be a surprisingly useful tool for building characters, especially in a genre that tends to gravitate, for obvious reasons, toward individuals with a certain level of competence. The Jackal is his rifle, and Ilya, at least for the moment, is identified with the little gadget he builds here. And it’s going to come in handy soon…

“Outside, the bathhouse was clean and bright…”

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(Note: This post is the fourteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 13. You can read the earlier installments here.)

By now, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I don’t like backstory. This isn’t a philosophical objection, but a practical one: I’ve found that there’s a certain category of characters, in both fiction and film, who are simply more effective the less you know about their background. This is emphatically true of Forsyth’s Jackal, for instance, and it used to be true of Hannibal Lecter before Thomas Harris decided to destroy him in his last two novels. And it’s true of my own Ilya Severin, who resembles Lecter and the Jackal only in that he’s a character who works best when the reader is allowed to fill in the blanks. Of course, you can’t do without some backstory—but a little goes a long way. Chapter 13, in which we learn a bit about Ilya’s background, the death of his parents, and his relationship with his mentor Vasylenko, is a crucial chapter, then, and not just for The Icon Thief: I didn’t realize it at the time, but the conflicts I establish here won’t be fully resolved for another two novels.

This chapter also receives particular emphasis from its place in the novel’s structure. Until now, the novel has alternated chapters between Maddy, my lead character, and the secondary protagonists, a structural device that I imposed late in the game in order to give more emphasis to Maddy’s story. Chapter 13 is the first time I break this pattern—normally the reader would expect a Maddy chapter here—and although I didn’t plan it deliberately, I think this works to subconsciously underline the scene’s importance. A novel’s structure can convey messages below the reader’s normal level of awareness, and here, it tells us to pay attention: Maddy’s narrative isn’t the only one we need to be following. (Needless to say, I was only able to violate the established pattern because Maddy had already been established as the novel’s primary character and had been given some interesting objectives. If I’d disrupted the structure earlier in the book, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.)

Not surprisingly, this was a hard chapter to write. I haven’t really kept track, but I have a feeling this may be the most frequently reworked chapter in the entire novel, at least when it came to the many small structural changes that were required to fit it smoothly into the surrounding narrative. Earlier versions tended to bring the novel’s momentum to a temporary halt, so I did what I could to minimize the interruption, cutting the chapter as much as possible and lopping off most of the first page, as First Blood author David Morrell helpfully recommends. I also rearranged the material a bit: the original draft opened with several paragraphs of description of the banya, or bathhouse, where the action takes place, before launching into the scene itself. By opening with a line of dialogue instead and saving the full description for later—the novelistic equivalent of starting with a closeup before cutting to a wide shot—the first page reads much more smoothly. It’s a tiny fix, but so effective that I often do the same thing now whenever I need to introduce a new location.

If I indulge myself a little more than usual in setting the stage here, it’s because this chapter is based on one of my more memorable excursions as a writer, when I spent a day at a Russian bathhouse in Sheepshead Bay. I’m part Finnish, so I’ve always been fond of saunas, but outside of certain memorable movies, I didn’t know much about the Russian version. The resulting field trip gave me more material than I could possibly use, but many of the details in the ensuing chapter—like the birch leaves floating on the surface of the pool after someone dives in after flogging himself with the venik—come directly from that excursion. And my day at the bathhouse was a reminder of why I’d wanted to become a novelist in the first place: it’s a license to explore parts of the world that I otherwise never would have seen, even in my own back yard. Later expeditions would take me to London, Brussels, and beyond, but in some ways, this is the one I remember most fondly…and it only took half an hour on the N train.

Written by nevalalee

August 8, 2012 at 10:02 am

The Jackal’s Breakfast

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When I was writing The Icon Thief, the book I read the most for inspiration was Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. This shouldn’t be surprising: more than forty years after it was published, Forsyth’s debut remains the best international thriller ever written, and it’s arguably still the single most influential novel of its kind. Much of its fascination comes from the figure of the Jackal himself, a coolly efficient British assassin who claims more than a few innocent victims, yes, but is also enormously attractive, to the point where a reader can’t help rooting for him, at least to some extent, as he nears his deadly appointment in Paris. We like the Jackal, despite ourselves, because he’s professional, clever, and resourceful as he goes about his business of forging identities, obtaining weapons—and even making breakfast. Here’s my favorite paragraph in the entire book:

He made himself a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs, orange juice and more black coffee in the flat’s small but compact kitchen, and ate it off the kitchen table. Being a tidy and methodical man, he emptied the last of the milk down the sink, broke the two remaining eggs, and poured them also down the sink. The remainder of the orange juice he drank off, junked the can in the trash basket, and the remainder of the bread, egg shells and coffee grounds went down the disposal unit. Nothing left would be likely to go rotten during his absence.

Taken out of context, the scene is vaguely hilarious—it reads almost like a parody of the lovingly detailed sections in which the Jackal acquires, assembles, and tests the rifle he intends to use to assassinate Charles De Gaulle. Really, though, it’s a reminder that the Jackal, who has no real backstory or even a name, is defined completely by his efficiency. Note, for instance, that his breakfast apparently consists of nothing but scrambled eggs, as if bacon or toast would upset the balance of so streamlined a meal—and it wouldn’t do at all, of course, for him to make pancakes or waffles. Something about those eggs, as well as the curiously redundant “small but compact” kitchen, is just right, and it lies near the heart of the Jackal’s appeal. Both he and his book are models of professionalism, down to the smallest detail, and the more we look at the Jackal (as well as his more heroic successors like Jason Bourne or Gabriel Allon, or even my own Ilya Severin), the more he comes to resemble the ideal of the suspense novelist himself…

(Note: This is a preview of my guest post today at Lauren’s Bookshelf. You can find the rest of the essay here.)

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2012 at 10:00 am

The Forsyth Saga

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Aside from Thomas Harris, whose career I’ve already discussed at possibly excessive length, the suspense novelist who has had the most influence on my own work is Frederick Forsyth. Unlike Harris, I discovered Forsyth fairly late in life, after my interests and style as a writer were mostly set, so my debt to Forsyth is wholly conscious. I read The Day of the Jackal years ago, and was suitably impressed, but it wasn’t until I started writing suspense on my own that I realized the extent of Forsyth’s achievement, and began to study his example more carefully. He’s rarely had any literary pretensions, so he has been critically undervalued in comparison to someone like le Carré, but he’s an exceptionally good writer, the ultimate pro. To my eyes, he’s the ideal suspense novelist, at least when it comes to promising and delivering everything that an intelligent reader wants. He may not linger in the imagination in the way Harris does, but paragraph by paragraph, he’s the best I’ve found.

The heart of his achievement remains his debut, The Day of the Jackal, which is still the great international thriller, and a model for nearly every novel of its kind published since. Forsyth, who had worked previously as a journalist in Europe and Africa, wrote it relatively quickly, after years of research, and somehow hit upon the most effective suspense formula that has yet been devised: the violent chase, counting down toward a deadly assignment, with a constantly accelerating pace, so that each section of the book becomes increasingly compressed in both space and time. It’s such a good formula, in fact, that Forsyth acknowledges that he began writing his second book, The Odessa File, by going back over his first novel, seeing what he had unconsciously done, and trying to reverse engineer it—as many other writers have tried since, and for good reason. The great virtues of his work emerge fully formed in Jackal: the pacing, the seamless mix of fact and fiction, the mastery of lean convincing detail, and best of all, the luxuriant disclosure of arcane information, so that an account of the assembly and testing of an assassin’s rifle becomes as erotic as any love scene.

Forsyth has his flaws, of course. Foremost is the startling lack of women, or even the slightest interest in women, in most of his novels. His books are exclusively about men, either solitary or deeply immersed in wholly masculine worlds—those of spies, assassins, soldiers. All the same, whenever he tries to insert a woman in the story, as in the unfortunate The Negotiator, the results are so poor that one welcomes their absence elsewhere. (I haven’t even tried to read The Phantom of Manhattan, Forsyth’s attempt to write about “the human heart,” and one of the more inexplicable books in any great author’s bibliography.) Women are clearly extraneous to Forsyth’s vision, which seems so expansive at first glance—the locations, the knowledge of politics and espionage, the wealth of detail—but is, in fact, savagely focused. Indeed, Forsyth’s great strength, at least in his best books, is his refusal to be drawn away from his wheelhouse. At several points in his career, he has evidently grown tired of this singlemindedness, but the fact remains that none of his successors are nearly as good at this sort of thing as he is.

Once I realized that Forsyth was the best living practitioner of the kind of novel that I’d found myself writing, I set out to systematically read everything he’d written, something I’ve done with only a handful of other contemporary novelists, like Ian McEwan. In the past few years alone, I’ve gone through Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, The Devil’s Alternative, The Fourth Protocol, The Negotiator, the short story collection No Comebacks, and Icon, which I’ve just finished this week. (The Fist of God and The Deceiver are waiting in the wings.) Aside from The Negotiator, which represents one of Forsyth’s rare lapses in the suspense form, they’ve all been great reads, even as the details begin to blur. That’s the thing about Forsyth: he’s so good in the moment, but constructs his books so tightly that there isn’t much room left for the reader’s imagination, and hence, except for Jackal, less of an afterlife in the memory. That isn’t a criticism, just an observation, and perhaps a warning. Forsyth is our great constructor of clockwork thrillers, and in his career, we can see not just the potential of the suspense form, but also its limits.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2012 at 10:00 am

On endless endings

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In popular fiction, the ending is everything. An audience is often surprisingly tolerant of poor storytelling, at least after they’ve been engaged by the plot—either by having been hooked by a good beginning or, more prosaically, by having paid eleven dollars for the privilege of watching it—but a bad ending is something they won’t forgive. Conversely, a great ending, especially one that takes the audience by surprise, can send a story’s prospects into the stratosphere: Inception, for instance, where I was impressed by the movie but unsure of my reaction until the startling final shot. Similarly, I love the ending of The Departed, which replaces the morally ambiguous conclusion of Infernal Affairs with a simple severing of the knot. As De Niro says at the end of Casino: “And that’s that.”

Much worse, of course, is the protracted or endless ending. We’ve all experienced books or movies that drag out the story long after a natural climax has been reached, like The Return of the King, a great movie, or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a not-so-great book. With a book, at least you have a vague sense of how many more pages remain, but at the movies, I’ve often found myself hoping for a cut to black after a particularly cathartic moment, only to find that the story still had another ten minutes or more to run. Far more unusual is a movie that ends before we were expecting, but at what, in retrospect, was just the right time—which always inspires what I can only describe as surprised relief in the audience. And fiction abides by the same rules. In his valuable, if somewhat dated, Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz lays down the law:

Do not resolve the main plot problem on page 200 and continue to page 220 before typing “The End.” When the reader knows what happened, he doesn’t want to read on while the characters gab about how awful it was. If your plot contains an element of mystery, the explanations should be given throughout the climactic scene and not as an afterthought when all the action strings have been tied and cut. On the other hand, try to leave a couple of pages after the climax to let the reader settle down from that peak of emotion—a thousand words, no more.

This is good advice, although the limit of a thousand words is probably too restrictive. The two novels I’ve written have fairly similar structures: an intense climax, a short concluding chapter to tie off a few loose ends, and then a separate epilogue to set the stage for the next installment. Needless to say, I do my best to make sure that the material after the climax is as quick and concise as possible. More than one chapter of denouement, for instance, is almost certainly too much—a flaw that I’d argue applies even to that greatest of all thrillers, The Silence of the Lambs. (Thomas Harris uses a similarly long denouement for a sensational fakeout at the end of Red Dragon, which is why it’s surprising to see him play it straight in the sequel.)

As far as pushing the climax to the end is concerned, the quintessential example among thrillers is probably The Day of the Jackal. Frederick Forsyth’s debut is still the best international suspense novel ever written, thanks largely to its tight, almost mathematical pacing. The book’s three sections grow progressively compressed in length and scope: the second section is half as long as the first and covers about half as much time, while the third is even shorter, giving a sense of continuous acceleration. The main plot resolves itself on the next-to-last page, and Forsyth even saves a small surprise for the very end. It looks easy, but it isn’t: Forsyth’s subsequent novels, although some are very good, never quite manage to sustain the suspense so beautifully. And if it were easy, after all, it wouldn’t be so rare.

The lure of trashy fiction

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Yesterday’s posting on the lure of bad movies, like Birdemic, raises the obvious question of whether the same allure clings to certain trashy books. At first glance, it might seem that the answer is no, at least not the same way: while a bad movie can be polished off in ninety minutes, even the junkiest novel usually requires a somewhat greater commitment, which raises the question of whether this is really the best use of one’s time. Life, it seems, is too short to knowingly waste on bad books, especially when so much good stuff remains unread. (Whenever I read a bad book, I feel as if I need to apologize personally to William Faulkner.) And yet I’ve learned a lot from bad fiction as well. As a writer, it’s useful to know something about every kind of literature, especially when you’re trying to make your mark in a genre that has generated its share of junk. And if you don’t read some trash, as well as better books, you’ll have no way of knowing if you can tell the difference.

The trouble, of course, is that one man’s trashy novel is another man’s masterpiece. The early novels of Thomas Harris, for instance, are hugely important to me, but diminishing returns set in about halfway through Hannibal, and by Hannibal Rising, there’s barely a single interesting page. But this, of course, is a judgment call, and some might draw the line much earlier or later. The same is true of Frederick Forsyth, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, or any other prolific popular novelist. Discriminating between the good (The Day of the Jackal) and the bad (The Negotiator) in a single writer’s body of work is an important part of developing one’s own taste. And sometimes a novelist will surprise you. I’ve repeatedly tried and failed to get into Tom ClancyThe Cardinal of the Kremlin nearly put me to sleep on a recent long bus trip—but I was delighted to discover that Without Remorse is a real novel, vicious, compelling, and with bravura set pieces that recall Forsyth, or even James Ellroy.

And sometimes even literary fiction can benefit from a touch of trash. I love John Updike, and believe that the Rabbit novels are among the essential cultural documents of the last century, but if I could own only one Updike novel, it would be Couples, which even his greatest fans seem to think he wrote at least partly for the money. And yet there’s something weirdly exhilarating about seeing Updike’s extraordinary prose and observational skills applied to blatantly commercial material. Updike can’t help being an artist, even when he’s writing a big sexy novel, and I’d argue that Couples, which isn’t that far removed from Peyton Place, was the novel he was born to write. (His later attempt at a “thriller,” in the form of Terrorist, is much less satisfying, and only comes to life whenever Updike revisits his old adulterous territory.)

But have I ever deliberately set out to read a novel that I knew was bad? Sure. While I haven’t managed to make it through Still Missing, for one, I love reading the bestsellers of yesteryear, embodied in the rows of yellowing paperbacks that line the shelves of thrift stores. The 1970s was a particularly rich era for trash. During my move from New York last year, the only book I kept in my empty apartment was a battered copy of Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, which I enjoyed immensely, especially when I mentally recast all the characters with actors from Mad Men. And I’m a little embarrassed to admit how quickly I plowed through Irving Wallace’s The Fan Club—a terrible book, and much less interesting than Wallace himself, but remarkably evocative of its era in popular fiction. Such books may not be great, but they’re an undeniable part of a writer’s education. (As long as they aren’t all you read.)

“Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt”

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Let’s say you’re reading a novel, perhaps a thriller, and while you wouldn’t say it’s a great book, you’re reasonably engaged by the plot and characters. The story is clocking along nicely, the author’s prose is clean and unobtrusive, and suddenly you’re brought up short by something like this:

He was sitting all alone in the enormous cabin of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet as it bounced its way through turbulence. In the background, the dual Pratt & Whitney engines hummed evenly.

Hold on. What do those Pratt & Whitney engines have to do with anything? Is this a novel or an aircraft catalog? Well, it’s neither, at least not at the moment: rather, it’s an instance of a novelist being reluctant to part with a laboriously acquired piece of research. Suspense novelists are especially guilty of this sort of thing—the above example is from Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, admittedly not the most original target in the world—but it’s something that every writer needs to beware: the temptation to overload one’s fiction with factual detail, especially detail that was the result of a long and painful research process.

This tendency is easy to understand in historical and science fiction, in which so much energy has gone into researching a story set in another time and place, but it’s less obvious why it should also be so common in thrillers, which in other respects have become ever more streamlined. Anthony Lane, in an amusing article on the top ten books on the New York Times bestseller list of May 15, 1994, quotes a sentence from Allan Folsom’s thriller The Day After Tomorrow (the one about the Frankfurt bus lines), which he claims is the most boring clause in any of the books he’s read for his essay. He then says:

The odd thing about pedantry, however, is that it can’t be trusted. Many of the writers on this list are under the impression that if they do the factual spadework, the fiction will dig itself in and hunker down, solid and secure. The effect, unfortunately, is quite the opposite. It suggests that the writers are hanging on for grim life to what they know for fear of unleashing what they don’t know; they are frightened, in other words, of their own imagination…When Flaubert studied ancient Carthage for Salammbô, or the particulars of medieval falconry for “The Legend of St. Julien Hospitalier,” he was furnishing and feathering a world that had already taken shape within his mind; when Allan Folsom looks at bus timetables, his book just gets a little longer.

True enough. Lane is mistaken, though, when he blames this tendency, elsewhere in his article, on the work of James Michener, which consists of “gathering more research than any book could possibly need, then refusing to jettison a particle of it for the sake of dramatic form.” Michener is probably to blame for such excesses in historical fiction, but as far as thrillers are concerned, there’s another, more relevant culprit: Frederick Forsyth. Much of the pleasure of The Day of the Jackal (which Lane elsewhere claims to read once a year) comes from Forsyth’s expertise, real or cunningly feigned, in such matters as identity theft and the construction of an assassin’s rifle, which makes the less plausible elements of his novel all the more convincing. He’s so good at this, in fact, that legions of inferior writers have been seduced by his example. (Even Forsyth himself, in his later novels, isn’t entirely immune.)

Here, then, is the novelist’s dilemma: an appropriate amount of research will lure readers into the fictional dream, but too much will yank them out. So what’s a writer to do? The answer here, as in most other places, is that good habits of writing in general will trim away the worst of these particular excesses. For instance, Stephen King’s invaluable advice to cut all your drafts by ten percent applies twice as much to expository or factual passages. We haven’t discussed point of view yet, but by restricting each scene to the point of view of a particular character, you’re less likely to introduce extraneous information. And the endless labor of rereading, editing, and revision, once time has given you sufficient detachment from your own work, will gradually alert you to places where the research has begun to interfere with the underlying story.

There’s another place where excessive research can also be dangerous, and that’s in the writing process itself. Nearly every novel requires some degree of background material, but how much is too much? It’s always hard to say when research turns into procrastination, but here’s my own rule of thumb: two or three months of research is probably enough for the beginning of any project. Later on, you can always take a break to do more, and should certainly go back and check your facts once the novel is done, but any more than three months at the start, and you risk losing the momentum that encouraged you to write the novel in the first place. And once that momentum is gone, not even a Pratt & Whitney engine will get it back.

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