04 January 2012

How to Write a Thriller

I was standing around in the mysteries section of my favorite local independent bookstore Christmas week – specifically that lost week between Christmas and New Years – looking for another Lee Child novel to read. Child writes thrillers, not mysteries, but that’s where I found him.

Brought Worth Dying For to the counter. A woman spotted the flashy red cover and exclaimed, “Wow – Lee Child – he’s a great read!” as if I wanted her opinion. It is good to meet a fellow fan.

You don’t get that on a Kindle. Gray sweater, gold chain on her neck, about 50. Real person, standing on a real carpet, in sight of the ocean. Nothing electronic about her.

Why do so many readers find these sometimes gory, always suspenseful Jack Reacher novels so gripping? Why do I read these books so fast? I try to stop at midnight but rarely can.

Lee Child’s ongoing character Jack Reacher is ex-military – definitely a John Wayne type. He’s a drifter without fixed address. Trouble finds him. He’s a never-lose street fighter, accurate with any weapon that comes to hand. And in all these novels Reacher vanquishes whatever he sets out to vanquish. John Wayne all the way. Also a Mission Impossible Tom Cruise type, except Reacher is way taller and would crush Tom Cruise.

Lee Child uses all the tricks known to successful thriller writers and he does it well. Even the most plain descriptive passages advance the action:

“The Pentagon is the world’s largest office building, six and a half million square feet, thirty thousand people, more than seventeen miles of corridors, but it was built with just three street doors, each of them opening into a guarded pedestrian lobby.”

Soon Reacher is striding through radial three across B wing to A wing, pursued by a bunch of – probably -- cops.

And you keep on reading because chapters end like this:

“I thought: should I be worried? I was under arrest. In a town where I’d never been before. Apparently for murder. But I knew two things. First, they couldn’t prove something had happened if it hadn’t happened. And second, I hadn’t killed anybody.

“Not in their town, and not for a long time, anyway.”

And the books begin well. Take this, from Killing Floor:

“I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee.”

From Gone Tomorrow:

“Suicide bombers are easy to spot. They give out all kinds of telltale signs. Mostly because they’re nervous. By definition they’re all first timers.”

You read that, you hang on for the ride, in this case a fateful subway ride.

In a 2006 essay, writer Linda Adams said for a thriller to work you need High Stakes. Planning. Pacing. A Goal. Credibility.

No Unnecessary Details: "In one of Clive Cussler's books, he interrupts a scene where a helicopter is about to crash to explain why the helicopter has to crash on a particular side. This stops the fast pace of the action scene, and it isn't needed for the reader to understand what's going on."

You have to have the Ticking Time Bomb. Dot the I's and Cross the T's. Be thorough.

Readers whip through Lee Child’s 500-page books faster than insomniacs eat ice cream, faster than a .338 mm bullet leaves the barrel. Almost faster than that.

Chapters are short and punchy. Reading Worth Dying For by page 100 I had finished Chapter 15. Six point six pages per chapter. Can’t get more entertaining than that.


Linda Adams’ essay ...

Lee Child’s home on the web ...

The first five Reacher novels are Killing Floor; Die Trying; Tripwire; Running Blind;  Echo Burning.

The most recent five: Nothing to Lose; Gone Tomorrow; 61 Hours; Worth Dying For; The Affair. 

All published in paperback by Dell; Delacorte Press in hard cover.

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