Thursday 30 July 2009

The Thriller Technique

I mentioned a few days ago that I’m becoming increasingly interested in thrillers, and so I was keen to attend one of the main events of the Harrogate Festival, an interview of Lee Child by Natasha Cooper. A special guest was Lee Child’s brother, Andrew Grant, who has just published his own debut novel, Even.

Interviews at conferences vary in quality, but Natasha is very experienced and accomplished at drawing her interviewees out, and the result was very thought-provoking as far as I was concerned. Anyone with an interest in writing thrillers would have learned quite a bit, I feel.

I was impressed, above all, by two crucial qualities that Lee Child brings to his craft, which I’d summarise as focus and simplicity. I’d guess he’s always been very focused, but it seems that being made redundant from Granada TV in the 90s kick-started his career as a novelist – the injustice of his treatment clearly still burns. As an employment lawyer, I’ve known many people who have had similarly harsh experiences, but none have responded by forging careers which were both financially successful and earned them worldwide fame.

Allying simplicity to quality, it seems to me, is one of the hardest tricks for any creative artist to pull off. Simplicity is one of the reasons why Agatha Christie’s books have lasted so well. It is one of the reasons why Hal David’s lyrics have entered the consciousness of people the world over who would not recognise his name. I once heard Hal David say in an interview that it’s too easy to make things complicated, and the more I’ve reflected on this, the more I realise, he is right. And hearing Lee Child (one of whose books is sold every second, apparently – blimey!) explain his approach to the Jack Reacher books gave me a real insight into the secrets of his success. Not easy to emulate, though if anyone can do it, it may just be Andrew Grant.


Paul Beech said...

I’ve much enjoyed your Harrogate posts, Martin, and I’m sure the Lee Child interview was fascinating. Did he say anything about rewriting and revision? I’ll bet most good thriller writers work hard at paring things down to extract the essence and deliver the punch.

I remember that in a Paris Review interview back in the 50s or 60s, Simenon commented on the need to avoid being too literary: “Adjectives, adverbs and every word which is there just for the effect, every sentence which is there just for the sentence…cut it!”

Of course a famously reworked line is that of Ian Fleming’s with which he opens the first of his Bond novels, Casino Royale: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” Reading that at the age of 15, I was hooked. Such urbanity and assurance!

A decade later I discovered Francis Clifford – wow! Who, having read ‘The Naked Runner,’ ‘All Men Are Lonely Now’ or ‘Drummer In The Dark,’ could argue that good characterisation is incompatible with the thriller’s primary objective of keeping readers pinned to the edge of their seats?

Are you familiar with Ken Follett’s website? If not, I’d strongly recommend a visit as you’ll find lots of good stuff on the history and methodology of the thriller there (see ‘Masterclass’ and ‘The Art of Suspense’).

Looking forward to your first thriller!



Dorte H said...

Simplicity, a brilliant plot and some credible characters - that is all there is to it, isn´t it? ;)

I think the thriller technique is very suitable for flash fiction and short stories, but it seems to me that when it comes to novels, it demands quite a lot of the writer. The very best thrillers are fantastic reads, but there is so much out there that I could live without. Perhaps some writers just think they are good enough at describing the psychology and development of their characters.

But it will be interesting to see if you decide to try - as your characters are good indeed.

Martin Edwards said...

Paul, it's always good to hear from you. Lee Child didn't talk about rewriting, but he implied (as I recall) that he didn't do many drafts.
I'll have a look at Follett's website - thanks.
I haven't read Clifford, but my late father was a fan.

Martin Edwards said...

Dorte, I agree that there are some badly written thrillers. I read one by a newish American writer that I thought really poor, but it seems to be selling very well.
Lee Child's The Visitor, on the other hand, is an example of a book that matches a complex, Christie-style plot with a very direct style. It's a real gift to be able to do this.
Another very good thriller is Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent - far better than the film.Turow really can write.