Tuesday 12 June 2007
I’ve been reading thrillers for longer than I’ve been writing them. Over time, I’ve put my ideas on how thrillers work and why we love to read them into a lecture – The Art of Suspense.
Starting with the first real thriller – Erskine Childer’s ‘The Riddle of the Sands,’ and covering the works of John Buchan, Zane Grey, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and Thomas Harris (amongst others) I trace how thrillers have developed. The historical events that helped drive the development of thrillers, the effect of the Dreyfus trial, Hamlet as an assassin, the impact of the world wars on how we see ourselves ... this history of the thriller will be of interest to students of literature and would-be writers.
A good idea for a novel is one that will generate between 50 and 100 dramatic scenes. Pride and Prejudice has 61. Some ideas only give you 2 or 3, and are not enough for a novel.
The defining characteristic of a thriller is that the protagonist is in danger. (Detective stories are not thrillers, they arouse curiosity rather than tension.) Sometimes the villain is in danger, or the danger alternates between hero and villain. If the villain has a fair chunk of the action and point of view, he needs to be charming or readers will be turned off.
The Riddle of the Sands (Erskine Childers) 1903, was the first ‘thriller’. It had the pretence of a factual basis, revealing anxiety on the part of the author. Robinson Crusoe, written early 18C. when the novel was a new form, also pretended to be factual. Follett did the same thing himself in 1978 when ‘faction’ was a new form.
A display of expertise (in Childers’ case, of North Sea sandbanks, etc.) helps because this diverts the reader’s attention from the implausibility of the plot. All the best stories are unrealistic (says Follett). To fake the expertise plausibly, you need to research, if possible hands on, e.g. in his most terrifying case, flying lessons.
The tensions (in a thriller or any novel) have to resolve, and this is almost always physical, e.g. a fist fight or sex. Look at Anna Karenina – hundreds of pages of irresolution and dilemma, resolved physically by throwing herself under a train.
The Riddle of the Sands had no women characters at first, but Childers was persuaded to put one in, which he described as ‘a horrible nuisance’.
Childers wrote only the one book before he was shot for treason in 1922. Next came John Buchan (The 39 Steps) acknowledged by Ian Fleming as the creator of the genre.
As well as putting the protagonist in danger, a good thriller also threatens a greater danger (Riddle of the Sands – to England, 39 Steps – to Europe). Why? Because (1) it enlarges the concerns of the novel; (2) it makes the hero more admirable; and (3) it gives more opportunities for suspense because the hero will risk himself for the greater good.
The hero’s social class is usually somewhat elevated – readers like to identify upwards (says Follett), in general fiction too. Clubland heroes began with Buchan. Lower class heroes are acceptable if they are good at cutting their betters down to size, e.g. 1950s novels like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Buchan set his thrillers outside, and used any excuse to take them to Scotland, whose landscape he described beautifully. But he didn’t do this gratuitously – landscape in a thriller must have a function: to set the mood or further the plot – e.g. establishing that there is nowhere to conceal oneself.
E Phillips Oppenheim (from 1900 to 1939) invented indoor thrillers (The Mysterious Mr Sabin). Weak plots; the vicarious high life is the main attraction.
Many thrillers include ‘the conversation with the Prime Minister scene’ about halfway through. The hero meets a VIP, e.g. the President of the USA, who tells him, ‘Everything depends on you.’ This is an efficient way to add tension and veracity to what’s at stake.
Zane Grey invented the Western genre (again men in danger with a violent resolution). The thriller and the Western are essentially literature for men. Affluence in the 20C enabling publishers to create niche markets.
William le Queux, another bad writer, invented the spy thriller. This grew out of the Dreyfus case and the build up to WWI.
Joseph Conrad (The Secret Agent) invented the psychological thriller, where the issue isn’t who but why. Hamlet is a psychological thriller: it’s what’s in his head that prevents him from killing his uncle, not physical obstacles. Crime and Punishment is a psychological thriller. There are action scenes and dangers in both of these, but their purpose is to increase the tension in the mind of the protagonist, more than to threaten him physically.
- Bulldog Drummond is crap – ‘snobbery with violence’.
- Leslie Charteris (The Saint) is okay.
- Geoffrey Household (Rogue Male) – a classic. Simple but effective.
- Somerset Maugham (Ashenden), and Graham Greene (The Third Man) – modernist disillusionment. Both these writers had connections with intelligence in war. The moral dilemma has more importance than the chase scenes, which, as in Dostoevsky, are there to heighten the psychological tension.
- Eric Ambler – Marxist thrillers – invented real violence that actually hurts, which became standard.
- Edgar Allen Poe – mystery detective stories, heading towards the hybrid detective thriller, exemplified by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Thought of as an American genre, although Arthur Conan Doyle got there first with Sherlock Holmes.
- Dennis Wheatley – WWII thrillers, the agent behind enemy lines, a situation that yields constant tension.
- Mickey Spillane – a great writer, hardboiled punchy prose; but his attitudes stink.
- Hank Jansen – prosecuted for obscenity.
- Ian Fleming (James Bond) was privately into S&M. The hero becomes promiscuous and romantic, and the action has an edge of sexual sadism. Vivid, immediate prose.
The heyday of the spy story was the cold war and the nuclear arms race. It was comforting to know that James Bond was out there, keeping us safe.
- Len Deighton, John Le Carré (The Spy who Came in from the Cold). Lower key.
Post cold war, new arenas have been found – organised crime, science, assassination plots, serial killers (Thomas Harris The Silence of the Lambs is brilliant and is second only to Follett in making the hero a woman), lawyers in danger (Grisham), religion (Dan Brown).
The thriller is arguably the defining literary form of the 20th century. Why? Follett’s theory is that all boys lived with the possibility that they might have to fight and die, and reading thrillers was a vicarious way of facing and dealing with that fear. The advent of women heroes reflects women’s entry into police and army, etc.
Q. Thriller an Anglo-Saxon form?
Waterstone’s manager said, Scandinavian market huge. Also South American and Cuban.
Q. Why do more women than men read fiction?
A. Discussed but not resolved. (Bobbie’s theory: that men tend to be more interested in facts and women in psychological and philosophical issues; and fiction takes liberties with the former to explore the latter.)
A. Over-rated and ephemeral, no substitute for literary merit. It is fine to explore and expose an issue, or use fiction as allegory, but it has to work first and foremost on the level of a good story.
Q. Have you written any books that are not thrillers?
A. Yes – The Pillars of the Earth, about the building of a medieval cathedral, something that interests him personally. Timescale too long to lend itself to the thriller form. About to bring out a sequel – also not a thriller. Over time it has sold better than any of his thrillers.
A. It constrains at first. But then it (1) liberates the imagination, (2) generates ideas, and (3) supplies the details that give the books the grain of everyday life and lift them out of ‘comic strip’ unreality of his first ten (unresearched) books. He was lucky to be published with those, but they have sold okay.
Q. Harder to get published now?
A. Not really. New small publishing houses continue to spring up, as ever. Many fail. A few succeed, grow and get swallowed up by conglomerates. More spring up.
Q. Pace of modern thrillers cf. e.g. The Riddle of the Sands?
A. Yes. Stories used to unfold ponderously. Now they must turn in some major or minor, but significant, way every 4 to 6 pages. Much influenced by film and TV. But it’s not completely new. Pride and Prejudice turns every 4 to 6 pages.
Q. What’s it like being filmed?
A. Thrilling (sic) to see actors, even in a bad production, embodying the characters you have created. But tense (sic) and often frustrating because the writer has no say, and the director and screenwriter can mess with and occasionally destroy the story logic.