[Tom Pope is a writing teacher—see the interview with him in a post from a few days ago—and yours truly writes thrillers. We put our emails together to produce this Socratic discussion about several elements associated with writing thrillers. This is part two of that discussion. Enjoy.]
Steve: What you call third person internal is just a temporary lapse into first person. Putting the thoughts into italics allows the writer to make it present tense: What’s my partner doing? Instead of, What was that partner doing? The first moves the prose along more. However, if italics aren’t used in the first, readers are justifiably confused due to the tense change. Moreover, many authors make the mistake of putting italicized thoughts into past tense, which is also confusing to the reader.
I’m even more of a minimalist writer. In one of your dialogue lines, it’s clear who’s talking to whom. You’ve replaced “Are you tracking badges now?” with “You collecting badges now?” while I’d replace it with “Collecting badges now?” The first might be appropriate for that nebulous genre of “literary fiction,” the second for a thriller, and the third for a hard-boiled mystery or police procedural. Depending on the person with whom I’m conversing, I might say any of the three in an office situation, but the last really moves the dialogue forward.
These examples are minutia, of course, but over the length of a novel, probably 60 to 80 kwords, the minutia can add up. Same goes for slang and street jive. If there’s a lot of dialogue—I mean pages and pages of it—and the slang or street jive used isn’t found in my normal conversational quirks, I’ll eventually tire of it as a reader. There’s nothing bigoted or hypocritical about this. When I lived in the Boston area, I found the ubiquitous accent there tiresome at times. This is a cultural phenomenon. Same goes for foreign language terms—I use those more than most authors, but I’ve become more careful. The Goldilocks rule applies here: use just enough to provide color, but not too much. Of course, too little and too much depend on the reader—you have to aim for the average person in your targeted audience.
That leads to another question: who’s the targeted audience? It’s my personal impression, but borne out by many stats, that women are more avid readers than men. Given that, perhaps male authors should adapt their prose accordingly? I’m not talking about vampire romances or things like that, but thrillers still. Jon Land, for example, has created a kick-ass female deputy sheriff. James Patterson has created a strong female detective. Most thrillers I’ve written have strong female protagonists. First, do you think a male writer can get inside the female mind enough to write in first person or third person internal and be convincing? Second, will thrillers, with their fast-paced action, heavy violence, strong language, and sex scenes, deviant or not, appeal to female readers if the protagonist is female? While mine are at the level of cable TV (no erotica or porn), they tend to have those elements. I know that some women are turned off by these thriller “features.”
Tom: Actually let me suggest that the internal can be used beyond a temporary lapse and that avoids the confusion of tenses. The character can from the outset speak from his mind and the use of the emotion brings that sense of immediacy that appears as the first person.
The targeted audience is a great point. Authors have to foresee a profile of their readers. While women do buy more books, I think they are attracted to specific cultures. Rather than thinking like a woman instead of a man, the cultural framing might be more crucial.
One culture might be the multitasking middle management of legal or business firms. That female’s attraction to thrillers would appreciate the fast paced problem solving she sees as necessary in her world. Her enjoyment of dialogue could arrive at seeing how others use the jargon of the legal system or the management arena. Yet another woman might grow up in a slum in India and her culture might enjoy seeing the character speak in a similar dialect.
Having said that, yes, female characters are demanding to be more real to the woman who picks up the thriller. Hence the development of the female FBI agent. Our design of these characters must take into account the woman of today who is more feisty, and aware of the obstacles we see in thrillers compared to the Donna Reed of yesterday.
Steve: Probably similar comments can be made about settings. A female reader might feel more comfortable with more domestic venues, even though these are invaded by bad guys intent on doing the female protagonist and her family harm. Sometimes the suspense is heightened when the very familiar becomes a battleground, psychological or otherwise. The movie Prisoners is an example where bad things start happening in a quiet middle class suburb. Or, will the female reader react negatively to this because it hits too close to home?
Tom: Actually, I see this as a cultural issue rather than a female one. One culture is linked to being a female, but another one exists in the office of the FBI or the diner. So a female blue-collar worker might feel less comfortable reading about the female FBI agent despite the fact that the protagonist is a female.
Note the switch in an internal psyche of Liz in the TV Series The Blacklist. Her natural instincts of nurturing and being a mother exist, but only when she is off duty. During a crisis, she has switched off that part of herself. That driving force has been repressed. So, the average woman category is really a problem because that group is divided into many subcultures. The female CEO might share some of Liz’s struggles due to the politics of her business. Those issues could duplicate the crisis seen in Blacklist. Yet the Diner waitress could have more things in common with a character who struggles with paying finances, dealing with sexism from dining customers, or handling the child at home.
One other item, though, which relates to some previous content in our discussions. I think the thriller requires more attention to how the characters present backstory. You’re right about the constant need to move forward. I find some thriller authors are not aware of how to show items like a planned abduction of a key person that occurred before the story began. Or, the details of the enemy vessel as described by just by two characters in a dialogue. The emphasis in both often comes across as telling instead of showing.
One technique to avoid this would be to start a description of the information by translating the details into something visual where the reader sees the material as happening in the present.
Instead of: Jake told the captain about the abduction. “They waited for the chief of staff in the alley of the hotel and when his SS detail responded to an explosion, unmarked vans drove up to seize the chief of staff.”
How about: Jake opened his laptop and punched in a code. The screen showed a dark alley as lights of the St. Regis glowed. Off to the side the van hummed. Dark covered faces saw the eruption of light on the other side of the hotel. SS pulled their guns and ran to check out the explosion.
Or, another example, instead of:
Jake had to ask about the weapons on the attack sub. The captain frowned. “Twenty five MK 48 torpedoes and Tomahawk Cruise missiles.” “Why the frown?” “The diving planes have been moved from the sail to the bow to strengthen the sail for under ice conditions.”
Instead, how about having the sub encounter an enemy attack sub and the characters see the info from their view screens:
Jake watched the captain nod to track the contact. A blur lit the screen as they rounded the enemy vessel. Jake noticed the bow and rear tubes as the grey ship yawed away from their view.
“Almost twenty five tubes?”
Jake watched the ship turn as the sail dipped away. “”Where are the diving planes?”
“In the bow—ensures extra strength for under ice conditions.”
Steve: All good examples. Tom, you’ve had the last words. Well, almost. I’ve enjoyed this Socratic discussion about writing the thriller. We’ve only touched on some of the aspects. If any readers have questions, contact me. If they’re for Tom, I’ll forward them to him. Tom and I hope that readers have enjoyed this dialogue as well as writers.
In libris libertas….
- See more at: http://stevenmmoore.com/?p=2913#more-2913