Sunday, November 21, 2010

More on Cussler and Killer Plots

Over at the excellent mystery and writing blog Murderati, Pari Noskin Taichert interviews Dirk Cussler who talks about how he got into writing, how he works with his father and what he thinks makes a good thriller. TG recommends heading over there for a read not only of this interview, but of the blog in general.

The Cussler's latest book is Crescent Dawn. TG reviewed this book and was decidedly underwhelemed. While TG likes much of Clive's work -- the man certainly deserves the Thriller Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement – but Crescent Dawn, while initially intriguing, quickly descends into an undistinguished compilation of subplots and ideas that have been around for years in one form or another, i.e. the Church of England attempting to hide details of the life of Christ; (at least it wasn't the Vatican) ships laden with explosives headed toward familiar targets; an attack on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (snore) and others. One has to wonder if the Cusslers have fallen into the trap that snares so many thriller writers today -- not keeping up with what other writers in the genre are doing. But realistically, TG has to ask if a writer was as successful as these two guys, father and son, are, would you be spending your time reading the work of others? Especially if your readers didn't seem to care? If it were TG, he would be driving fast cars, diving the seas, drinking, eating at fabulous restaurants, buying his wife expensive baubles and generally living the good life someplace warm. Which is probably what the Cussler's do with their well-earned cash. But that's the subject of another blog.

When asked about Crescent Dawn, Dirk describes it thusly on Murderati:

As with most of the Pitt books, a historical element provided inspiration for the story. In this case, there were actually two events. I became interested in the loss of the H.M.S. Hampshire, a British cruiser that sank under mysterious circumstances in World War I, while transporting Lord Kitchener to a secret meeting with the Russian Czar. Dozens of rumors and theories abounded after the sinking, including speculation that the ship was sunk by the IRA or even the British government, rather than a suspected German U-boat. It all seemed to me like good fodder for a fictional sub-plot. At the same time, Clive was intrigued by Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who traveled to Jerusalem in 327 A.D. to search for relics of Christianity. The trick was then to tie the two events into a contemporary-staged thriller.”

TG finds several points of interest here. The loss of the H.M.S. Hampshire with Kitchener aboard is an interesting plot device, one which has been explored before but still remains a fresh subject for thriller writers. Then there's his father's interest in early roman relics of Christianity. These relics (paintings of Jesus, the writings of Jesus, etc.) are a mainstay of religious conspiracy thrillers and are becoming pretty shopworn, which is one of the reasons TG found the book unoriginal, which is not a word one often uses in the same paragraph with Clive Cussler. What is instructive here is the way the two men took two wildly dissimilar topics and set about finding a way to bring them together. TG will now define this as the Seven Degrees of Separation for Developing Plots. The linking of two disparate plot ideas in the same way it is possible to connect Kevin Bacon with any other human in the world. All one needs to do this is to sit down with a pal, set a bottle of booze on the table along with two shot glasses and get to work. Don't forget pen and paper to take notes; trust TG, you're going to need them.

Taichert asked several other questions that are of interest to TG and the readers of this blog:

What's the division of labor? “
Most of our joint work is at the front end. We'll meet together regularly over the course of several weeks to kick around plot ideas and then hash out an outline. Once that is set, then I'll go off and do the bulk of the actual writing, with my father editing along the way. I would say the challenges of working together are few, beyond the normal struggles of writing a book. It's a real pleasure picking the brains of my father, however, as his creativity seems to have no bounds.

What do you think are the essential elements of good storytelling? “
I might say that the three C's of Character, Conflict, and Compulsion are at the heart of any good story. Writing action adventure tales, we don't necessarily delve too deeply into the psyche of the characters, but it's always important that the reader can empathize with one or more of the main figures. Some measure of action is required, typically driven by a conflict or odyssey of some sort that leads the characters forward, either physically or mentally. And it all must be done in a compelling manner that keeps the reader turning the pages, be it by mood, dialogue, style elements, or the conflict or action itself.”

Add Dirk's Three C's to TG's Four B's and you've got the basic formulae for developing a winning thriller. Now just make sure you're reading what others are writing so you don't bore TG with shopworn retreads. Oops, TG has run out of space once again.

Next: Those three new interesting plots that TG keeps promising.


  1. While I have read Cussler for years (mostly sticking to his Dirk Pitt series) I thought Crescant Dawn had baggage (from the weight of all the adventures that came before it). The action was okay but I think that Cussler, especially in the past 4 books, has gotten stuck in the dreaded cookie- cutter mode and maybe that happens to other thriller writers who've been in a series this many years.
    (I think) He needs to really shake things up.

    Like, maybe, kill Al off and THEN have the son & daughter tag along and have all the characters in this PITT universe feel the weight of Al's death over the next few books. (This would be different than killing off the wife because that's always been done-- now killing off the Lone Ranger's Tonto-- that's rare)
    Maybe that's what the series needs is a shake up of that magnitude.

    But then, the risk, of course, is that the formula that a majority of his fans enjoy will be broken. How much would that hurt sales?

    But then, Cussler has seen his day in the sun, and the family surely by now must be taken care of financially, but can the franchise afford such a risk?

    But then, how much longer can the franchise continue using the same formula? Getting sales figures is a tough nut to crack but I should think Cussler has peaked several books ago and no longer sells the 1.5 million copies (or more) per adventure he used to.

    The way I see it, he had tried to add the kids as characters a few books back and I , for one, didn’t like it. It was like he said to us (the fans), "Well, your paying for a Dirk Pitt book, but here are my kids. Al and I will be off on the side here in cameos, sorry about that." To his credit- I think Cussler did it because he was tired of Pitt and not as a gimick of any kind. It just didn’t seem to work because it DID seem like a gimick.

    Now, if he were to kill off Al….THAT would give him the excuse to make the kids have larger roles in the books. Might even ADD to sales if the publisher plays this shocker up in the media. Heck, maybe a handful of other thriller writers might try it out too. We, the readers, could use a shake up or two (as could the bottom line).

    One other thought: I also have grown tired of Cussler's cameos. They were cute and different for a book or two but I don't think it has to be done in EVERY book thereafter. Each additional moment in each new book, kind of delutes the charm of the few times it was done earlier.

    All of this begs the question ( and I am by no means an expert on all the various thriller series that are out there), which thriller writers out there will dare to take the bold step of making a change?
    If it flops, he (or she) is finished. But if it works, they’ll be credited with a new idea. (They won’t even have to thank me!)

    Look at the Bond series as an example. Sure, it was fun watching Roger Moore, or even Pierce Brosnan, in their day, take out the bad guys, throw a quip or two into the air, bed the babe and never throw a hair on their heads out of place.

    But the producers, in the last two films, showed us a new kind of Bond that can get hurt. He feels pain and isn’t afraid to show its emotional effects. The series has been recharged with the energy of this move.

    All of this is just my singular opinion, but I bet there are more out there who feel the same (about Pitt). I do love Cussler but I think it's time for this particular cookie-cutter author, to toss these cookies in the air and see what happens.
    Frank Zubek

  2. I wish that someone, perhaps A&E, who did a great job with the Horatio Hornblower stories, would take Ian Flemings books as they were written - setting, descriptions, era, etc. and faithfully recreate those stories. That would be a Bond no one has really seen.

    On a totally different subject, what do you think of those weird re-writes of classic literature - i.e. Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice and Zombies, etc.