Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Five Mistakes Thriller Writers Make. Number Five, Part One: The Methods of Mayhem

Update: The Grim Reaper has had a good few days. First he got James Gandolfini and now he's taken Vince Flynn. Thriller Guy was not a huge Flynn fan, either of his novels or his politics, but plenty of folks loved his books and he didn't deserve to be taken so young. Nor did Gandolfini. Nor does anyone else, for that matter.

On with the show...

In the not-so long ago past, an author could write a thriller about a lone assassin who is targeting the leader of a country and there would be plenty of action and thrills: Would the assassin succeed? Would the leader live or die? That was enough structure to build a thriller around: one bullet.

Today, it would never be enough. Readers want their plots big, their characters – both villains and heroes --  oversize, and their payoffs even bigger. If the entire world isn’t threatened, don’t even bother.

So in today’s lesson, (which has grown too large and unruly, so will thus be split into two segments) TG will attempt to answer that all-important question: How do you destroy the world? What’cha got for me Mr. Thriller Writer? An earth-destroying machine? An army of cyborgs? Mutants? A virus? Nukes? Aliens?  Earthquakes? Fire? Floods?

Yawn. Really, is that the best you can do? Hasn’t TG already seen all of these, most of them many times?

First of all, TG would like to excoriate all the recent books being penned by celebrity weathermen and women. These books are almost always written with the aid of veteran thriller writers and usually include a gushing note from the publisher declaring the book “could only be written by an author with insider knowledge.” Cue the hurricane, tsunami, flood, tornado and global warming machines, crank those babies up from your island hideaway laboratory, or undersea laboratory, or deep in a massive cave laboratory, and sit back to reap the benefits of a destroyed world. (Whatever those may be.) TG has written several times about these “Insider” failures, but he is reserving a special place in hell for the weathermen. The writing is usually terrible, particularly if the weatherfolk decide to write the book themselves. Even when they have help, the ghosts and co-authors write like they know the cause is doomed, but they’re going to soldier on because everyone needs a paycheck. And yet publishers continue to clutch at this thin straw, hoping for a payday fueled by a celebrity author. Here’s a tip for these publishers: No one gives a shit about weathermen! So unless they can come up with something new, stop shoveling them giant advances that would more deservedly go to TG and his pals. And readers, stop buying these boring copy-cat second-rate thrillers. You deserve better.

How did we come to this pass, where only the most massive, literally earth-shaking threat can titillate our jaded psyches? TG feels it was a two-step process. First, the escalation of the villains to super status, and then the tools of destruction had to grow to earth-shattering proportions to match the villains. Fortunately, nuclear physics came along just in time to achieve weapons of the proper magnitude.

Consider, Ian Fleming and his creation, James Bond. I’m sure that TG will get mail from thriller aficionados pointing to earlier examples of earlier super villains, but TG thinks that in Fleming’s second novel, Live and Let Die (can’t you hear the theme music just when you read the title?) the introduction of the arch villain, Mr. Big, who, of course, lives on an island in the Caribbean, was the beginning of a long line of hugely evil and destructive villains. Big is an agent of the Russian secret agency, SMERSH, whose goal is to destroy America and thereby Rule the World. There are as yet no super weapons, but the first nuclear ICBM appears in the next novel. Moonraker.  First the villains became outsize, then writers had to manufacture weapons and means of destruction that equaled the villains wielding them.

Sidebar: TG believes that most of this came about because of the Bond films rather than the novels, and in fact some of the novels were actually novelizations of film scripts. Because the films demanded bigger payoffs and bigger action scenes, the novels had to reflect that need. And you can trust TG on this, it’s a lot easier to write bigger explosions than it is to write more compelling characters or come up with more original situations. This fact has not been lost on many of the thriller writers working the genre today.

 Just a list of the Bond villains reminds us of their virtual and fictional size: Mr. Big, Dr. No (6 feet six inches tall with steel flippers for hands), Goldfinger, Oddjob, and  Blofeld, just to name a few. And we can't forget Jaws as pictured at the top of the blog. In Thunderball, SPECTRA, Blofeld’s crime organization, has stolen two nuclear bombs and intends to destroy two British cities, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Blofeld threatens England with biological agents. Big plots and big weapons.

Since the escalation by the Bond books, perhaps the most influential perpetrator of World-Threatening Destruction is Clive Cussler. TG has reviewed many Cussler books, and while he doesn’t think they are all stellar, they do all have a certain, well, bigness that deserves admiration if nothing else. Of the recent series penned with co-authors (TG is not going to get into a discussion of who writes what on a Cussler book) the Dirk Pitt series remains strong, as do the Numa Files. The Oregon Files, about a supership, The Oregon, disguised to look like a tramp steamer, is solidly right in familiar Cussler territory and each new entry goes down easily enough. TG finds one of the newer series, The Isaac Bell books about an early 20th century private investigator, to be kind of boring, but even that series has gotten better over time. TG’s favorite Cussler books are the latest, the Fargo books, about a couple who do archeological work and always get embroiled in dangerous situations. A quick look at some of the plots of most of these books in any of the series will show you the vast breadth of the ideas Cussler (or someone) comes up with. Because these books are so outrageous and complex, TG will only mention a few and a brief outline of their premises:

Pacific Vortex… A sunken fortress has been a lair of evildoers who have been preying on ships, (think Bermuda Triangle) for 30 years.

 Deep Six… The president of the US is kidnapped and brainwashed in the Soviet Union. He is returned to the White House where he begins a program of billion dollar loans to the USSR and turning over our secrets to them.

Cyclops… A group of wealthy industrialists have formed a secret colony on the moon. An upcoming war with the Soviets threatens to destroy the earth.

Dragon… A third nuclear bomb being sent to bomb Japan at the end of WWII is shot down. Modern day Japanese want to destroy the US economy through the use of nuclear weapons.

Sahara… Lincoln is kidnapped at the end of the Civil War and ends up in the Sahara desert in a Confederate ironclad buried in the sand. A red tide threatens to destroy the oceans of the world and thus, the earth itself.

Shock Wave… An intense soundwave is being used to destroy the island of Oahu.

Atlantis Found… Bad guys are using nanotechnology to separate the Ross Ice Shelf from the Antarctic mainland in order to unbalance the planet and flood the world. The evildoers intend to ride out the disaster in their superships and then recreate civilization in the Nazi image.

You get the point. If you want a complete description of the dastardly plots in all their complexity go to the Clive Cussler page on Wikipedia and read the plot summaries of scores of these books.

Here’s the takeaway, Thriller Writers. Unless your writing is so good you can seize readers with your dazzling ability, or if your story is so original that readers will gasp in amazement at your brilliance, you’re going to have to come up with a fairly novel method of mayhem, or a unique twist on an existing global threat. To do that, TG is gonna give you the same piece of advice he’s given you before: read the classics, know what’s gone before. You can’t come up with a twist on something if you don’t know what that something is.

And enough with the damn suitcase nukes.

And no more weathermen, ever.

Next up: TG discusses Dan Brown and his imitators and shows that it is possible to come up with Something New.