The Truth

The School of Athens by Raphael (1511); Stanze di Rafaello, Apostolic Palace, the Vatican. Source: Wikipedia

The School of Athens by Raphael (1511); Stanze di Rafaello, Apostolic Palace, the Vatican. Source: Wikipedia

The School of Athens is a fresco by Raphael that depicts ancient Greek philosophers, a tribute to the classical figures whose ideas fuelled the Renaissance. The central figures of the fresco are Plato (on the left) and his student, Aristotle (on the right). Both men clutch bound copies of their books, the teacher barefoot and world-weary, the student young and well-dressed. Plato points skyward with a single finger, a reminder that he believed universal ideas such as justice, beauty, courage, love, and other similar abstract concepts exist on a higher plane. They are perfect in this other realm, divine, and our own attempts to replicate them can yield only an imperfect copy. Nevertheless, to study these divine ideas can bring us truth through knowledge. Meanwhile, Aristotle, his hand parallel to the surface of the earth, believed that everything can be comprehended here through empirical study, an adolescent version of the scientific process that enabled us to attain some measure of truth through perception of reality.

Plato’s philosophy implies that ‘beauty’ embodies more truth than an object that is beautiful – the object imitates beauty, but is not beauty itself. Furthermore, the human concept of beauty is an imitation too, which means that any portrayal of beauty is a copy of a copy and, therefore, flawed. So all art is mimetic, mere imitation, and does not bring us any nearer to truth, which is why Plato was discomfited by the arts. Meanwhile, Aristotle believed that aspiring to portray beauty (or courage, or love, or goodness) could be a virtuous pursuit. Artistic depictions could correct flaws and bring us closer to these universal ideals, and this makes art useful.

Take a look at Still Life by Alexander Coosemans (c. 1650). This painting depicts fruit, but it is not ‘real’ fruit. In fact, it is much more beautiful than real fruit. This is art correcting the flaws inherent in reality, as Aristotle said. It is beautiful but it is not fruit. To go into a fruit shop and expect to find fruit like this could leave a shopper feeling very disappointed. Therefore, it’s deceptive. There is another problem too. As QAGOMA explains on their website:

During the second half of the seventeenth century, the rendering of sumptuous still lifes was an ascendant style in Flemish and Dutch painting with a dual purpose. As a decorative domestic object, a still life celebrated the wealth, status and prosperity of its owner through the depiction of beautiful blooms, exotic fruits and gold and silver objects.

The still life is no longer an attempt to ‘find’ beauty, an end in itself, but is a means to an end; that is, its purpose is to demonstrate the affluence of the painting’s owner. Indeed, Coosemans’ still life can be characterised as pronkstilleven, a Dutch word that describes the painting’s extravagance and pretentious style. This is the beginning of Plato’s discomfort.

So while Aristotle wrote a book attempting to define drama, understand it, and construct rules for its creation, Plato wrung his hands about the poets and their command over us and our perception of reality. In The Republic, Plato writes the Allegory of the Cave, where we find ourselves chained down and doomed to watch shadows dance on the stone walls before us. This is all we know and this is our reality, but it’s not truth. Plato argues that only philosophy can break our chains and, by summoning courage, we can lumber into the light of day to be blinded by truth itself. Philosophy means contemplation, an interrogation of our humanity and reality. It means thought.

But thought is not easy. Consider Rodin’s The Thinker, a sculpture of a nude bronze figure perched on a stone pedestal, right elbow leaning on left knee, a chin resting on the back of a hand. It is an uncomfortable position to sit in – painful, perhaps – because thinking entails contemplation of our very nature, every imperfect part of it.

Thinking becomes even more difficult when we consider the age we live in, perhaps best summarised by Michael Crichton:

Today, everybody expects to be entertained, and they expect to be entertained all the time. . . [E]veryone must be amused, or they will switch: switch brands, switch channels, switch parties, switch loyalties. This is the intellectual reality of Western society at the end of the century. In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But in our century, they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom. A sense of time is on our hands, a sense of nothing to do. A sense that we are not amused.

This is Plato’s nightmare. Instead of flickering shadows dancing on the stone wall, our reality is now dancing images flickering on a screen. A writer of novels may produce books that struggle to compete in a world in which everyone possesses hand-held devices, ostensibly designed to enable easy communication, that are often used because we’re bored. More from Charles Hill:

These devices produce an ever shorter “attention span” that tolerates only fragments of information. As Stanley Cavell of the Harvard philosophy department has noted, “chronic interruption means the perpetual incompleteness of human expression.” The habits of the incomplete have adversely affected the book as a unit of knowledge, for the book’s unique characteristic is to present an “extended argument.” By now, several generations of students have been conditioned to read books by way of fragmentation, which subverts any real book’s purpose. The consequences include the demise of bookstores, a form of textocide brought about not only by online price-cutting but also by the denigration of extended argument itself. This does grave damage to intellectual serendipity, for the richest value of a bookstore - as well as a large, open-shelf library - is to reveal via softly structured browsing what you were not looking for, or had no idea even existed. Now we are corralled by Google’s “big-data” efficiency into finding only that which we already know is there to be found.

Furthermore, the internet delivers synopsis and analysis of any work of literature we care to search for. Sometimes, it will even deliver key quotes from famous literary figures, fragments of insight that displace the desire to sit down and read a classic in its entirety and contemplate its meaning.

To read literature can be considered, in the words of Matthew Arnold, a study of “the best which has been thought and said in the world”. The canon of classic literature might then be considered a catalogue of the collective wisdom of humans much more insightful than ourselves. And if we consider the canon a museum of sorts, then the fragmented quotes italicised on scenic backgrounds and streamed through our social media feeds are just the shiny trinkets and jewelled baubles on display behind bullet-proof glass. Indeed, a tour around the museum shows artefacts of history but gives no understanding of history itself. To go even further, knowledge of the history of an ancient empire may reveal facts but may not reveal any truth. Meanwhile, Shelley’s poem Ozymandias may do just that; a contemplative reader may realise that all empires, no matter how powerful (and despite all the wars of defence and conquest, all the intrigue and court politics) will inevitably sink into the sand to be lost forever. That is, empire itself is a mortal creation of man and nothing more, a truth that should humble us and curb our own ambitions to attain power.  

This is only a short example of how literature can reveal truth about what it means to be human, and this is what makes the great books “a possession for all time”, as Thucydides wrote. However, the truth isn’t always immediately clear. Sometimes intangible, often abstract, it requires the contemplation inherent in the solitude of reading. And let’s not forget the obligations of the creator too. Writers have to be honest while creating, smearing handfuls of their souls across the page, distilling humanity down to its essence, and, hopefully, revealing some truth of what it means to be us.

Of course, we are prone to fool ourselves, to ignore our flaws, to lie, and this can distort and blur the truth, or perhaps hide it. When Swift’s Gulliver happens upon the Land of the Houyhnhnms (pronounced hu-whin-ums), he encounters a species that thrives on pure reason and cannot even comprehend the concept of lying, explained by Gulliver to his hosts as “to say a thing which is not”. Perhaps our inclination to deceive each other and ourselves is inevitable or inadvertent, or perhaps, in itself, it’s human. Maybe that’s because confronting the truth of who we really are isn’t always a pleasant experience.

With a reference to Shakespeare’s Caliban (a monstrous figure said to be to man as man is to the angels), Oscar Wilde writes the following in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray:

The nineteenth century dislike or realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his life in a glass.

Circling back to our still life, realism versus romanticism is a choice between depicting fruit as it really is or fruit idealised to the point that it’s very nearly perfect. To write realism is to portray the world with all its flaws and horrors, but to write romantically is to idealise human nature. In modern terms, a writer might produce a story known for its ‘gritty realism’ while another author might produce stories that are ‘pure escapism’. As Wilde sees it, you lose either way. But perhaps Wilde hit upon something much more significant here. Perhaps our dislike of what we read emerges from the yawning chasm between what we want to be and who we really are.

Fiction, by its nature, is a fabrication, a collection of lies. Yet, somehow, great literature can tease the truth out of our consciousness and reveal itself. This is why it’s worth our time to sit down and read a novel, and really think about what it’s saying to us. This is also why it’s important for a writer to think about what needs to be said and to be honest in their writing. Whether the truth exists in a divine plane, or whether it exists here with us, it waits to be found, and art is a powerful way of revealing it to the world.

The Words

The Son of Man by René Magritte (1964), Private Collection. Source: Wikipedia

The Son of Man by René Magritte (1964), Private Collection. Source: Wikipedia

I was once asked if a writer is required to demonstrate a command of sesquipedalian synonyms in sentences to ensure their work is taken seriously. It's a reasonable question to ask, I thought.

Most writers I've met start as readers first. Reading widely and often is probably the best way to develop a vocabulary. Not only does a reader learn lots of words, but they can also develop a sense of when to use those words, an intuition about context, if you like. 

I will read some books with a dictionary ready to hand (or my phone) for when I encounter a word I don't know. I did this recently, in fact. I was reading a book and stumbled upon the word 'pulchritudinous'. I remembered this word. I'd seen it before, but I couldn't remember what it meant. I'll put it in a sentence for those who haven't got ahead of me and looked it up.

The man had a proclivity for pulchritudinous antiques, his collection commanding the attention of critics and curators

In this context, a guess could be made. Perhaps it would be close. My guess was way off. In fact, the word 'pulchritudinous' is an adjective and is used to describe beauty. That is, a synonym would be 'beautiful'. Having learned the word, I started to wonder when it could possibly be used. My answer is 'rarely'. The word doesn't necessarily add anything to a sentence. The word 'beautiful' or similar words that are just as common and simple would be quite suitable in most contexts.

However, I could see the 'p' word being used in text portraying a sneer from a snotty antique dealer harbouring some jealousy towards the owner of these antiques. The word appears to me as an ugly veil used to obscure what is actually beautiful. The word itself requires a certain raking of the throat in order to pronounce it, an act that would usually lead to spitting. However, pronouncing the tail end of this word forces the speaker to restrain themselves from spitting - the word doesn't allow it. Therefore, the word expresses admiration with a spiteful edge.

So that could work, but it depends. Will it send my reader scrambling for a dictionary? Is that okay? Will it impede the flow and rhythm of the writing? Is there another way to achieve the same ends with a different word? Most importantly, can this adjective be substituted with a verb? 

These are the questions that I ask myself while writing.

Words have definitions but they also have meaning. Developing vocabulary creates more options for a writer but knowing all the words isn't nearly as valuable as knowing the right word.

Christopher Hitchens wrote a column for the Atlantic in 2004 titled 'The Acutest Ear in Paris'. This column has Hitchens reviewing a new translation of Swann's Way by Marcel Proust. The new translator is Lydia Davis and Hitchens contrasts her work with the translations by Kilmartin and Moncrieff.

Hitchens makes a point much more eloquently than I could, though he makes it indirectly. Throughout this review, he makes it clear that a translator needs to ensure they select the right word to convey the proper meaning of each sentence. Every word matters. He even goes so far as to point out that "...it is much more apt and final to say "to go" than "to leave.""

Think about that for a second. Think about when you would say "don't go" and when you would say "don't leave". I'll leave that with you to contemplate.

Both "go" and "leave" are verbs, which are the most important words available to a writer. In fact, if I were to encourage a writer to develop their vocabulary, I'd insist that they cultivated a list of verbs. Verbs are powerful. They are the key to 'showing-not-telling'.

Graham walked into the room. Did I walk? Maybe I stalked, or marched, or crept, or staggered, or stumbled into the room. Each verb puts a picture in the reader's mind. It shows the reader what's happening rather than telling. They are brilliant. They are important. They make a story real. And they're simple words.

Which brings me to the question I was asked that prompted this post. No, it's not necessary to write a lot of big words when writing a story. The idea, in fact, is to demonstrate humanity and all its complexity using the simplest words possible. Complicated words can obfuscate; writing should reveal truth, not obscure it.

It can be done. The book that inspired me to become a writer flattened me with only three words. Three words. Four syllables. Those three words were given power by the story that preceded them. Those three words conveyed regret, loss, vulnerability, melancholy, happiness, love, resolve, and so much more. Three simple words.

And, yes, in case you were wondering: one of those words was a verb.

The Lovers

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Dicksee (1884), Southampton City Art Gallery. Source: Wikipedia

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Dicksee (1884), Southampton City Art Gallery. Source: Wikipedia

Thrillers are great because you get to test a character’s limits and see what they’re really made of. An author tosses some people into circumstances that test their courage, their compassion, their patience, and their wisdom. Conflict is important and is a fundamental part of any story in any genre. And there is no finer conflict than love.

Two parties seek the same ends. They have to overcome something. Incompatibility? Distance? The lies they tell themselves? Means and motives may vary between these two parties. Perhaps even their idea of what they want is at odds with the person they love.

It’s complicated, so maybe we should talk about a love story that is somewhat commonly known and build on that. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare seems like a good place to start.

Romeo and Juliet is a love story, but I’m not sure if it’s a good one. We’ll come to that. It is, however, an awesome tragedy. The story is brilliant because the tension between the families ultimately leads to the exile of Romeo, creating the circumstances for the tragic ending. The key is that message that never makes it to its destination. The audience knows what’s going to happen, and it’s that sense of anticipation, the realisation that it’s not going to end well, that makes the story compelling. The love story, however. Well...

There is a fantastic book by Tzachi Zamir called Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama. Zamir makes a case for why Romeo and Juliet might be overrated, and I recommend reading it (he talks about almost all of the Shakespearean canon – well worth the time). Fundamentally, the problem with love in Romeo and Juliet is that it’s so fake, superficial, and over-the-top.

The language Shakespeare uses is the stuff of dreams, of fantasy. Stars, oceans, suns, and moons, angels and gods. “It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night,” Romeo says when he first sees her. Juliet isn’t of this earth to this guy – she’s divine, a goddess, perfect. In summary: she’s not real. (And, yes, vice versa.) Easy to dismiss, perhaps, but the language does have its allure.

Some of you have read or seen the play. Some of you have seen the movie Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996). To those who have seen the film, how many remember the scene when Romeo first claps eyes on Juliet? The costume party and the fish tank and Leo with his great hair. Remember it? It’s very dreamlike, very unreal. Here’s the scene. Do watch it. There will be a quiz afterwards.

It draws you in a little bit, doesn’t it? It’s almost as if we end up participating in the same dream. Maybe we like it. Did it suck you in? No, yes? Don’t want to answer? That’s okay. Answer this instead: how many of you noticed the guy in the background taking a piss?

Scene from Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann, 1996. Source: YouTube

Scene from Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann, 1996. Source: YouTube

How easy it is to ignore reality when you’re trapped in a dream. And this, dear readers, is the essence of the tragedy. I daresay Shakespeare knew what he was up to, the cheeky bugger.

It’s perhaps unfair to say Romeo and Juliet is an over-the-top love story. Love is, after all, one of those things that is easily idealised. It’s right up there with courage and virtue and wisdom (usually portrayed as ‘genius’ in film). There are a lot of articles out there about how this idealisation of romantic interaction in art is ruining our lives. I’m not going to link them here because I think it’s a stupid thing to worry about. The idealisation of love manifests when people see other relationships around them anyway. (Happily married parents or friends can distort our ideas of what love should be more than television.)  The idealisation of love is, in fact, a part of the reality of any romantic interaction and is, in itself, a cause of conflict.

So what is real love? Buggered if I know. I could sit here and write a thousand more words about the chemical urges that compel us to fulfil our biological purpose. I could also sit here and write about the poetic fantasies we concoct about the people we meet – I wrote a passage about it in No Free Man:

[He] had seen the men who pined for her, too. They would steal glances across the café and sigh longingly as they imagined saying something that would prompt her face to fracture into a smile. They would imagine a carton of skim milk in their refrigerator, one of their t-shirts fragranced with her scent and tossed carelessly over the foot of the bed, and lost strands of hair that clung stubbornly to the pillow.

You might notice that I never mention ‘shaving her legs with my expensive razor’ or ‘cutting her toenails at the coffee table’. We never think about those things, do we? Fortunately, I don’t think we need to.

Anton Chekhov wrote that “[b]eing in love shows a person how he ought to be.” This idea brings me back to the opening paragraph of this post. The characters have a whole story to be this person. Yes, I know, a character isn’t a real person, but they could be a real person, and that’s why we’re drawn to them. They have strengths and weaknesses, flaws and quirks, and some people hate them while others love them. Each one is capable of love, even the worst of them. There may be things standing in their way. Maybe the timing is bad. Maybe they wish it was someone else. Maybe they spend a lot of time trying to talk themselves out of it. Maybe the person they love turns out to be much more monstrous than they ever imagined. Maybe they cling to the fantasy at the expense of reality, and it leads to tragedy.

And tragedy is okay. I don’t believe that it’s the ‘happy ending’ we look for so much as a ‘resolution’, which is why tragedy works in stories. We never would’ve invented tragedy if we were all looking for a happy ending – but we do love a resolution, an answer, perhaps.

So how the hell do you write love? It’s a good question.

I had a friend who told me a love story. She met a man. He was a neighbour of sorts. There was a lane beyond the fence at the bottom of her garden and he lived on the other side of that narrow bit of gravel. Her gate was rusted shut, so she never ventured into the lane. She saw him walking past, though, maybe returning from work or walking his dog. She wanted an excuse to talk to him and concocted this scenario where she would attempt to fix her gate at the time of day he would normally walk past. Her scheme worked. He struck up a conversation and offered to help. They fixed the gate together, though it still squealed when they opened it. Nevertheless, it led to him asking if she’d like to get a coffee sometime.

He started to visit her every day, arriving through the gate. It was like a secret between them. Everybody else thought the gate was still rusted shut so only he would use it. She would smile every time she heard those hinges squeal. They were together for months. They seemed happy.

Then there was an affair. She found out. They argued. She told him to leave and never to come back. He left. She cried herself through a sleepless night.

She told me about this a few days afterwards, and I listened and didn’t know what to say. I think I mumbled a question about how she was holding up. She told me she spent the day after the breakup lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. The whole time, lying there, angry at him, her ears strained to hear that squeaking hinge. She missed it so much.

If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned this: it’s the little nothings that mean everything. Nobody else knows what they are, but we all understand it. And it might be foolish, it might be fantasy, it might be madness, it might be the worst decision we ever make, but that’s as real as it gets.

The Research

A scholar in his Study by Thomas Wyck (17th century), Hallwyl Museum. Source: Wikipedia

A scholar in his Study by Thomas Wyck (17th century), Hallwyl Museum. Source: Wikipedia

Plato’s Socratic dialogue ‘Ion’ has Socrates confront a Homeric rhapsode (not to be confused with a Bohemian Rhapsody) about his trade. Socrates’ issue is one of inspiration versus expertise. So, when Ion performs the role of a military general, does he possess the expertise of a general, or does he merely fool the audience into believing that he possesses this expertise? Ion struggles with the distinction (‘Ion’, Early Socratic Dialogues by Plato, Trevor J. Saunders (trans.), Penguin, London, 2005): 

SOCRATES: And when you make a judgement about military matters, do you judge in virtue of your skill in generalship, or in virtue of the skill that makes you a good rhapsode? 

ION: There’s no difference, so far as I can see.

SOCRATES: No difference? How on earth can you say that? Are you saying that the skill of a rhapsode and the skill of a general are one skill, or two?

ION: One, I think.

SOCRATES: So, anyone who’s a good rhapsode is in fact a good general too?

ION: Certainly, Socrates.

SOCRATES: So too, then, anyone who is in fact a good general is also a good rhapsode?

ION: No, that’s not my view.

Oh, dear.

Some context might be necessary but I’m not going to expound at great length on Plato’s views on the arts (I could. I’d like to. In fact, I never seem to get the opportunity to chat about this). Needless to say, Saunders, in his introduction, sums up this dialogue (notoriously protean for some scholars) thus: 

The question it poses is: ‘Do poets know what they are talking about?’ Socrates, clearly, thinks the answer is ‘no’;

As a thriller writer, this dialogue made my skin itch. To be gripped by the madness of the Muses while pounding on the keyboard is euphoric, but it’s dangerous. Reality intrudes upon every setting, every character, every action sequence, and every little detail. A story has to obey the rules of the physical universe, the plot has to be plausible, the characters have to be relatable, and the events have to unfold realistically. This is what an author owes a reader. And this requires research.

Research means libraries and books, highlighters and notepads with illegible writing. But research doesn’t always nail the details, and details are important. If only there were some device in existence, an oracle of sorts; a question is asked and an answer provided. Imagine that. Just type in a question and an answer appears. Well, there is an oracle, and it’s not as cryptic as the one in Delphi. To find out what it is, you’re going to have to follow this link to the Pantera Press blog. I’ll meet you there.

The Tension

Oedipus and the Sphinx by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1808), Walters Art Museum. Source: Wikipedia

Oedipus and the Sphinx by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1808), Walters Art Museum. Source: Wikipedia

Oedipus the King is a play by Sophocles that taught me something important about writing. Daffy Duck taught me much the same thing.

I’ll come to that.

First, a brief synopsis: many years ago, this guy was told by an oracle that he would be murdered by his own son. His wife gives birth to a boy so he issues an order to a servant to get rid of the kid. The servant decides to abandon the kid rather than kill it, and the boy is rescued by a shepherd doing the rounds. The kid’s name is Oedipus. Adopted by a childless king in another city, Oedipus is later told by an oracle that he’ll kill his own father and marry his mother. He runs away from home to avoid fulfilling the prophecy.

None of what I’ve explained above is actually in the play. Sophocles knew that his audience was aware of this stuff already. The play, in fact, is about what happens next. Here’s the interesting bit: Sophocles’ audience also knew how this story ends.

Sophocles therefore tells a story that everybody in his audience has heard before. When I started writing thrillers, I assumed this would be a bad idea. Eventually I came to realise something important. Yes, the audience knows the story and how it ends, but the characters in the story have no idea what’s going on. Therefore, the audience spends the entire play on the edge of their seat waiting for the truth to come out. Who will reveal it? How will Oedipus react? Will the ending be different this time?

This is what tension and suspense is all about.

We all know the good guy is going to win. We all know the bad guy will be defeated. We know the world won’t be destroyed. Sometimes, we like it if none of these happen. Usually, we're upset if they don't happen. We read the same stories again and again because we like it when they’re told well. We like to see what changes between the beginning and the end. We like to know more than the characters. We like to guess who the murderer is and we’re equally content to find out we were right or we were wrong. The story can’t be too predictable but the twist can’t be too outrageous.

A great example is Drip-Along Daffy (Chuck Jones, 1951):

If you’ve grown up on these cartoons, you can probably guess what’s going to happen. The stories are very similar. But there are little variations in each of these cartoons that make us laugh and surprise us. Even here, in this cartoon, there’s a neat twist at the end. Yes, it's almost entirely predictable, but the cartoon is still entertaining. There is still a sense of anticipation at every turn, a kind of tension that lets us know that laughs are coming.

It’s really difficult to articulate how to write a story that creates the sense of anticipation, suspense, and tension that we see in great stories. For those who are interested, here are some things I’ve learned about writing good suspense and tension:

  • Never keep everything hidden from the reader.
     
  • Never give everything away to the reader all at once.
     
  • Your first action scene should be smaller than your second one, which is smaller than the third one, which is smaller than the fourth one, etcetera.
     
  • Never let the story die with a whimper: build it up and let it blow.
     
  • Deny your characters what they want; every time they take a shot at it, deny them success.
     
  • The bad guy should get what they want before the good guy does, and then the good guy has to get it back/stop the bad guy/destroy the thing/insert appropriate ending here.
     
  • Don’t worry if your reader figures out the twist: we always keep reading to make sure we’re right.
     
  • If you want to fool your reader into thinking they’ve got the right answer and then toss in the surprise twist, you want this reaction...

not this one...

Make it count.

There you have it. Ancient Greek tragedy and Daffy Duck come together. Welcome to my brain.

The Action

Fury of Achilles by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1737), Hermitage Museum. Source: Wikipedia

Fury of Achilles by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1737), Hermitage Museum. Source: Wikipedia

A good thriller needs some good action. Different authors have different ways of doing this. This post is about how I do it. Let’s start with this:  

That was Gerard Butler from Olympus Has Fallen directed by Antoine Fuqua (2013). So how does an author turn that scene into words and put them on a page? Well, the author doesn’t do that, and nor should the author try.

Film is a visual spectacle. It begins with words on a page that becomes a director’s vision. This is what we see on the screen.

I wouldn’t bother trying to render this scene into words. Reverse-engineering like that can get very wordy very quickly and will rarely recreate the scene. Instead, the goal is to find the arrangement of words that stir the images in the mind of the reader and create a scene for them. These are the things that I think about when I do that:

  1. Use short and powerful words and active verbs. Some verbs are so evocative that they’re worth one hundred adjectives. Succinct sentences are best, but varying the length will prevent monotony. It is better to say that a good guy threw a bad guy to the ground than describing the precise grappling technique move by move. Keep it short, sharp, and shit-hot.
     
  2. Spies and soldiers don’t prolong fights. Films love the visual spectacle and directors will drag out fight scenes for quite a bit as an indulgence. However, in real life, the goal is to get the other guy on the ground as quickly as possible and ensure he won’t get up again. It’s quick, it’s violent, and it’s merciless.
     
  3. Violence, by its nature, is brutal. A man or woman desperately attempting to preserve their life will use whatever is to hand: a sharp stick, a blunt object, a bottle, anything. This makes things interesting.
     
  4. When a firearm functions, the trigger releases a mechanism that hits a firing pin that strikes the base of a round, igniting a primer charge. The sudden expansion of gas fires the projectile through the barrel, the rifling in which imparts a spinning motion along the projectile’s axis to stabilise its trajectory. Meanwhile, some of the gas is preserved and moves the bolt to the rear against spring pressure, ejecting the spent round, before the spring moves the bolt forward, collecting another round from the magazine and shoving it into the chamber, ready for firing. Lots of weapons function in this way but none of it is relevant to the stories I write. To paraphrase Tolstoy: all functioning firearms are alike; each dysfunctional firearm is dysfunctional in its own way. That is, a firearm fundamentally works as I’ve describe above. But, when it goes wrong, each firearm goes wrong in its own way. Some weapons are too heavy, clumsy, seize when dirty, fire underwater (or don’t), get hot too quickly, or lack stopping power. I could go on. But if it doesn’t aid the story, what’s the point? Some thriller writers like to describe the technical details of the firearms wielded by the characters in their story. That’s their prerogative. Personally, I find it slows down the story, makes it harder to read, and rarely adds anything of value to the stories I tell.
     
  5. See how wordy the last paragraph was?
     
  6. Still, it’s important to know the difference between a pistol, an assault rifle, and a machine gun. Point of note: your hero or her enemy will rarely use a machine gun unless it’s mounted on a tripod. Shotguns and sniper rifles should be called shotguns and sniper rifles. Readers can conjure a picture from that fundamental description. 
     
  7. All of us are subject to the laws of physics. If a story is set in our universe, the characters must be subject to those same laws. Therefore, it’s important to understand the laws of physics.
     
  8. Most things are not bullet proof. That includes trees, cars, brick walls, and doors. However, shooting a bullet through any medium, including windows, will alter its trajectory. A bullet will slow down (a lot) when it hits water.
     
  9. Characters can not shrug off a bullet wound. Getting shot shatters bones, destroys organs, and there is often a lot of blood. Exit wounds are big.
     
  10. The human body is surprisingly resilient and can sometimes cope with a lot of damage before it surrenders completely.
     
  11. If point 9 and 10 seem contradictory, let me explain: if a character is a professional killer and an expert marksman (because I say so), then his shots will often be fatal (I say 'often' because not everyone who gets shot actually dies). Meanwhile, amateur shooters will often be off the mark, and that’s when point 10 comes into play.
     
  12. If your good guy is going to shoot, hitting the bad guy in the chest is easier than hitting him in the head (or arm or leg). The term taught is ‘centre of seen mass’ and aiming for this increases the chances of hitting the target.
     
  13. Shooting fuel tanks does not cause them to explode. Shooting locks is not a good idea. I don’t know why anyone would try to break chains with bullets. I swear I will never write any of these.
     
  14. I’ve never heard of anyone actually snapping a neck with their bare hands. I read an account once about a soldier who tried it and ended up tearing the muscles of his enemy. There was a lot of pain and lots of screaming, so not the silent death the soldier was hoping for. Anyway, there are lots of cooler ways to kill off bad guys and this one has been overdone.
     
  15. Finally, only use one-liners if it suits the character. If they’re going to be used, they better be good. And original.

There are lots of other little things I think about when I write action scenes but these are the ones I think about often. To me, violating these rules (without good reason) is just laziness on my part. Following these rules encourages me to get creative and has led to some great writing. And, if you're wondering, there is only one way to find out if I live up to my own rules - click here.

The Plot

Destruction from The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole (1836), New York Historical Society. Source: Wikipedia

Destruction from The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole (1836), New York Historical Society. Source: Wikipedia

I saw a news story the other day about a man who robbed a bank. It was an article in the paper. He was about six foot tall, Caucasian, short blond hair, and wore a denim jacket. He escaped with $7000.  There was a car chase with the police. His car collided with another when he ran a red light. He survived but the other driver did not. He’s in jail now.

Okay, I made this up. I’m about to make a point. Technically, what I’ve written aboveis a plot, the main sequence of events in a story. It’s not a story. It’s definitely not a novel. But what if we asked some more questions? Why did the man feel the need to rob the bank? What if his only daughter was dying of cancer and he needed the money to pay for treatment? What if his ex-wife was the captain of police? What if the person killed in the car accident was the doctor treating the man’s daughter? The potential for a story starts to emerge.

Good stories come from asking lots of ‘what if’ questions and creating scenarios. A writer finds the most interesting scenarios and stitches them together. But events don’t just happen – people make them happen, and its people, or characters, that allow a writer to engage the emotions of readers. Events aren’t interesting – people are.

Characters make stories what they are: their motives, their reasons, their fears, their weaknesses, their goals, a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

This point is important. Here’s why: I’ve met aspiring thriller writers who have ideas but are concerned that everything has been done before. An original story seems elusive. I believed this for a while when I was first starting out. Then, one night, I was watching a movie on television and had an epiphany.

Let’s forget about the bank robbery scenario. What if our protagonist instead set about stealing a nuclear weapon to hold a city/country/the world to ransom? Think about all of the films you’ve seen with this basic plot. I was watching one of these films when I had my epiphany. In case you’re wondering, here’s a list of films on my DVD shelf that share this basic plot:

  • Thunderball (1965): a bad guy steals some nuclear warheads and holds a large city to ransom; the good guy (James Bond) is the only one who can stop him (or them: SPECTRE).
     
  • True Lies (1994): a bad guy steals some nuclear warheads and holds a large city to ransom; the good guy is the only one who can stop him.
     
  • Broken Arrow (1996): a bad guy steals a nuclear bomb and holds a large city to ransom; the good guy is the only one who can stop him.
     
  • The Peacemaker (1997): a bad guy steals a nuclear bomb and sells it to another guy who plans to use it on a large city; the good guy (a man and a woman) have to stop him.
     
  • The Sum of All Fears (2002): a bad guy purchases a nuclear bomb and smuggles it into a large city with plans to use it; the good guy has to stop him.

There are stacks of other films. The James Bond creators loved nukes, for example. This is just a selection. As you can see, all of these films are fundamentally identical, yet each of them is unique. Let’s revisit these films by talking  about the characters a little bit.

  • Thunderball (1965): this is formulaic James Bond. The theft of nuclear weapons is just another way of getting him to be another violent sociopath for our entertainment. Here's the trailer, which tells us absolutely nothing about the plot because it doesn't really matter.
     
  • True Lies (1994): the protagonist in this story has been a spy for fifteen years and has kept it a secret from his wife and daughter for the entire time. The nuclear theft and the inevitable threat is the plot, but the story is how his work starts to intrude on his family life. His wife is bored and craves excitement. She goes looking for it and gets into trouble. I won’t spoil it. Here's the trailer. Again, it doesn't really show much about the plot.
     
  • Broken Arrow (1996): This one is about two air force pilots who are best friends. They are on exercise carrying two nuclear warheads in their stealth bomber when one forces a crash in order to have a team retrieve the weapons. This one is about how two friends become enemies and creates an interesting dynamic. The trailer for this one actually mentions nuclear weapons.
     
  • The Peacemaker (1997): This one is interesting. A corrupt Russian general arranges for nuclear missiles he is escorting on a train to be stolen (all except one, which he detonates to cover it up). One of these missiles is sold to a Yugoslavian man who plans to blow up the UN Headquarters in New York to avenge the death of his wife and daughter. An American soldier and a civilian nuclear weapons expert spend the film trying to track all of the warheads and, ultimately, stop the detonation in New York. The soldier is a man and the expert is a woman, so there’s a little bit of romantic tension thrown in as a bonus. Again, here's a trailer, and it does mention bombs too, but only in passing.
     
  • The Sum of All Fears (2002): The film is different to the book, but the basics are the same. In summary, a group of people with plans of seizing some power come upon a nuclear weapon that nobody even realised was missing. They smuggle it into an American city and plan to detonate it in order to force Russia and the United States into a nuclear war. The film follows the intelligence analyst who has to piece it all together to avert nuclear catastrophe. This is a big picture film with a focus on powerful individuals – the men with the keys to the nukes. Here's the trailer.

So, a character steals a nuclear weapon and has to be stopped. This is just a basic idea for a plot but the characters and the events they set in motion are what makes each story unique. In fact, for each of these films, the theft of a nuclear weapon barely gets mentioned in the ads. It's all the other stuff around this basic idea that makes someone want to see the film.

What about my story, you might ask? Well, some time ago, I read an article in the newspaper about an organised crime network that had large energy investments. I started to wonder if a big oil discovery might upset members of this criminal network, particularly when a glut of oil on the market caused the price of a barrel to drop. And criminals, having a different morality, might act differently to preserve their interests than a nation state.

It was just an idea. And it all starts with an idea. A plot is just a sequence of events but it’s the characters that give the events meaning. That’s how an idea becomes a story worth telling.

The Art of Conversation

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (1942), The Art Institute of Chicago. Source: Wikipedia

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (1942), The Art Institute of Chicago. Source: Wikipedia

I like old movies (no, not 80s movies). I like them because they were filmed in an age where words mattered more than special effects. The characters were a part of the plot, not vehicles for it, and their chemistry mattered. This is one of my favourite scenes from To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks):

This is what I get out of this scene. First, the tone is set early – it’s playful, although they’re talking about something serious. There’s a tension between them, but these two play their cards close to their chest. There’s conflict here, but not a full-blown argument. They cut each other off, they get caught lying, theyflirt. And, most importantly, what they say matters even if it doesn’t appear to be the case.

Here is another favourite scene from the same film:

This is pure conflict right from the start, but he keeps his cool. He starts to roll up his sleeves. He doesn’t care if she’s upset. He’s there for a reason. We start to get the sense that he knows what he’s doing but there’s no big speech about his past or experience. She is standing firm: it’s stupid, we all know it – she’s being silly. He’s cold, direct, but we know he cares – it’s just not his way to show compassion through his words – he does it through his actions. Then it’s all business. She’s stubborn. He gives her something to do – he’s taking the lead and everyone lets him – he has confidence. Notice the stretches of silence – they’re only brief but nobody fills them with pointless words. Finally, my favourite bit:

Slim: What are you trying to do, guess her weight?
Steve: She’s heftier than you think. *Pause* Better loosen her clothes.
Slim: You’ve been doing all right.
He sits down to loosen the woman’s collar.
Slim: Uh, maybe you better look after her husband.

This bit conveys her jealousy but does so with subtlety. The line about loosening clothes is awesome. He obviously has no designs on the wife and is all business. Still, Slim can’t stand to see it.

I learned a lot about writing dialogue from watching films like this. Getting the dialogue right is a big deal – bad dialogue is very obvious. Common mistakes include:

  • Making a character say something that people just don't say.
  • Making a bad guy talk like a villain from a James Bond movie; "Your actions are foolish and futile" or "The blueprints are essential to the success of my evil plan." Nobody has an evil laugh and nobody really spins in their chair to say "So, we meet at last". 
  • Making a character spew a page of dialogue to explain the plot to a reader.
  • Making characters say what they think/feel - nobody ever really does that
  • And, one of my favourites, making the protagonist's love interest spend a page rationalising why she's going to hang around despite having just watched him brutally murder a bunch of people. 

I could go on. I won't. There are lists on the internet full of advice. Some of it is pretty good. My point is that something weird happens when we start to write what people say - we tend to mess it up. So, what about how people talk in real life? Sit in a cafe, and you may observe the following:

  • Most of what people say is confusing. As in, a casual eavesdropper will probably have no idea what they're talking about.
  • Most of what people say probably never needed to be said in the first place.
  • People like to laugh.
  • Not all of us are very funny.
  • People don't really use big words.
  • People struggle to find the right words, particularly when trying to say something important.
  • People sometimes try to avoid saying important things altogether.
  • People use a lot of fillers in conversation: 'like', 'um', 'ah', and I believe 'fuck' in its various forms fits this category too.
  • People exaggerate.

Again, I could go on. Again, I won't. I will, however, tell you how I get around some of these issues when writing dialogue. First, I try to make good characters with unique personalities, interests, and motives. Then, I throw them into a story. Finally, I write what they say as they try to keep out of trouble.

That's it. Easy, right?

Some things to remember:

  • If you've created good characters, they'll develop a voice of their own.
  • Criminals talk like criminals. Cops talk like cops. Everyone else talks like everyone else. In a lot of ways, people have the same vernacular and verbal tics, but your solicitor probably doesn't talk like a mechanic.
  • Some people swear. A lot.
  • Characters are allowed to say one thing and then do another.
  • People sometimes reveal themselves through their actions rather than their words - characters can do the same.
  • If you plan on putting in some witty banter, keep the tone of the dialogue casual throughout the whole story. It's easier to step up to a formal tone than it is to step down - the joke will just jar and seem disingenuous.
  • This is a personal one, but never make a character say 'I love you' if that's what you're trying to express. I only use this line if I want the words to seem empty and pointless. This is one of those 'show don't tell' things.
  • Conflict sustains stories, particularly thrillers. This doesn't mean arguing or fist fights. A back and forth sustains dialogue and keeps it interesting.
  • Here's the hardest one: two characters may be so close as to have their own personal language. That is, certain words have a particular significance to them that isn't shared with anybody else. This means that simple words said in a particular way may be completely earth-shattering. It may also mean that some things are left unsaid. Letting the reader in on this is really hard to do well.

Unfortunately, this isn't a comprehensive list. This is just what I've been able to come up with in the last couple of weeks.

The most important thing to remember is that writing takes practice. Writing dialogue takes practice too. Writing dialogue well starts with watching Bogart and Bacall.

P.S. Astute readers who have finished my book may notice that nicknames used in To Have and Have Not have a particular significance. Now you know.