All right, so thrillers and mystery novels don’t always get the best rap from the high-falutin’ literary crowd. Can’t say I’m all that bothered: I don’t think Stephen King is losing much sleep over the opinions of the so-called elite.
All the same, we want to do more than entertain, don’t we? We want to give readers a thrill-ride, but we also want to share with them something memorable, something that will linger long after the adrenaline rush fades. In this week’s blog, mystery novelist John F. Dobbyn shares his strategy for making a lasting impact on readers’ minds.
The V8 of Legal Thriller Writing
By John F. Dobbyn
There’s a commercial on television that squarely hits the mark. A man or woman is just finishing a glass of sugary, flavored, carbonated soft drink. A slap on the forehead registers the realization that “I could have had a V8!”
This article is not a commercial for liquid vegetables, but the parallel to thriller or mystery fiction writing is on point. It is not difficult to find fiction in each of those genres that are the equivalent of a standard three-act drama. Act one is the set-up, with the introduction of a murder or threatening situation that one way or another sucks the protagonist into the plot. In act two, things go from bad to worse–or even seem hopeless. In act three, the mystery is solved, the killer is caught, the tension is defused, and the good guys win. The end.
In some ways, that’s the fictional equivalent of flavored soda water—not by any means to undermine the talent of the writer who has gripped the reader and provided absorbing entertainment for some three hundred pages plus. The reader’s thirst has been creatively quenched. But as with the soda in the ad, the story is missing something. There could have been so much more by way of nutrition, without sacrificing the taste. This will come, however, at the cost of sometimes-elaborate research.
There are three elements to a novel: setting, character, and plot. Each one has the potential to carry a cargo of education to the reader in an unobjectionable, unobtrusive, and even enjoyable way.
The setting, for example, could introduce the reader to the bizarre, the exotic, or even the familiar, seen in a new light. In each of my legal thriller novels, from Neon Dragon through Deadly Diamonds, the bars, back alleys, historic sites, and ethnic neighborhoods of Boston play prominent roles, as the action weaves in and out of them without slackening the pace. Readers have told me that they found themselves picking up “the feel” of Boston—one unlike any other city on earth.
The trick is what Spencer Tracy once advised Robert Wagner about acting: “Don’t let the audience catch you at it.” For a writer, this means that you should blend the sense of location into the action of the plot so seamlessly that the reader doesn’t realize he/she is being “taught.”
In each of my last three novels, as well as the next, Deadly Odds, I deliberately shift the action from Boston to areas of the world that could introduce the reader to previously unexplored countries or cities. I see the inclusion of local customs or peculiarities of art, or food, or wealth, or crime, or poverty, or any other kind of cultural insight as a gift to the reader. But it must be given invisibly as an integral part of the uninterrupted plot. It cannot sever the tension. If the book becomes a travelogue, setting has hindered the primary purpose of storytelling—don’t let the reader catch you at it.
The second element, character, can explore any aspect of human personality or psychology that the writer knows well enough to “demonstrate” through the words and actions of the fictional people. This can be tricky ground. Careful research here is essential; amateur psychology can be shaky if pushed too far. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to be true.”
The third element, plot, has the most potential to carry disguised education. In my latest novel, Deadly Diamonds, a young native of Sierra Leone is abducted by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and forced to work in the diamond pits. Eventually, he escapes, and has to find his way through the world of West Africa, which is consumed with the blood diamond trade. Instead of facing the tedium of being “taught”, the reader simply lives through the fictional action of the novel, and comes out the other end with knowledge that will long outlast the experience of reading a thriller.
The cost of providing the reader with this bonus is additional research on your part—perhaps even travel—that must precede the writing. But this education can be a bonus, particularly if the writer has chosen a compelling subject: the work will become a pleasure, and it will show in the writing.
One last thought. I’ve found that when I give book-talks at libraries or book clubs, the audiences don’t want me to focus as much on plot or characters or setting per se, but rather on the elements that I was hoping to teach without “teaching” through the novel—subjects like the Chinese Tong (Neon Dragon), horse racing (Black Diamond), international art theft and forgery (Frame Up), and blood diamonds (Deadly Diamonds). That is always a joy, because the reader has taken the bait of disguised education in a way that could lead to discussion and interest far beyond the present moment. That is what lasts beyond the reading, like the nourishment of a glass of V8.
John F. Dobbyn was born and raised in Boston. He is a graduate of Harvard College and Boston College Law School. Prior to entering law school, Dobbyn served in the Air Force as a radio and radar director of aircraft in the Air Defense Command. After practicing law for several years as a trial lawyer, he obtained a Master of Law degree from Harvard Law School, and subsequently accepted a position as Professor of Law at Villanova Law School. Dobbyn’s short stories have been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and he is the author of two previous Knight and Devlin novels, Neon Dragon, and Frame-Up. “Jack” and his wife Lois live in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Reach him at @JohnDobbyn on Twitter.
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