As author Benjamin Percy relates in Thrill Me, his book of essays on the writing craft, his childhood books were portals for escape. “Suck me into the tornado, beam me through an intergalactic transporter, drag me down the rabbit hole,” he says. Although he’s studied the tenets of literary fiction, he strongly believes the “What happens next?” engine more typical of genre fiction is what propels readers through most novels. Thrill them.
This is one of those books, like Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction, that you can benefit from rereading at different stages of a writing project. Insights glossed over earlier will suddenly make sense as your new work evolves. Here are just a few of Percy’s thoughts that particularly resonated with me this time around.
While a story will have a big goal—solve the puzzle, catch the killer, marry the prince, win the battle—it also needs lower-order goals, at the scene or chapter level, to keep the plot moving. (I’d add here that, sometimes, the protagonist’s goal is subconscious. Maybe Mary believes her goal is to gain the prestige of the job promotion and new title, but what she’s really yearning for is recognition in her father’s eyes.) Working toward a lower-order goal—baking a cake, fixing a carburetor, shopping for a dress, staying out of the path of a hurricane—maintains a story’s momentum and can steer you through what otherwise might be a too-long scene of dialog, the dread BOGSAT: Bunch of Guys Sitting Around Talking. Deadly. Frowned upon.
Another well-used (because it’s effective) device to keep the readers focused on what happens next is the “ticking clock.” It needn’t be as literal as a real clock counting down the seconds until the bomb goes off, but it will be some kind of critical deadline (apt word, that). In James Wolff’s new spy novel, The Man in the Corduroy Suit, the protagonist has two weeks to find out whether a former MI5 employee was actually a spy. To keep the investigation secret, he can’t make any obvious moves, so it’s slow work. He’s just getting started when the deadline is changed to one week. The metaphorical ticking clock can be an important impending visit, a wedding that shouldn’t come off, the start of the school year, the fate of a kidnapped child—anything with outsized importance in the mind of the protagonist.
It’s a long and rocky fictional path to relieving the tension caused by the ticking clock, and at times it may seem like a toss-up whether the protagonist will actually succeed. Once one obstacle along the path is resolved or one question is answered, the writer must keep ʼem coming. As Percy says, “a good story is a turnstile of mysteries.” It may seem the protagonist can never—or rarely—catch a break along that rocky path. And there’s that thunder rumbling in the distance, that clock ticking.
My next novel is set in Rome and has two principal narrators. Genie Clarke is an American travel writer who has inadvertently made herself the target of a group of gangsters, and Leo Angelini is a Polizia di Stato detective trying to protect her. One ticking clock is the ultimatum the head of the gangsters has given his men: “Get her.” Could there be a romance between Genie and Leo? This possibility has its own ticking clock: Genie’s imminent return to the States. Let’s hope this book gets published so you can find out what happens next!
Try Thrill Me for yourself and see what insights you can pull out for your WIP.
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