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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Powerful Writing Technique and One Element of a Realistic Thriller

     I came across a wonderful article on writing in the New York Times written by Constance Hale, a San Francisco journalist. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/16/make-or-break-verbs/?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20120417    The article talked about the power of verbs and other action words and how important they are in giving power, clarity, and action to sentences, even to descriptions. The points made in that article were also made in Keys to Great Writing by Stephen Wilbers where he cited an excellent example of using action words in descriptions, taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
                “The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile,
                 jumping over sun-dials and brick walls, and burning gardens – finally when it reached
                 the house, drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.”
       So there it is, a simple yet powerful writing technique. I have also noticed that one of my favorite thriller writers, Olen Steinhauer, takes this technique a step further by linking many of his descriptions to the actions of his characters thereby killing two birds with one stone.  Here’s an example from the first page of Steinhauer’s latest thriller American Spy: “She’d been sitting, uncharacteristically, with a salad on her desk, staring out the window where, just over the trees, she could see distant storm clouds.” Notice how the description of the environment is not treated as a separate subject but is tied into the actions of the main character. We know in that single sentence that she is sitting in her office, has a desk, is eating a salad, that the office has a window that she’s been staring through, and that outside a storm was brewing. Really, an amazing amount of information communicated in a single sentence. A less skillful writer would have taken an entire paragraph or two to accomplish the same thing: first describing the room and a bunch of useless details, then talking about the person inside it and what she was doing.
     BTW, my second book, A Thousand Suns has received some positive comments from publishers, including one acceptance. Publishers like the main character and find the book entertaining and well written, but competition is fierce in the industry and the book is not standard thriller fare – it’s not as grim as most thrillers tend to be. There is some humor mixed in with the action. And I do that by conscious choice. I find too many thrillers take themselves way too seriously. They want to be angry, realistic thrillers snarling their way into readers’ hearts. In fact, they’re rarely as realistic as the authors think they are.
      There is more to writing a realistic thriller than just knowing the name of some obscure clandestine department in the U.S. government and the kinds of eavesdropping equipment they use. It is far more important to be emotionally realistic, i.e., having your characters express the correct emotions in various situations. For example, I don’t care for thrillers that treat death and killing lightly. In real life, normal people who kill another human being, even when it is justifiable, pay a terrible price psychologically. If you don’t believe that, I suggest reading, On Combat – the psychology and physiology of deadly conflict in war and peace by Lt. Co. Dave Grossman and Loren W.Christensen.  
     My next post will be on a possible change in the economic winds. Is it my imagination or are manufacturing jobs starting to leave China and come back to the West?

Best regards,

Jim
Zurich

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