Showing posts with label Lee Child. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lee Child. Show all posts

Friday, August 8

Lee Child on Myth, Theseus and James Bond

Lee Child on Myth, Theseus and James Bond





In his short essay, “Theseus and the Minotaur (1500 BC),” which appears in Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, Lee Child discusses and dissects the ancient story of Theseus and the Minotaur, peeling back layers of meaning to expose the structure underneath. A structure that, it turns out, is nearly identical to Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories.

Theseus and James Bond


At first I was skeptical. After all, the myth is about how the son of a king saves Athenian youths from suffering death-by-Minotaur. (Here is one version of the myth: The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.) 

Lee Child, though, strips away the particular details to reveal the essential points of the tale. He writes:

“The story goes like this: Theseus, the son of the king of Athens, is a privileged but maverick warrior. At the start of the tale, he is away on the coast, attacking and burning enemy ships, in an action that is not fully authorized. He returns home to a crisis. Athens and Crete are in a state of uneasy truce, with Crete holding the upper hand. The price of peace is that Athens must periodically supply young men and women to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a grotesque creature that lives in a labyrinth on the island of Crete. A demand for fresh victims has just arrived. Theseus insists that he be allowed to go, posing as one of the victims. He arrives on Crete and enlists–by seduction–the help of Ariadne, the daughter of the king of Crete. She supplies him with a ball of string, so that–if he survives the encounter with the Minotaur–he will be able to find his way out of the maze. Theseus descends, unwinding the string as he goes. He kills the Minotaur after an epic struggle. He retraces his steps with the help of the string. He emerges on the surface, ignores Ariadne, and returns home to a mixed welcome.”

That’s a condensed retelling! Child goes on to compare the salient points of the myth to those of the James Bond stories:

-  Athens and Crete were two superpowers who reached an uneasy truce. (The US and Russia)
- Theseus (James Bond) was a young man of rank who acted alone and took responsibility for the necessary outcome.
- The hero makes a strategic alliance with an attractive young woman from the other side. 
- A gadget (the ball of magical twine) was given to Theseus. Further, this gadget was made by an exceptionally skilled craftsman (Daedalus/Q).
- A secret underground facility (the maze/Q division).
- An all powerful opponent (King Minos) with a grotesque sidekick (the Minotaur).
- An epic fight to the death (Theseus vs the Minotaur).
- An escape (Theseus uses the ball of string to find his way out of the maze).
- The femme fatale is abandoned or dies (I’ve noticed that if Bond’s female ally is good at heart then she has an excellent chance of dying). 
- The hero returns home to a mixed welcome. In the Bond films I’ve watched, the hero usually gets taken to task for his high kill rate, his destruction of property and his general recklessness.

Also:

- A James Bond story usually begins with “a scene of gratuitous violence or action not related to the main storyline.” Compare this with Theseus’ burning of enemy ships.
- James Bond’s dual nature: is he bold, courageous and heroic? Or is he hotheaded, out of control and arrogant?
- Is M, and the secret intelligence service generally, embarrassed by James Bond, by his antics, by the number of people he kills and by the amount of property damage he does? Or are they proud of his results and his unscrupulously unswerving dedication to his goals?

Mythic Heroes


Lee Child has often said that his own heroic character, Jack Reacher, is based on the myth of the mysterious stranger. This is from an interview Child gave in 2011:

“Retrospectively, I look at the character as an update of a very old figure, who comes out of 1,000 years of literary tradition: the loner, the mysterious stranger, the knight errant who shows up, solves a problem and then leaves. He came out of Scandinavian sagas and English tales of knights and survived into the American West and pop lit. (Q & A: Lee Child on writing, naming and aging Jack Reacher)”

Who or what is your protagonist based on? What myth most closely captures your protagonist’s quest?

Photo credit: "Umgebung / Kornfeld / Sonnenuntergang" by fRedi under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Text overlay was applied by Karen Woodward, the quotation is from Robert Fulghum.

Thursday, May 1

Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense

Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense

What follows is the final section of Parts of Story: Plot. (Yes, I'm doing a happy dance!) 

If you've been enjoying these posts, don't worry, there will be many more since I have yet to write the second and third parts in this series: Parts of Story: Setting and Characterization & Parts of Story: Point of View and Theme. That said, I will continue doing a normal blog post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. All the chapters will be prefaced with "Parts of Story" so if you'd rather not read as I blog my book, those posts are easy to ignore.

For those of you who have signed up for my newsletter, I expect to have Parts of Story: Plot finished by Friday May 9th. At that time I'll send out an email to everyone. It is difficult to put into words how much I appreciate you guys and gals, my readers. As a small thank you I would like to make Parts of Story: Plot free for a week to anyone would requests a copy. I'll explain the logistics of all that in the newsletter. 

Okay! Enough talk. Here is the final chapter:

In order for a tale to be suspenseful, what must be the case?

1. Conflict


What is conflict? How is it generated? 

It's simple. Conflict results from the clash of two things: the character's goal and the opposition to that goal.

The hero seeks something, desires something--freedom, money, love, respect--and he has a goal. This goal is concrete. It's so specific one could film the hero attaining it. 

Something that the hero fears opposes him, something that has the ability to prevent the hero from achieving his goal and, thus, attaining his desire.

If the hero desires freedom then early parole might be his concrete goal, something we could depict by the huge outer doors of a prison opening and the hero walking out into the world, once again in charge of his life.

Perhaps the warden decides to frame the hero for something he didn't do and, in so doing, keep him imprisoned longer. 

If the hero desires money then a concrete goal might be to rob the bank on 1st and 3rd at three o'clock in the afternoon of July 4th, when the guards change shifts. 

But perhaps the bank brings in extra security guards for July 4th and some of them are Navy Seals.

And so on.

2. Stakes


To create suspense, the stakes of the conflict should be clearly spelled out in advance, before the hero is menaced by the danger. 

The general stakes for most horror movies are as follows: 

The hero wins: the hero (and possibly one or more other characters) escape the evil and live.

The hero loses: the hero fails to escape the evil and everyone dies.  

By the way, The Cabin in the Woods gives these stakes an interesting twist. It's a huge spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the movie and want the ending to be a surprise. Ready? Okay ... In The Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard put an ironic twist on the stakes making it the case that if the hero (Marty) wins and escapes the evil then the world will end. On the other hand, if the hero allows himself to be killed then the world will be safe ... and five other people will be brutally murdered every single year the world stays that way. Talk about a no-win situation!

3. A ticking clock


“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”

To help build tension it helps if, in some way or other, the hero is racing against a clock, though perhaps not an actual clock. They must be under pressure. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, to agonize and, finally, to fight; time in which the reader can agonize.

Raise A Question


When we talk about creating suspense we, of course, are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader/viewer/listener. Generally we try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters--especially our hero. We make it clear what the hero needs and then we force the protagonist into danger as he tries to attain his goal.

Yes, certainly, this kind of conflict creates suspense. But I would like to point out that there is another, related, way to create suspense: raise a question.

Lee Child is a great proponent of this method. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about the characters or the subject matter; there is something about a question being raised that makes us want to know the answer.

I agree.

The other day I read a fabulous short story--"In The Cave" by Tessa Hadley--where suspense was generated by a question the storyteller asked: What happened to break the hero's infatuation with her almost-boyfriend? 

Yes, I read on because the writing was enchanting, and because of the conflict generated by the clash of the protagonist's current state of affairs and the state of affairs she desired for herself. But, mostly, I read on because I wanted to know the answer to the question the storyteller had raised in the first paragraph: Why hadn't it worked out between the protagonist and her companion?

In Summary



Suspense is an emotional state within your reader, one most writers wish to evoke, and that emotional state depends upon two things. First, the reader asking the question: what happens next? Second, the reader being interested enough in the characters for the answer to matter.

Wednesday, April 30

Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?

Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?




The other day I watched a video of Lee Child talking about writing. It was a question and answer period and someone asked how he got in touch with his character, Jack Reacher. They asked how he knew Reacher's likes, wants, needs, fears, and so on.

Lee Child said something to the effect that Jack Reacher is a fictional character and, as such, had no likes or dislikes. It was the reader who had likes and dislikes. Child didn't care about what Reacher wanted he cared about what the reader wanted. And, he added, hopefully they'd want to turn the page![1]

This startled me. 

One of the first things I wondered in my budding career as a writer--I think I was about four at the time--was how to make my parents interested in my stories. Really interested, not just "Oh another story, how lovely." It was a challenge since my interests weren't their interests and vice versa.

Since then my audience has changed radically, but the question has remained the same: How can I write stories that make readers want to finish them, stories which drag readers from the first sentence to the last sentence?

From what I can tell, here's the standard answer:

You get a reader to care about the story by creating a round character, a 3D character, one with hopes and wants and needs and fears and then you break their hearts. 

You endanger what they care about most, you strip them of what they need, and then you give them a way to win it back, but the way is narrow and fraught with deadly peril. The environment opposes them, some of their allies oppose them, their all-too-human enemy opposes them. And the obstacles keep getting thornier and higher and eventually seem insurmountable. 

But the hero has heart. He's not giving up. He battles on. And he's clever. He's got skills. We, the readers, can't help but root for him and find it impossible to sleep until we know how it all turned out in the end. Did he achieve his goal or did he lose everything? (Which I think, really, equates to us wondering what kind of a universe it is. Fair or random.)

That was a (very) rough sketch, but you know what I'm talking about. That's the bones of the hero's quest.

But ... is that it? Is that right? Is that (the hero's quest, character identification, creating 3D characters, and so on) how we get people to care about stories?

Let me play devil's advocate:

"Characters don't have hopes or wants or needs or fears because they don't exist! They're fictional. Besides, they don't have any money so they can't invest in one's next book, so what writers should be concerned with are the hopes and wants and needs and fears of flesh and blood readers. And (in general) what matters to humans is mystery and puzzles and action."

Or something.

I think, in practise, readers read on because they care about both the characters and the bells and whistles of the plot; action and mystery and all that kind of thing.

I know I've used it as an example too many times, but it's one of my favorite movies, and it does illustrate my point beautifully. In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I did care whether Indy found the ark and it didn't have anything to do with me wanting Indy to achieve his goal (or because I cared about the character yada yada), it had to do with the ark itself. I was curious whether this really was the Ark of the Covenant and, if Indy or the Nazi's found it, what it would do. And would whatever it did be cool. (And it was!)

Something similar happened when I watched the first season of Game of Thrones. One of the questions that season was: Are dragons real? Is Daenerys Targaryen part dragon or is she just delusional? The last episode of that season answered the question beautifully. 

I did care about Daenerys and whether she salvaged something from the ashes of her life, but more than anything I wondered: Do dragons exist? Granted, I wouldn't have cared as much about the answer if Daenerys hadn't staked her life on it. And this only mattered because I'd come to care about the character. But still.

I think what I'm talking about, or gesturing toward, is the interaction of character and plot. Readers care about the plot, in part, because of the characters and we get interested in the characters, in part, because the plot spurred them on to do interesting things.

What do you think? Why do you read stories? Is it the plot? The characters? The interaction of the two? 

Links/References


1. I can't remember exactly where I saw this, I was going through Lee Child's interview page. I think I watched everything from 2012 on.

Wednesday, March 5

Lee Child's Three Tips For Building A Loyal Fan Base

 Lee Child's Three Tips For Building A Loyal Fan Base


According to David Vinjamuri (The Strongest Brand In Publishing Is ...) Lee Child's fans are the most loyal of any bestseller, even Stephen King and John Grisham.

That is, Lee Child has the highest percentage of readers/fans who will buy his next book, sight unseen. 

David Vinjamuri writes that:

"Child carries a higher percentage of his readers with him to each successive book than any other bestselling author.  While just 41% of John Grisham’s fans owned or planned to buy his newest novel Sycamore Row, 70% of Child’s fans wanted a copy of the last Jack Reacher tale “A Wanted Man”."

Impressive!

The question: What's Lee Child's secret? What did he do to generate such reader loyalty?

David Vinjamuri caught up with Child in Manhattan and asked him.

Lee Child: The Three Key Factors In Reader Loyalty


1. Consistency


Lee child said:

"A series is better than a sequence of [unrelated] books in terms of building brand loyalty. There are two components of loyalty: one is the author and the second is the subject.  If you like the author but you’re uncertain of the content of the next book, that’s an obstacle. It runs counter to the literary view of writing that values originality and growth.  Jack Reacher is the same person in every book.  He’s unemotional and focused on detail. There are lots of things that he always does that characterize who he is."

Since all of Child's books are from a single series, and since Jack Reacher is the same person in every book--unemotional and detail oriented--fans can be confident about what the next book will be like ... well, more or less. It's the old dilemma. Readers often want a story just like the last one, only different. (grin)

By the way, an interesting article on Lee Child is: Lee Child debunks the biggest writing myths over at writersdigest.com.

2. Authenticity


Child holds that in order to inspire reader loyalty one must give one's stories a sense of verisimilitude. Child states:

"Authenticity is not the same thing as accuracy.  I live in New York.  If you know New York then some of the actual reality of [life in] New York might not seem believable to the reader who doesn’t live here."

That it happened in real life is no guarantee your readers will find something believable.

To create a believable story it helps to begin with believable characters; a story is only as good as its characters just as a cake is only as good as its ingredients.

When I create a character I ask myself:

- What would make this character do something they don't want to do?
- What would make this character do something they vowed they would never do (again)?
- What would this character die for?
- What would this character kill for?


3. Uniqueness


Child says:

"I ignored all the other series.  If you start with a laundry list of things then the book won't be organic.  Reacher is not a white knight.  He lies and cheats and steals but because he’s doing it with integrity, people recognize him as a real human being."

There are two things here, and both concern the protagonist: uniqueness and (for lack of a better term) "relatability." Here's how I would cash them out:

a. Make the protagonist unique.


As much as I love Indiana Jones, or Hercule Poirot, I wouldn't want my protagonist to be exactly like them. What would be the fun in that?

Ignore what everyone else is doing and do your own thing, go your own way, but make sure your hero/protagonist has integrity.

b. Make the protagonist relatable.


Give your protagonist integrity, where that cashes out to having a clearly defined personal code and sticking to it, even when that's not comfortable.

Much has been said--and, I'm sure, will be said--about the relative importance, or unimportance, of likability as a character trait. Some swear by it and other's scoff at it. 

We can all think of characters who we loved that were likeable (Harry Dresden, for example), but many aren't: Dexter, Walter White, Frank Underwood.

What attracts us to unlikable characters? In a word: relatability.

It isn't important whether readers/viewers/listeners like your protagonist, what matters is whether they have some sort of personal code that they stick to.

c. Have the protagonist seek justice.


A protagonist can be one bad dude or dudette as long as they are trying to do something just, something noble. For example, a hitman struggling to save a child from being murdered by another hitman.

d. Measure the protagonist against the other characters.


Your character will be measured against the other characters, especially the antagonist and his/her minions.

I've just finished watching the second season of House of Cards (don't worry, no spoilers!) and--wow--Frank Underwood is not a likeable character. But Frank Underwood (his initials: FU) lives in a dystopia where every character is a shark and no one is likeable . When the viewer measures him against the other characters, especially the antagonist and his/her minions, we find that he's not so bad.

He's a shark, but he's a shark swimming with sharks. That's the background against which we evaluate his actions.

e. Have the protagonist be the best.


There's something to be said for having a protagonist who not only does something well, but does something better than anyone else. Of course then the storyteller has the problem of figuring out how to plausibly put the character in danger, a problem which can be overcome by (among other things) pairing them with someone weaker whom they must take care of.

Part of the reason I care about Frank Underwood is that he is the biggest and baddest and best shark of them all. He will grit his teeth and make painful personal sacrifices where others won't. Further, he is self-aware. He knows his strengths and his weaknesses and this allows him to see other people's strengths and weaknesses, and then exploit them. No, he's not a nice character, but one can still find qualities to admire. He has--if I might put it this way--a twisted semblance of integrity. He values ruthless pragmatism above all else. 

If you haven't already read David Vinjamuri's article The Strongest Brand In Publishing Is ... (forbes.com) I would encourage you to. And thanks to Michael +Kelberer for sharing the link through his (excellent!) Google+ account.

Until next time, good writing!

Photo credit: "Friends for life" by Joan Sorolla under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, August 22

Lee Child On How To Write A Book Your Readers Can't Put Down

Lee Child On How To Write A Book Your Readers Can't Put Down


Keeping in mind that rules are made to be broken, here are 3 tips from various pros on how to keep readers from putting your book down:

1. Lee Child: Ask a question and make people wait for the answer.


According to Zackary Petit's Writer's Digest article, Lee Child Debunks the Biggest Writing Myths, bestselling author Lee Child holds that suspense boils down to "asking a question and making people wait for the answer."

At ThrillerFest 2012, Lee Child said he believes that:
"[H]umans are hard-wired to want the answer to a question. When the remote control was invented, it threw the TV business through a loop. How would you keep people around during a commercial? So TV producers started posing a question at the start of the commercial break, and answering it when the program returned. (Think sports—Who has the most career grand slams?) Even if you don’t care about the answer, Child said, you stick around because you’re intrigued."

.  .  .  .

“The way to write a thriller is to ask a question at the beginning, and answer it at the end,” he said.

"When he’s crafting his books, Child doesn’t know the answer to his question, and he writes scene by scene—he’s just trying to answer the question as he goes through, and he keeps throwing different complications in that he’ll figure out later. And that very well may be the key to his sharp, bestselling prose.

“For me the end of a book is just as exciting as it is for a reader,” he said."
Lee Child expands on this method of building suspense in his New York Times article, A Simple Way To Build Suspense. Also, here is an engrossing read about how and why Lee Child became a writer. It's a short and well written biography: The Curious Case of Lee Child.

2.  David Farland: Front-load the conflict


David Farland, in his article Opening Strategies, suggests there are two main ways to create conflict.

One, which we've just read about, is to "create a mystery in the opening pages, taking perhaps a dozen chapters to reveal the main conflict".

The other is "to front-load the book, giving the reader a massive conflict on the opening page".

Great! But how do we do that?

3. Eileen Cook: Increase your conflict by turning conflict resolution techniques on their head


Eileen Cook, a fabulous writer and all around lovely person, wrote an article entitled, helpfully: 5 Ways To Increase Conflict. Here are a few of her tips:

a. Atmosphere: Pick a place that's uncomfortable for your characters


Eileen writes:
"In real life you want to choose the right environment to have a difficult conversation. You want to choose a place where the individual can focus on what you are saying and not instantly feel defensive or uncomfortable.  In fiction, try and have the conflict happen in the most uncomfortable place possible for your characters.

"Imagine a man telling his fiancĂ© that he doesn’t think he can go through with the wedding. Now imagine him telling her in the back of the church just before the wedding, or worse yet, right after the ceremony, or as the flight takes off for their honeymoon."

b. The more the merrier: causing characters to clash


Add characters who will make an already conflict-ridden situation worse. Eileen gives us these questions:
- "Who does your character want on their side in an argument?"
- "Who is the person your character least wants to oppose?"
- "In the wedding example above it’s bad if the groom is in love with someone else, it’s worse if it’s the maid of honor, or her sister, or his best man."

c. Rather than focusing on what is said, focus on who said it and what they may have meant by it


In other words, just do the opposite of whatever a good conflict resolution manual tells you! Eileen gives this example:
"For example, there are two teen girls.  One finds out that the other went to a party with another group and didn’t tell her. What might she accuse her of? You don’t want to be my friend. You’re embarrassed by me."
How this applies to your manuscript: "Look at your manuscript, what meaning does your character put onto what is said/done? What can they accuse the person of?"

d. Push your character's triggers


What are your characters "hot buttons"? What will set her/him off? Get your characters to fight dirty, that's sure to increase conflict!

Eileen's exercise: "Look at your manuscript and make notes where the characters can have an “oh no you didn’t” moment."

Rather than focus on what your characters have in common, focus on what makes them different. Eileen writes: "If your character perceives giving ground means they lose something, they will fight to win rather than compromise."

Eileen's pointers:
- "What does your character stand to lose if they lose this conflict? What is at risk?"
- "Can you set up two characters with opposing goals?"
- "Do you have a character that wants two opposing things at the same time? I want the big promotion at work and I want to spend more time with my family."
Here's her parting advice:
"When in doubt, go big.  Drop a plane wing, add a zombie, have them realize that the two things they want most in the world can’t both be had at the same time.  Your characters may hate you for it, but readers will love it."
I've attended several of Eileen Cook's writing workshops and they are fabulous. If you ever have the opportunity to hear her speak, think twice before you pass it up.

As Bugs Bunny says, "That's all folks!" Happy writing.

Photo credit: "STHLM #8" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Copyright 2.0.