I'd like to briefly discuss some seminal texts in the thriller genre: The Cat In The Hat, Green Eggs And Ham and Fox in Socks.
Another way repetition works is to bring sense to nonsense. There are many happy accidents in writing - some unhappy ones. Both kinds can be bettered through judicious repetition and reframing. Something you threw in as a random detail early on might return later, and might then take on a greater, or other, significance in your story. For example, early on in Horton Hears A Who, when Horton realises that the speck of dust has people on it, he decides to place it out of harm's way:
'So, gently, and using the greatest of care,The word 'clover' here must have had Seuss rubbing his hands with glee. I don't know how long it took him to come up with, of course, but perhaps (for the sake of argument) it wasn't all that thought out, and just popped up in his head because it rhymed with 'over' and was in nature, and he thought 'Right - get that down!' That's the attitude to take, because that happy little thought opens up the rest of the book to him. The clover is more attractive and more easily illustrated than the speck of dust, and it leads to Horton in a field of millions of clovers trying to find the right one, and being teased for carrying a flower about, and so on. So another lesson would be...
The elephant stretched his great trunk through the air,
And he lifted the dust speck and carried it over
And placed it down, safe, on a very soft clover.'
2. Cherish accidents and coincidences, and build on them when you can
This is especially true of the sort of thriller I'm trying to write, I think, when there's a precarious balance between plotting and spontaneity. If everything is plotted to the end very carefully, the danger is that the reader can either see what is coming, or doesn't much care. There needs to be an element of spontaneity and surprise in the writer for it to be in the characters. If you as a writer are breathlessly typing to try to get to the next step, which you're not quite sure of, the reader has more of a chance of being there with you.
The trick, I think, is in knowing good spontaneity from bad. I think the 'clover' thing above is good spontaneity, and in fact most of Seuss' work is a model of building on one spontaneous event after another. Building on what you already have, and then building a little higher, and then daring to build on that is also the art of crafting a good thriller.
About midway through The Cat In The Hat, the Cat in the Hat runs out of the room and comes back in with a big red wood box. I don't think Seuss had any idea when he wrote that he came in with this box what was actually in it. It's a children's literature variant of Raymond Chandler's dictum that, when in doubt, have someone come into the room with a gun. In Seuss' world, a big red wood box will do fine. I think Seuss wrote the followng extemporaneously and just ran with it:
'"In this box are two things
I will show to you now.
You will like these two things,"
Said the cat with a bow.
"I will pick up the hook.
You will see something new.
Two things. And I call them
Thing One and Thing Two."'
There are some nice touches here, to be sure - the fish shaking with fear, and the resolution, which is a great cliff-hanger that gets us excited all over again (the Seuss equivalent of a megalomaniac barking 'Kill Bond now!'). But, in thriller terms anyway, most of this doesn't work very well. It's cute and wry on its own terms, the transparency with which the boy worrying about his mother leads to the fish seeing the mother about to arrive, but it's precisely the sort of thing you also see in bad thrillers. The coincidence is too clear, and the attempts to generate anxiety and tension are insisted on too greatly, too often, without moving forward. A character saying 'Think of something to do!' or the equivalent is desperate filler in bad thrillers, and is really the writer saying to himself 'Think of something to write!' It's what we blurt onto the page when we're in that state of trying to get to the end of the scene or chapter and are keyed up and excited, but the ideas haven't quite formed yet. This is the bad kind of spontaneity, and you need to be able to see it and cut it out of your drafts.
"So, DO something! Fast!" said the fish.
"Do you hear!
I saw her. Your mother!
Your mother is near!
So, as fast as you can,
Think of something to do!
You will have to get rid of
Thing One and Thing Two!"'
3. Relationships can change in surprising ways
4. Make mischief
Seuss' protagonists are often the villains, or the clowns, or a mixture of both. What are the two children called in The Cat In The Hat? Who cares? They're the bystsanders, and the book is named after who we're really following. Ditto Frederick Forsyth's The Day of The Jackal or Ken Follett's The Eye Of The Needle: the characters chasing the Jackal and the Needle are not nearly as memorable. In Green Eggs and Ham, only the trouble-maker Sam is named: we're not told the identity of the character refusing to eat his suspiciously colourful produce.
Seuss, like many a children's author (Roald Dahl, Astrid Lindgren) realised that children enjoy rogues and anti-authoritarian figures. The same is true, I think, for thriller-readers. I've already mentioned the Jackal and the Needle, a British assassin and a German spy, but one could add to the roster Harry Palmer, John Rambo, Arkady Renko, Jack Reacher and scores of others. We don't generally like protagonists to be overly compliant with authority.
'"Now! Now! Have no fear!The fish, of course, is not best pleased by this ('not one little bit'). But my point is that you don't have to have your character taken off the case by his gruff boss: a small remark, insouciantly delivered, a laconic moment briefly brushed past, can be very effective in bringing the reader onto your character's side, or set them against another character. Related to the above point is that
Have no fear!" said the cat,
"My tricks are not bad,"
Said the Cat in the Hat.
"Why, we can have
Lots of good fun, if you wish,
With a game that I call
UP-UP-UP with a fish!"'
5. Twists have to make sense
Well, of course they do. But I don't just mean in terms of the plot, but in terms of the themes of the book. They have to be just and fitting and illuminate the action that came before. Fox in Socks, for instance, ends with Knox turning on Fox, stuffing him into a bottle, and repeating back to him some of his own mumbo-jumbo. This is a classic twist and if handled well is extremely satisfying. I am using it in my next book, about halfway through, when my character decides to turn the tables on his enemies, effectively pointing his finger at them and saying 'Now wait a minute, Mister Socks Fox!' 'The hunted becomes the hunter' is another way of phrasing it.
I think effective twists are often infused with irony. The end of Forsyth's The Dogs of War, for instance. Many of Len Deighton's novels are filled with ironic twists and turns. The Cat In The Hat ends with three twists, only one of which I find really effective. The first is that we have a cliffhanger where Mother is about to come home but the house is a mess. The Cat has been sent away in disgrace... how will they clean it all up? The Cat comes back in! This follows one of my earlier points, that relationships can be surprising, because the antagonist now becomes the ally and helps the kids. There's some irony there, too, of course, and it is satisfying seeing him use his cool machine to swiftly resolve the crisis. But I don't find it as effective for his character, if I can still say such a thing with a straight face. The story hasn't really built to this happening, as it has to the turnaround in Fox in Socks. It's completely unexpected. The bad guy becomes good, and then disappears. I think that would be very hard to pull off in a thriller.
The second twist is the really satisfying one: Mother comes home, the house is spotless, the kids are in the same place they were at the start. The story has been leading to this, and it fulfils all our expectations. How very ironic that she is completely oblivious to all that has happened. How fitting it is that the book should end that way: how wholly right. The third twist is a kind of add-on in the final lines. Mother asks what they've been doing and they don't know what to say:
'Should we tell her about it?In a way, it's just a continuation and emphasising of the main ending, but it also adds a little more, I think unnecessarily so. It's trying to generate one last zinger, and in doing so encourages us to ask ourselves a question. That's a good idea, and it's building and then not being afraid to build again... but the question is not quite as strong or as wholly right as the fact of Mother coming home and their sitting in the same chairs and everything being spick and span, which is really enough and where it should end. So my last lesson learned would be:
Now, what SHOULD we do?
What would you do
If your mother asked YOU?'
6. Know when to finish!
Finally, I've read and heard many interviews with writers in which they bemoan being asked the question 'Where do you get your ideas from?' It's a tricky one. But if any of this has sparked any ideas in your mind, perhaps I can suggest that next time you are asked that and are stumped for an answer, you look your questioner in the eye and say with a smile: 'Dr Seuss.'