Monday, April 5, 2010

What I've learned about writing thrillers from Dr Seuss

Here's an article I wrote last year that was published on the website of International Thriller Writers. I've spruced it up with a few images, and present it anew here.

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.

Well, not really, and I'm sure it's just a writer's brain latching onto the closest available material, but I wanted to get down a few ideas that have been stirring around my head for a while, about the work of children's author Dr Seuss and what it has taught me about the construction of thrillers. I'm serious! My eldest daughter loves Dr Seuss, and as a result I've read many of his stories hundreds of times.

Somewhere along the way, my mind freed up and started looking at how Seuss wrote his stories; the next step was to apply it to my own writing. Hence this nuttiness. But bear with me, as there may just be something to spark an idea for your own work - in which case you can thank me in the acknowledgements of your New York Times best-seller The Sneetch-Killers...

A quick word about the type of thriller I write: what John Buchan used to call 'shockers'. I write in the spy genre, but more in the Bourne and Bond vein than Graham Greene or John le Carré: so, cliffhangers galore, a chase to the finish, all that stuff. And Dr Seuss is the same... Okay, he is sometimes the same. Here are the key things I've learned:

1. Repeat after me...

Repetition is key to children's books, and also to thrillers. The hero is often driven towards a particular goal, and it helps to remind the reader of that goal every so often, until it becomes totemic. In Horton Hears A Who, for example, an elephant called Horton is desperate to protect a mite of dust, because he is convinced there are people living on it and 'A person's a person, no matter how small'. This phrase is repeated throughout the book, and has a marvellous pay-off, when the smallest person on the mite of dust (read the book!) saves the day. It has a wider meaning, of course, and is something of a moral. But it is also Horton's personal mantra, and in that way it helps us through his journey, as we see how committed he is to that idea, and we fix it in our heads and follow it with him.

In my first novel, Free Agent, my protagonist, a British agent on the run from both the KGB and MI6 during the Biafran War, has a few mantras, but for the latter half of the book it's just the one word 'Udi' - a city in Nigeria he has to reach before something horrific happens. I tried not to use it so much that readers would become sick of it - but I wanted them to get near to that, so that they would almost be in the same state of obsession about it as the character.

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 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.'
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...

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."'
When he wrote that there were 'two things' in the box, did he already know they'd be called Thing One and Thing Two? I don't think so. I think he was as surprised as us. It suddenly hit him that he could double back and use his own words in that way. It's remarkable how much atmosphere and fantasy Seuss wrung out of his self-allocated limited number of simple words, and this is a perfect example of that. There's something in the box: what? Interesting. We get closer to revelation, and learn that there are in fact two things. More interesting - but what are they? He suddenly has to reveal it and he delves into his subsconscious and that's what he finds: they're Thing One and Thing Two. On the surface of it, a rather weak solution. But Thing One and Thing Two become the hyperactive little monsters that nearly destroy the children's house! They're great characters, and the suspense leading up to their being revealed is more palpable, I think, because the author was also in suspense.

But occasionally Seuss tripped up, I think, and went with the kind of spontaneity you can get away with in his kind of book, but not in a thriller. My least favourite pages to read in the Seuss oeuvre (if you will!) come just a few pages after the introduction of Thing One and Thing Two, when they're busy wreaking havoc.
'And I said
"I do not like the way that they play!
If Mother could see this,
Oh, what would she say!"

Then our fish said, "LOOK! LOOK!"
And our fish shook with fear.
"Your mother is on her way home!
Do you hear?
Oh, what will she do to us?
What will she say?
Oh, she will not like it
To find us this way!"

"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!"'
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.

3. Relationships can change in surprising ways

This one may seem obvious, but it struck me when reading Fox in Socks. (I wonder what John Buchan would have made of that sentence!) The book starts with Fox, a fox, and Knox, some sort of dog-like humanoid in the usual Seuss mould, trying on socks and standing on top of each other and all sorts of things. They both appear to be having fun together. But within a few pages, the relationship changes. Knox can't really keep up with Fox and becomes increasingly frustrated. Soon, he starts hating Fox... So the lesson I take is to remember that allies can become enemies, and enemies can become allies. Don't fall into the trap of having static relationships the whole way through your thriller: life's not like that, and it makes for a boring read. Related to this, I think, is:

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.

I'm not suggesting you go out of the way to make your character question authority, because then you'll end up like a parody of a bad TV crime drama. Rather, I'm suggesting that you find small ways of showing this, of bringing the reader onto the character's side. There's a great example in Seuss' The Sneetches, where Sylvester McMonkey McBean charges three dollars to put stars on the bellies of the Plain-Belly Sneetches, using a special machine. When the previously elite Star-Bellies see their position threatened, he shamelessly - to our delight - invites them into his new machine, which can take off their stars and turn the tables again... for 'ten dollars eaches'. But my favourite such moment comes early in The Cat In The Hat, where the fish immediately suspects the Cat of being up to no good and calls him out on it. The Cat reassures him, scooping his bowl into the air with the handle of his umbrella and declaring quite innocently:
'"Now! Now! Have no fear!
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!"'
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

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?
Now, what SHOULD we do?
What would you do
If your mother asked YOU?'
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:

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.'

1 comment:

  1. Dr Seuss, well I never! Good article. I have not read any yet but I might add them to the reading pile one day. Sounds like fun and I didnt know so much went in to even childrens books.