Saturday, June 18, 2011

How to build pace into a thriller

Bloodmoney progresses apace, and its pace is one of the things I like about David Ignatius' tale of espionage in Pakistan.

CIA operatives are disappearing, and the head of their unit needs to find out who's killing them. Two agents have vanished, and Ignatius quickens the pace nicely from the first disappearance to the second.

We meet the first agent over the course of three chapters, gradually coming to know his mission, his cover story, and the personal insecurities that let us know all may not go well with him.  Here's how we meet the second agent: "Alan Frankel had every reason to think he was safe."

With an introduction like that, you know this guy's life insurance had better be paid up. Moreover, it's a nice example of building momentum. Compressing the narration is a neat way to quicken the pace and to avoid monotony when relating a succession of similar events. And pace, it seems to this inexperienced reader of thrillers, is precisely what a thriller must master.

What are your favorite examples of well-paced thrillers or crime stories? How do they achieve their good pacing?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , ,

33 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

I got in a bit of an argument over on Rob Kitchen's blog, View From the Blue House the other day about the merits of Michael Connelly's Nine Dragons. We are both fans of Connelly's, but Rob and one or two others found this a lesser work from the master. When Rob pointed out his problems with the story, I could see his points, but the whole time I was reading the book I was struck by Connelly's ability to move the story. The pace of the story is relentless, and for me that won over some elements that caused snags for others.

I haven't read David Ignatius yet, though.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I learned about David Ignatius from a recent enthusiastic review in the Economist. The book is about espionage in Pakistan, largely concerning the U.S. and Pakistan's ISI. How timely can one get?

I should look in on that Michael Connell discussion. Did you say what you thought Connelly did to keep the story moving?

I noticed Ignatius' technique particularly because I had just read a book whose one failing is that it did not do what Ignatius did. Its killings and investigations succeeded one another, never overlapping, and moving for the most part at the same pace. This did not enhance the book.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Actually, I didn't quite understand how he did it. There's definitely a time running out aspect, and I think one think Connelly must have done is plot very closely how Harry Bosch could actually manage to accomplish what he had to accomplish in what was basically a long weekend.

Of course, it helps to have a character who doesn't have any sense of 'now it's time to stop'. But that has been built up convincingly enough over previous novels.

The Ignatius book that people seemed to be going wild about here a short while back was The Increment.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Increment is an ungainly enough title to attract attention. The book is about espionage, I presume.

Time running out is the time-honored way to build suspense. What impressed me in this case is that time isn't running out yet, but Ignatius creates tension nonetheless. I suppose the result is more the pace of descent into hellishness and panic picking up than time running out.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

It's possibly just the amount of terrain Bosch has to negotiate and figure out that made me aware of how skilled Connelly was. I am not normally that aware of the mechanics of a story as I was this time.

No, I have no idea what The Increment is about. Haven't so much as looked at the back cover. Although I think I have the galley somewhere.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A classmate of mine in elementary school once suggested that the opposite of increment is excrement.

I generally don't notice the mechanics of a story, either, so it was eye-opening to pick up one book that does well the one thing that my previous book had not. This may make me a more analytical reader -- not a bad thing if I hope to expand my editing capabilities beyond line editing and proofreading.

June 19, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I have read many thrillers over the years, but one that stands out as stellar is a recent read: Nemesis by Jo Nesbo. This is a book by a master of the craft!

Once the story grabs the reader, it does not let go until the last page. There are two seemingly different plot lines, both of which are exciting, and both of which keep up the suspense (and twists and turns) until the very end of the book.

There is not one boring page or paragraph in this book, and each page brings in the reader more.

Continual developments help. Plot twists help. They keep up the pace and the suspense.

Michael Connelly's Nine Dragons had a fast pace, yes, but it was different for the usually cerebral, thoughtful Harry Bosch. A monumental loss was treated as a plot device, one which normally Harry would ruminate and grieve over, lasting into books which followed. It became a shoot-em-up, how many can be killed quickly type book, without much introspection or thoughts about the people involved or life's travails, as is the usual Harry style.

Anyway, I won't name the thriller writers I've read, many of whom are good, but Nesbo's Nemesis was at a higher level, the thinking person's thriller -- with some social issues thrown into the incredible plot lines.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, interesting for two reasons that you should happen to mention that book. The book that I thought had some pacing problems was Nesbø's Snowman. The other interesting thing is that I recall Nemesis as being more tightly constructed than his other books.

June 19, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I've only read The Devil's Star so that's my only comparison to Nemesis. Haven't yet read The Snowman or his other books.

Nemesis was superior to the other one, in my opinion, in terms of plotting, plot twists, ability to hold one's interest continually, interesting stories, even political points.

It kept me on my toes constantly and thinking and wondering, couldn't turn the pages quickly enough.

And it all came together like a perfect jigsaw puzzle.

A co-reader friend and I spent quite awhile dissecting the plot details and twists of Nemesis.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Interesting the tricks that memory plays. I had thought that Nemesis was shorter than Nesbø's other novels, but it's about as long as they are -- 480 pages.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But The Devil's Star has quite a heart-pounding climactic scene, didn't it?

To continue my previous comment, I recall Nemesis as having a tighter plot that some of Nesbo's other books. He tends to range widely in time and place, but he does so less in Nemesis than in the other books.

June 19, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I probably have to take back my praise for Jo Nesbo. I see that he wrote THE DEVIL'S STAR, which is about as bad a thriller plot as I have seen and strains belief. Sorry, my memory isn't always good. That make the second Scandinavian I don't like, the other being Asa Larssen (?), who does religious thrillers.

As for pacing: This is crucially important for thrillers, of course, where there is generally the threat of the active, but unknown monster roaming the streets and getting ever closer to the protagonist's family. Connelly's NINE DRAGONS belongs to that sub-genre, as does Michael Robotham's SUSPECT. Robotham is a very fine writer, but even he has some problems with the over-the-top thriller plot.
Most of the Reacher novels move exceedingly well, though a few also have poor plots. I recall 61 HOURS being very carefully set up to work the time pressure device. Another Reacher novel has the most spell-binding start I have seen: an assassin setting up to shoot random pedestrians from a parking garage.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The killer gets close to the protagonist's family in one of Nebso's books, too. And, while you may not like religious/Satan-related plots much, The Devil's Star has a fine climactic scene.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Redbreast comes before Nemesis, doesn't it?

I am afraid I am never going to be able to have a truly detached perspective on Mr. Nesbo after watching him try on tee shirts in our buying office the other day.

As his driver said, "Most writers are a little rounder."

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

His publicist made no such comment about Nesbo when I interviewed him -- also at an independent bookstore, no less. I like the driver's nice understatement, though.

Here's a list of Nesbo's novels available in English. The first date is the year of original publication, the second the date of appearance in English translation in the UK and Canada. The U.S. publication schedule is one book behind. So The Leopard should be in this country next year. Keep your shirt on.


2000 – The Redbreast (2006)
2002 – Nemesis (2008)
2003 – The Devil's Star (2005)
2005 – The Redeemer (2009)
2007 – The Snowman (2010)
2009 – The Leopard (2011)

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, Harry Hole and others remark throughout The Snowman how the exercise he has forced himself to do has made him into skin and bones. Most fictional police officers are a little rounder. Most real ones, too, I think.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Though I don't know if this applies to detectives as well as uniformed officers.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Our Random House sales rep was so taken with The Snowman that she bought Redbreast and Nemesis, which were published by someone else from us the other day.

Although her description of being home alone at night with her small child and jumping at everything that moved as she read was not exactly the kind of endorsement that would lure me in.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nesbo offers an interesting mix of horror influences and satire with the maverick detective, that's for sure.

Tell your sales rep to read Redbreast before Nemesis and The Devil's Star.

June 19, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I couldn't get into Redbreast, and had nearly given up on Nesbo, but then I decided to give Harry another chance.

Once I picked up Nemesis, I was hooked, although as I said The Devil's Star was a bit of a letdown.

I will read Nesbo's other books when they hit my library, and will retry Redbreast over the summer.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I probably liked Nemesis the best of his books, and it was short-listed for the best-novel Edgar Award. I asked Nesbo if he thought this meant Americans preferred more tightly constructed stories.

Redbreast has a fine story in the narrative present and another fine story set in the past. Someone once said they were both good stories but might not belong in the same book.

The Snowman includes scenes set in the past, but they're more closely integrated with the main action.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, here's some of what I wrote about Nemesis.

June 19, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

How do writers achieve pace? I wish we could dig up Cornell Woolrich and ask him. As a mere reader, I can't claim to know, but I'm reckless enough to hazard a couple of guesses.

Mood is a factor. Woolrich's story, New York Blues, opens with the line:

It's six o'clock; my drink is at the three-quarter mark — three quarters down, not three-quarters up — and the night begins.

Ah, the night. Most people are afraid of the night, of the dark. The more in-your-face emotions are immediately engaged: you know this is not going to be good.

On page two. the narrator tells us:

The big weekend rush is on. The big city emptying itself out at once. Just a skeleton crew left to keep it going until Monday morning. Everybody getting out — everybody but me, everybody but those who are coming here for me tonight. We're going to have the whole damned town to ourselves.

I think mystery is the most important driver of pace That paragraph reveals a lot, but it withholds far more than it reveals. You want to know who 'they' are, you want to know why they are coming for your hero, but it doesn't tell you.

There's a kind of hunting called drag hunting. Instead of sending out the bloodhounds to look for a trail, somebody lays down a scent ahead of time. That's what thriller writers do. They create a scent by dripfeeding small details to the reader and if the scent is strong enough the reader becomes a bloodhound who will ignore sentences, bulldoze through paragraphs and jump over entire chapters to follow the trail. Or, if I may change the mataphor, the writer makes the story perform a strip-tease act. As each item of clothing is removed, the point is not so much to excite the reader about what has just been revealed as to increase the reader's anticipation about what is likely to be revealed next.

So that's it, Peter. A good thriller writer has the same qualities as a good stripper. And just in case, you ask me to defend this thesis, I'm going off now to look for a good lawyer.

June 19, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I agree with what you wrote about Nemesis, and like the paragraph you cited, as an example of why readers like Nesbo: Some very good, thought-provoking writing mixed into the plot.

I saw the discussion about The Redbreast. I knew aggravation was on the horizon when I saw a point about sympathy with the German army.
Given Germany's world domination plans and genocidal campaign, including of many in the Soviet Union -- and the massive number of deaths there -- I have zero sympathy and I don't want to have any either.

So I think I won't read that one.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, isn't a good stripper supposed to slow down the pace rather than pick it up?

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, the war enters The Redbreast in two ways: a wartime romance in a hospital behind the front lines, and the present-day fate of a traitor, if I recall correctly.

Nesbo reserves his real scorn for claims that all Norwegians resisted the Nazi, that all resisted, and so on.

June 19, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Good for Nesbo. I'll reconsider reading that book.

I know from some tidbits in Nemesis that Harry, i.e., Nesbo is very anti-rightwing, anti-bigotry, etc.

Have to rush back to see the denouement of The Killing.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He is. The books are full of sly fun at the expense of anti-immigrant feeling, too.

Look at Norway on a map. It was caught between Russia and Germany during World War II, and I think that's what comes across more than anything else in The Redbreast.

June 19, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

True, but Germany invaded Norway in April of 1940, and then after a short time, set up an occupation government. (And this was 7 months after Germany invaded Poland -- as I remember from Auden's great poem, Sept. 1, 1939, and it must have been clear what Germany's goals were then.)

According to Wikipedia, 15,000 Norwegians signed up to fight for Germany's side, including with the Waffen-SS, unforgiveable in my moral code.

However, the heroes were those who joined the Norwegian Resistance.

I wonder if Nesbo mentions the Resistance forces. Nesbo is a good guy, I don't doubt that.

June 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nesbø certainly brings up the resistance, if only by implication. In The Snowman, one of the most acid remarks I have read in any crime story leaves no doubt about where he stands on Norwegians' actions during the war and their own recollection -- and delusion -- about those actions.

June 20, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

There are no heroes on the losing side.

June 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's only because the winners write the history.

June 20, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

There are no heroes on Germany's side.

Lots of heroes on the side of the Resistance in WWII.

Glad to know where Nesbo stands, got an inkling in Nemesis.

Will put The Redbreast back on library reserve.

June 20, 2011  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home