“There are two sides to every story”
“You can’t tell fact from fiction these days”
“All news is fake news”
Ah, the wonderful freedom a fiction writer has. With the lines blurred between real news and fake news – between fact and fiction – there is plenty of scope for a writer to flip between the two and build an authentic world for the reader. For example, a thriller may have elements of the real world, such as places, times and cultural events, and weave in among these a believable plot. I love thrillers that have ‘proof of life.’ That is, they lack extreme coincidences. I am not going to point any finger at a specific writer, but do remember reading a book that was full of impossibilities (two scientists are abandoned in a remote location and just happen to be rescued – you get the idea). It was a thriller by a well-known author, but the lack of authenticity prevented me from being immersed in the story. For other readers, it might have been fine (insert smiley face).
Back to the two sides to a story. When a plot juxtaposes truth and lies, it creates tension and ignites the plot. A reader can take one side, then have it destroyed when the lies become fact. You see this in TV dramas when the obvious killer is, in fact, innocent. This formula is all too clear for most of us and how disappointing it is to have someone next to you say, “I know who did it.”
For me, the challenge is to make the twist NOT obvious at all. And, I hope I achieved this in my new book. Oh dear, I don’t want to give too much away!
A good question. When is the best time to introduce your main characters in your novel? I made a big mistake on this in my second novel—the draft did not feature the main character (the protagonist) and antagonist until later in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. When I reworked the script to have these characters appear in Chapter 1, along with a strong hint of the conflict between them, it produced better tension and moved the plot along with more pace.
Definitions (from here):
The definition of a protagonist is basically “the main character”. Here is the Wikipedia definition:
“A protagonist (from Ancient Greek πρωταγωνιστής (protagonistes), meaning “player of the first part, chief actor”) is the main character in any story, such as a literary work or drama. The protagonist is at the center of the story, makes the key decisions, and experiences the consequences of those decisions.”
Tension can mount in surprising ways when you discover that you have been taken captive. It happens in SPY CHASE in Chapter 43, when Louie burst into song; a classic French tune. He sings a poor rendition, but this only highlights the jibes he directs at his new passenger as they navigate twisted mountain roads towards St Paul de Vence – an old medieval hilltop town on the French Riviera. Louie’s antics add to the mounting tension. I hope you enjoy the song, and the rough ride, as much as Louie did:
The following graph is a summary of recent visitors to this blog.
I could not help thinking that the rises and falls are similar to the intentional (or unintentional) rising and falling of tension in a thriller like 3 WISE MEN. For some, a sudden rise in tension – for example, the unexpected death of a character – is too much, and they prefer a more gentle building of tension. The steeper the graph, the more rapid the rise in the number of viewers on this blog. Peaks often correspond with holiday periods – a time when readers have more time to indulge in blogging. The mathematical significance of this graph would not be lost on our protagonist – Jak Colins! As a writer of thrillers, I am acutely aware of the need for the peaks and troughs in the plot. After all, I do want readers to be glued to the text and not easily able to put the book down. On the other hand, I know it is important to establish characters and event – something that might look like the trough in the graph above. For me, I need to work hard to do this characterization in a style that still engages, and a technique I have found useful is the use of humor. Let’s have a brief look at this in my next post.
In a previous post, I discussed the ideal number of words for a thriller. Publishers recommend anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words. As an author, should I agree with this? Well, from my experience with 3 WISE MEN, I am mostly in agreement, and here are my reasons for this. First, at just over 80,000 words, using Times Roman in 12 point and a 6 x 9 inch format, the approx. 80,000 word novel feels ‘right’ in paperback. The only reason that it might not actually be ‘right’ is when poor writing pads out the story. At 80,000 words, the novel will be sitting close to 300 pages and that is a good read for devotees. Much less – at say 280 pages – and the novel will be short of room for a sub-plot, or lacking dramatic tension. In 3 WISE MEN, my early word count was only 70,000 words and I pumped that out to about 86,000 before falling back to 78,000. On critical review, I needed to add about 3000 words in order to give the story more substance in a few places, and help build the necessary tension at a pace that engaged my readers – rather than over-shock them. I hope you agree?
This yellow E-Type Jaguar looks the part – on show in front of the muted tones of an Italian village perhaps? However, I saw the E-Type in 3 WISE MEN in a softer yellow.
If there is one part of 3 WISE MEN that seems to leave a lasting impression on my readers, it is the section that includes the classic yellow E-Type Jaguar car. I won’t give too much away, but this car becomes a symbol of freedom for Jak and yet also a crisis in his life. Here’s a small extract from 3 WISE MEN.
[A yellow E-Type Jaguar pulled up with its wire-wheels flashing brightly.
“Jak! Hop in!” He stepped off the footpath and into the passenger seat. “Nina! I am pleased to see you!”
… Jak listened to the purr of the six-cylinder engine and reclined all the way back on his generous leather seat. “Thanks for picking me up, but how did you know when I would exit of the hotel?”
… Jak paused to take in what Nina said and closed his eyes. He sank into the comfort of the car and its quiet ride. In a short time, he was snoring. Nina rubbed her hand through his curly hair and smiled. “Sleep well, Jak.” She eased off the accelerator, and they motored leisurely into the late afternoon sun, its orange glow radiating like a raging fire across the distant sky. She felt relaxed and pleased with herself.
… Nina nudged the E-Type along the coastal route, skirting the industrial hub of Genoa. The exhaust growled when she put her foot to the accelerator to ascend up the Alpes-Maritimes freeway. They climbed past small villages and deeper into the rugged terrain and finally pulled over near the summit. Nina’s sunglasses reflected her view across an expansive massif of rolling peaks—their aged and bare ridgelines bent like knuckles, rolling steeply to the sea. She imagined a photographer posing her in the perfect position—dark glasses, yellow E-Type against a warm orange sunset.
“Elizabeth Taylor would have been jealous,” she whispered.
Jak found it awkward to climb out of the low seat, relieved to stretch his legs and inhale the cool coastal breeze.
Nina reached over her seat and fetched a shopping bag. She handed it to Jak. “Here are some things I got for you on my way to the hotel.”
“Thanks! You think of everything,” Jak replied.
By this time, a small group had gathered to admire the classic car.
“Amazing for an old girl,” thought Jak. “She still turns heads wherever she goes.” He smiled to the onlookers and paraded past them—feeling like a movie star on the red carpet.]
Yes indeed – a car that turns heads. I have sat in an E-Type and it enfolds you in a position just above the road – very confined when compared with modern SUVs! This particular E-Type occupies a pivotal space in 3 WISE MEN – one that ratchets up the tension even more for Jak. 3 WISE MEN is available in Kindle or paperback format from Amazon.
While Jak is flying to Milan, a rather unscrupulous and rough character called Romano is becoming frustrated. An important business contact is due to arrive in Nice and has not made contact with him – so, even minor things send him into angry outbursts.
[novel extract: Romano walked over to the window, still muttering under his breath. A soft onshore breeze fluttered gently along the French Riviera and pushed humid air directly into their apartment.
“And I hate these curtains! Nothing but lace and more lace! Why do I have to put up with this crap? Why can’t we buy this apartment and change the décor?”
Léo Osborn seemed unfazed by his boss’s changing moods. He moved his gaze out between the offending curtains and over the Promenade des Anglais – the prized jewel in Nice’s beachside location. He envied a group of distant sunbathers lounging in the bright September sun.
Léo thought it would be the perfect time of year to enjoy the charms of Nice, except for one problem – they were still waiting for their contact, and Romano held him personally responsible for the delay.
Romano’s secretary, Sasha, finally broke the tense atmosphere.
“Romano, the landlady said she won’t change them, remember? She loves lace, especially fine lace from Nice. And I have offered to buy the apartment, but it is not that easy.”]
Why does 3 WISE MEN begin in Antibes? Why not start somewhere else, like the morning that Jak left to make his presentation? This would keep the plot linear, like most thrillers.
As starting points tumbled through my mind it seemed to me that Antibes was ideal for one main reason – it was the crisis moment in Jak’s journey; the point where his one final hope became hopeless, the point where he begins to feel very vulnerable. Jak found something in Antibes that got his hopes up, and then he lost something very important to him.
So, Antibes – with its beauty and literary history – is a pivotal marker in 3 WISE MEN. Antibes does, if you like, begin to put the wire of suspense under tension – ready to be released and continue to vibrate through the rest of the novel. Part of this tension is sprung when Jak finds out that Antibes was once the home for a famous spy – two actually! There is also a large arrow striking the ground in Antibes. Perhaps it is pointing to the start after all? The funny thing is, Jak spends about as much time in Antibes as my wife and I did while doing the research for 3 WISE MEN.
[Novel Extract: “Yes. Many rich and famous people escaped to Antibes,” she continued. “Winston Churchill painted part of the old town, and Picasso and Matisse loved it there too. Did you know that the English writer Graham Greene lived quite close to the train station? His simple apartment was full of books and had a commanding view over the yacht harbor. You may have passed it this afternoon?” Before he could reply, Sasha lowered her voice as if she was sharing a secret. “Some say he was also a spy.”
“I have heard of him, but I had no idea that he was a spy,” Jak replied. An awkward silence followed the word ‘spy’ so he looked away. ]