Elmore Leonard has a good line about improving his writing in the early days by "learning to cut the stuff readers tend to skip." But how on earth is that to be determined? The writer's only possible reference points are his own reading habits. "I cut the stuff I tend to skip." If that's the case it's a good thing I've never tried to write a thriller.
Reading the fervently recommended, impeccably crafted, Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award-winning New York Times bestseller 61 Hours, by Lee Child, the sections I found myself skimming were the ones that true fans of this sort of thing probably love best: the suspense and action sequences. "Running, fighting, hiding, more running, hiding again, more fighting." Flip, flip, flip. (Actually click, click click, because it's the Kindle > key I'm jabbing, at a steadily accelerating pace.)
It sounds screwy, probably, but that really is the impulse: to get through this familiar, mechanical stuff as quickly as possible, to just get the gist of it, in order to move on to something more interesting. And when we're reading a Lee Child we are confident that there will be interesting things coming -- such as this tasty description of the chief bad guy:
There was no mistaking Plato. Four feet and eleven inches tall, but that abstract measurement did not convey the reality. He had a big man’s heft and thickness and muscularity, and a big man’s stiffness and posture and movement, but a small child’s stature. He was not dwarfish. He was not a freak. His limbs and his torso and his neck and his head were all reasonably well proportioned. He was like an NFL linebacker reduced in size by exactly twenty-five percent. That was all. He was a miniature tough guy.Very cool. Plato may be the greatest Bond villain not created by Ian Fleming.
How to account for this urge to rush through written action scenes, even Lee Child's , which as written are several cuts above the norm. Odd especially because so much of my professional effort as a writer has gone toward celebrating gorgeous visceral action material in movies, from The Road Warrior to Ong Bak. I could point to that very fact and say that that I've seen this sort of thing done better plenty of times in movies and really don't the pale shadow that is the best even the most excellent prose stylist could deliver-- film being, after all, a much more effective medium than words for action as spectacle.
But that doesn't help to explain for the reaction itself. Which comes in a couple of stages. I go: Here comes the action stuff, so it's likely there won't be anything in the next 20 or 30 pages that will be needed to understand the plot. And then: because it's 30 pages of action I know what it's going to add up to. The only narrative function this material has is as a heightener. It acts as a form of melodramatic emphasis, like a thunderous Han Zimmer soundtrack: it drags us through some biting and gouging and kicking an punching, maybe some burning truck tires whizzing past our heads, hustling us toward the final confrontation with the bad guy, where things should start getting interesting again.
In short: If a scene doesn't promise to be interesting in itself, and it's a safe bet that I can take it as read without getting confused, that's what I'm likely to do. And if I should ever find myself sitting down to write a thriller, I hope I will manage not to write anything that makes my readers feel that way.< I would enthusiastically advise any would-be thriller writer to read Lee Child and take notes. Nobody I've read since Westlake/Stark is a more painstaking carpenter of perfectly bevelled thriller plots. But I think Child achieves this astonishing degree of fit and finish by keeping his storytelling rigidly, almost claustrophobically limited and self-contained. He lets nothing in that can't be orchestrated and controlled. Like a magician setting up an epic illusion he lays out early in the novel the extremely specific (and extremely far-fetched) situation he needs to generate a continuous string of complicated action scenes. No aspect of that basic situation is rooted in the personality of any of the characters, all of whom are, to one extent or another, functionaries, helping to operate or getting caught up in the mechanism.
Because it is so perfectly self-contained I think a thriller like 61 Hours may actually have more in common with the old "cozies" of the Golden Age than with the nominally more realistic hard boiled novels that succeeded them -- books that "gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse." But that has an air of "rising above," and that doesn't apply to me. I've enjoyed enormously all the Lee Child novels I've read. Sometimes an excellent mechanical thriller is the palate cleanser the doctor ordered.
UPDATE: One odd thing that occurs to me is that I rate "violence" higher than "action." The distinction seems self-evident to me but perhaps it isn't. Violence typically comes in shocking brief bursts rather than extended set pieces, and it is more often presented as an eruption of personality or emotion. More small scale and one-on-one.
And I've been thinking a lot about the realization that "mysterary" pioneer Ross Macdonald came to: that the story isn't about the detective. The PI is merely the guide, the observer, the facilitator. The story is about the victim, the criminal, the falsely accused. The people caught up in the mechanism.