Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tim Hallinan, Guest Blogger

Today is release date for Tim Hallinan's latest Bangkok thriller, Breathing Water, so we're lucky to have him as guest blogger today. I hope you find his topic as interesting as I do. Thank you, Tim.

Question Marks and Fish Hooks

Okay, so it's a dumb title, But it refers to something I noticed a few days ago – that a question mark is shaped like a fish hook. And that resemblance seems to me to have something to do with the way mysteries and thrillers work.

The “hook” in a mystery or a thriller is a question: whodunit for mysteries, and how do you get out of it for thrillers. By setting up this question in the early chapters – and by making the reader care about the people the question affects, the writer hooks the reader. From that point on, the writer's objective is to reel the reader in, so to speak, across tens of thousands of words, sentences, characters, settings, plot developments, reversals – all without breaking the line.

Because when the line breaks, the reader gets away. Life and/or television intervenes. The book gets closed, set aside, and returned to the library, put on a pile for the homeless, or re-sold on eBay. In any case, two things have happened:

First, the writer has failed to accomplish his or her primary responsibility: to keep the reader hooked.

Second, the writer has lost a reader for future books.

Now, I don't know about you, but my readers aren't so numerous that I take lightly losing any of them. It's a small club, growing but definitely requiring lots of water and TLC. If I think of my books as magic tricks (and sometimes I do), then the trick had better be seamless, or as seamless as my skill and experience allow me to make it. I do NOT want any of the people who visit Bangkok via my books to start flying John Burdett instead.

So how, as writers, do we keep the hook set?

If I can be presumptuous enough to make some suggestions:

Make sure the question works. Is the ghost at the beginning of “Hamlet” really Hamlet's father or a demonic presence sent to mislead Hamlet? Did Uncle Claudius really kill Dad? This question matters. It matters more because (a) there's a kingdom at stake, and (b) because we care about Hamlet himself. So another suggestion:

Remember that nothing matters if the characters don't work. If I were asked to list the three most important components in a mystery or a thriller, I'd say this character, that character, and that other character over there. Books (or at least the books I like) are about people, not situations. Alfred Hitchcock, who knew something about keeping his audience's attention, famously referred to the thing at stake in his films as “the McGuffin.” He didn't particularly care what it was; what mattered to Hitchcock was that we cared about the people who needed to find or avoid the McGuffin at all costs. In my favorite book of 2009, Number9dream, the brilliant novelist David Mitchell suggests that movies are good in inverse proportion to the number of helicopters they contain. All the plot reversals, double-backs, identical twins, shiny hardware, pseudo-science, new viruses, Egyptian gold, ancient curses, treasure maps, alternative realities, active verbs, and postmodernist narrative innovations won't keep the reader hooked unless he or she wants to know what is going to happen to your characters.

In my core, I think most readers accept or reject books based on the answer to a single question: do I want to spend time with these people? If the answer is “no,” they're gone.

And to me, that means that the writer has to honor the characters, not force them to do things they wouldn't just because it's necessary for a plot twist. They won't suddenly get stupid because a scene in the dark, flooded basement would be cool. They won't suddenly get smart because the author has thought of something cool for them to say although they never would have thought of it in a thousand years. And all the dynamite plot developments in the world aren't enough if they depend on things I don't think the characters would actually do.

But if you fashion a good, strong hook, based on a terrific question, and drop it into the middle of a fully-imagined world with lively, convincing characters, the reader will be hooked – hooked enough to let you drag him or her right out of “real life” and through several hundred pages taken directly from your imagination. You can introduce themes, ideas, arcane areas of knowledge, obscure historical periods, pet peeves. You can get even with people, even the fourth-grade teacher who told you that you couldn't write. The reader will accept all of this, even enjoy it, if the hook is strong enough and the characters are real enough.

And when you've hooked a reader once, he or she will come back for more.

Thank you, Tim! Tim Hallinan's website is www.timothyhallinan.com

Breathing Water: A Bangkok Thriller by Timothy Hallinan. HarperCollins, ©2009. ISBN 780061672231 (hardcover), 352p.


Chris said...

A very good review.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great points, Tim. And a nice, succinct explanation of the big question in a thriller--I don't think I've ever heard it put that way before..."how do I get out of it?"

TV commercials are the same way--grab and hold your audience and deliver your message well or else the audience will flip the channel or mute you. You've explained the need for a strong hook well, thanks.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...

Thanks for stopping by, Chris.

Lesa said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. I don't think I ever heard the difference between a mystery & thriller explained any better. And, I was happy to read his explanation. Because I know I read for character. And, I drop a book if I don't care about the characters. I'm reading Breathing Water right now, and it has me "hooked".

Terry Odell said...

It's all about the characters, to be sure. I realized I was reading mysteries twice--once for the characters and then again for the crime. And yes, they have to remain "in character." I recall a critique partner, when I was beginning to write, who told me one of my characters "would never do that." I wondered how she could possibly know MY character that well.

I'm reminded of Johnny Carson's line: "If they buy the premise, they'll buy the bit."

Give your characters the skill sets/personality traits/fears they'll need up front, BEFORE they need them, and the reader will accept it.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Terry. It's really interesting to hear the comments from authors such as you, Elizabeth, and Tim. I only know it from the reader's side.

Jen said...

Yep Lesa, me too...I only know from the reader's side. And I know Tim got me hook, line and sinker with THE FOURTH WATCHER. I love this series and wait anxiously for each new book to come now. And Tim is a master with not only the characters but also the relationships between the characters. I so look forward to my time with Poke, Rose, Miaow and company.

Lesa said...

And, you've finished the book, Jen. I haven't, which is why I stayed away from your blog today. I don't want to know what's coming!

Tim Hallinan said...

Thanks, Lesa, for having me, and thanks to everybody who joined in. To me a book is a little like a party: it lives or dies depending on who's there. I'd rather eat sawdust burgers with interesting, surprising people that foie gras with dullards. In fact "Foie Gras With Dullards" may be the title of my autobiography.

And it's interesting that I only found out by coming here that Jen has reviewed BREATHING WATER. And what a review. Thanks, Jen.


Lesa said...

You're welcome, Tim. And, I'm glad you stopped by so you could find Jen's review. It's a party here almost every day, and you never know who will stop in. I'm glad you took "Foie Gras With Dullards" as the title of your autobiography. I'm calling mine, "It was Never Dull" because that's what my husband promised me when we got married - it would never be dull.