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.