Please welcome a young upstart author to my blog. We decided we’d swap, today. So here’s Declan Finn, talking about pacing. In return, you can find me talking about politics, fiction, and how much I hate combining them at Declan’s blog, A Pius Man. You can find his Amazon author page here, with a handy list of books you might enjoy exploring if you like his ideas on thrillers and action.
Pacing, thrillers, and setting things on fire.
Pacing is always a tricky subject. You’ve got to get the right one down pat, or you’re screwed. I’ve seen romance novels that have taken love at first sight way, way too far (everyone’s in love with one person at first sight? What is this, Twilight?) and I’ve seen thrillers that never got off the ground. We call those boring, and throw them out.
Personally, I’m a prick when it comes to pacing. Since I mostly write thrillers, I’m from the school of Mickey Spillane – when the plot slows down, send in someone through the door with a machinegun. Granted, it’s sometimes a plasma rifle, but you get the idea. You see this a lot with more modern authors, like Matthew Reilly – though in his case, it’s more a matter of 8-sided shootouts, with everyone shooting at everyone else. Look at Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, where the solution to one problem comes with it’s own additional problems.
If you’re interested in pacing an entire series, you could do much worse than look at the fantasy novels of Terry Goodkind. In his case, the solution to one, world-ending doom leads to the next world ending doom. I did that in one series, the Pius trilogy, where book one ends nice and happy and yay the bad guys are gone … then that lead into book two, where the bad guys had a backup plan, which led into causing problems in what would be book three.
But for pacing an individual novel, the short version is, I like putting pressure on my characters. I have to, otherwise I don’t get the best out of them. After all, these are thrillers. Even when I’m going through character moments, the moments have to keep the tension on – on the protagonist or on the reader. It is perfectly and completely fair to have a long conversation about love and emotions, and politics and economics. It can go on for as long as you like … though the reader might find it more interesting if there’s a bomb in the room. (For those of you who don’t know who I mean, watch the Tommy Lee Jones film Blown Away, and pay particular attention to the kitchen scene. What scene is that? You’ll know it when you see it.)
With my Pius trilogy, I take the “machinegun through the door” a little too literal at times. The first chapter opens with a gunman picking up tech expert at Rome’s airport, and leads into a body being blown out of a window and landing on their car. Then I reveal that it’s the head of Papal Security picking up a Secret Service agent. When I’m not dropping bodies out of windows, everyone has just barely enough time to analyze what’s going on before they’re attacked again. Or they have a nice quiet conversation about their past, their feelings, their character exposition … did I write that out loud? Oh well … and then somebody is mugging them, or shooting at them, or performing strange gymnastic attacks with a halberd. Yes, that last part is a long story. Read A Pius Man for that one.
To show you what I mean, let me walk you through the thought process on building tension in one of my novels, Codename: Winterborn (yes, after the Cruxshadows song).
In that one, my protagonist, Lt. Kevin R. Anderson has more internal pressures driving him. At the opening of Codename: Winterborn, I send Kevin and his team of spies into the Islamic Republic of France (the IRF … or the Irritating, Revolting Frogs). Then I kill off almost everyone Kevin likes, because some politicians thought that blowing the cover on his SpecOps team would be just a great idea for political points, and their bank accounts.
Except, before he was a spy, Kevin was a Navy SEAL.
So, I get to send Kevin on a fun-filled ride of assassinating fourteen politicians. Yay!
Is that enough for even internal pressure on your protagonist? No. Sorry. If he takes his time, Kevin could spent the next year killing all of them. Revenge-fueled rage only carries someone for so long before he stops, slows down, thinks, and takes his time. Hmm…
Oh, wait. Duh! The IRF mission was to take out a nuclear arsenal. With one team gone, another will have to be sent. So, Kevin has to kill all of these little bastards (the politicians) before even more Americans are murdered. That’ll throw him into a pressure cooker. Muahahahaha.
Hmm. Yes, that’s nice and all, but after a while, someone’s going to catch on and try shooting back at Kevin. In my world of 2093, it’s three years after a small nuclear war (only 2.2 billion dead). There aren’t quite as many senators as their used to be, mostly because there are a few states that are radioactive wasteland. When wiping out 20% of the senate, SOMEBODY’S bound to notice.
Thankfully, there’s a whole Guild of Mercenaries ready to step up – imagine an umbrella organization for every Private Military Contractor out there. Some are good folks just earning a paycheck, some are folks thrown out of other countries because they were too freaking scary to live there.
I love Mandy. She’s based very slightly off of the Mandy of 24 Seasons 1, 2, and 4 … though mine has a personality. She also has a price on Kevin’s head … and there’s an internal power struggle going on within the mercenaries, so other mercs have a good reason to have her head at the same time as she’s hunting Kevin.
Oh yes. This is gonna be goooodddd.
Now, we’ve got Kevin Anderson racing the clock, outrunning Mandy, needing to outwit and outfight truck loads of private contractors standing between Kevin and his target. And did I mention that he’s going through full-on PTSD?
Like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, I have no problem beating up on my protagonist. Because I’ve found that Kevin Anderson doesn’t burn out as much as he sets more things on fire. But it keeps the pressure on, and keeps the story moving. His internal pressures serve the character and the story, and his external pressures … okay, they just serve to show that I grew up watching too many action films growing up. At one point, two of Kevin’s allies sit down for a conversation about how to best pull his backside out of the fire … but they’re complete strangers, so the scene could break out into a shooting match at any given moment. At one point, I go into a deep, intimate scene going through Kevin’s psyche through his dreams … but back in the real world, a gunman is pointing a gun at the back of his head.
You know, stuff like that.
The short version is that the tension needs to stay on for a thriller. The world doesn’t need to be in danger all the time. You could make it something as simple as the protagonist’s sanity.
Then again, with my characters, sanity is optional to start with.
Declan Finn is the author of The Pius Trilogy and Codename Winterborn. Finn is a New Yorker who does his best to hide from the PC police of Mayor Bill de Bozo. Who’s Who has no record of him, his family, or his education. He has been trained in hand to hand combat and weapons at the most elite schools in Long Island, and figured out nine ways to kill with a pen when he was only fifteen. There was a brief incident where he was branded a terrorist, but only a court order can unseal those records, and really, why would you want to know? He is currently hard at work on a vampire novel called “Honor At Stake.” His political ramblings can be found at the-american-journal.com, while his rantings on writing can be found at apiusman.blogspot.com