Monday, August 13, 2012

Are You Not Entertained?

By Reece Hirsch

Can you have too much sex and violence in a book?  First, let me say that I consider sex and violence two of the essential food groups of a healthy, well-balanced reading diet.  But I’d like to redirect the question a bit to consider more generally what is too much, particularly in a thriller.

It’s funny how little things stick in your head and become part of your personal vocabulary.  For example, I don’t remember where I first picked this up, probably when watching “The Compleat Beatles” or “Beatles Anthology” documentaries years ago.  When the Beatles were getting their start playing marathon, pill and booze fueled performances at the Star Club in Hamburg in 1960, the German rock bands would shout at the lads, “Mach schau!”   It means “Make show!”  Make a show for the customers. Don’t just stand there and play guitar.  Lennon’s response to this exhortation was reportedly jumping around like a gorilla on stage.

Writing a thriller, I can’t say that I’m not thinking of my potential readers and their expectations.  And in the back of my mind, I hear those heckling German rockers shouting “Mach schau!”  Think of them as an alternative universe, Teutonic Fab Four of Horst, Dieter, Ulrich and Jurgen.  Dieter is The Quiet One.  But I digress.

For thriller writers, mach schau means keeping the reader on a steady IV drip of action, violence and sex.  Don’t let the pace relent.  And just when things are falling into a rhythm (albeit a fast one), apply the shock paddles with a plot twist.

And when it works, it doesn’t feel like a formula at all and the end result is a book that is about as immersive and immediate as any reading experience you’ll ever have.  I’ll never forget the first thriller that really got its hooks into me as a teenager – William Goldman’s “Marathon Man.”

But there’s a line that can be crossed.  More than probably any other literary genre, thrillers are influenced by, and feel the pressure of, other media.  Thriller fiction often draws comparisons to hyperkinetic action movies and video games and is held to those standards of more-is-more, Joel Silver over-the-topness.  Some people think that the highest praise you can give a thriller writer is to say that their book reads like a movie.  I think good literary thrillers are a lot more than long-form screenplays.

Over the course of a novel, there are opportunities for character development, social commentary and depth-of-field that even an excellent action film can’t duplicate.   Some would say that a film like “The Hurt Locker” takes you into life-and-death moments with an immediacy that a literary thriller can’t touch, but I don’t buy that.  If a reader has come to know a character over the course of a novel and truly gotten inside his or her head, then when they face that moment of peril, it can be more riveting than anything the cineplex has to offer.

A book can put you into the headspace of a character, feeling what they’re feeling, thinking what they’re thinking, in a way that is not some poor man's analog to a movie or video game.  It’s a particular magic trick that is only performed between the covers of a good book.  You can keep your 3-D glasses and first-person-shooter games -- that’s my idea of mach schau.


Meredith Cole said...

Occasionally one person's "too much" is another person's "just right." I've picked up bestselling thrillers that didn't thrill me because there wasn't enough character development for me to care that they were in jeopardy--but others clearly disagreed.

Reece said...

I've read those books, too, Meredith, and sometimes been mystified by their success. With thrillers, I think there's a point at which more is not more, it's less.

Chris said...


You're dead on with the movie bit. "This would make a great movie!" is a compliment, and one I'm always delighted to receive for DEAD HARVEST. But "This reads just like a movie!" or "The author sounds like he wanted to write a movie!" always sets my teeth on edge. In my case, I know where it comes from: my series apes the rhythms of classic pulp novels, which a) were the big popcorn entertainment of their day, and b) have woven their rhythms into the fabric of cinema over the decades, with everyone from Hitchcock to Spielberg borrowing from them. But I wanted to write a pulp novel, not a movie. And boy howdy, there's a difference.

Reece said...

I'm with you on that, Chris. Just like with thriller fiction and action/suspense movies, classic pulp novels have cross-pollinated with the movies so much that it's hard for a lot of people to sort out who's influencing who. But, like you, I'm writing exactly what I want to write, and in the medium that I want to write it in.