Wednesday, November 28, 2012


I just finished one of the most perplexing books I've ever read - courtesy of my dh, again.
This time instead of a self-help book, it was a thriller.

One Shot, by Lee Child.

There's a movie coming out based on it starring Tom Cruise (who, my dh will inform you is all wrong for the part. The main character, Jack Reacher, is 6' 5" and blond - guess we'll see how well Hollywood can work its magic :)

Lee Child is a New York Times best selling author. He has multiple books in this series, all translated into just about any language imaginable.

And this is how he writes:

The man with the rifle drove north. Not fast, not slow Not drawing attention. Not standing out. He was in a light-colored minivan that had seen better days. He was alone behind the wheel. He was wearing a light-colored raincoat and the kind of shapeless light-colored beanie hat that old guys wear on the golf course when the sun is out or the rain is falling. The hat had a two-tone red band all around it. It was pulled down low...

And on and on for 466 pages. It was driving me nuts. All the 'was'-es, all the telling not showing. As far as my memory serves, he never once let us know how anyone was feeling - other than by terse dialogue like, "I want that guy dead." The perspective was so distant the reader might as well be on the moon.

From a literary point of view, his writing is, well, distinctive. It ignores just about every rule that's been pounded into my novice head, including strange sentence fragments such as, "For the summer heat." And weapon descriptions right out of The Christmas Story (ala the Red Rider BB Gun): "It was a Springfield MIA Super Match autoloader, American walnut stock, heavy premium barrel, ten-shot box magazine, chambered for the .308."

It drove me nuts - right up until it hooked me.

So, I spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint how a guy who technically does so many things, if not wrong, then at least non-conventionally, writes so compellingly. And if there's something to be learned from it. Here's what I've got so far:

Simplicity. The sentence structure is just about as short and sweet as you could imagine. It made reading very easy, which kept the story humming along.

Description. Okay, on first read the description seemed just over the top - I mean nine sentences about a concrete floor? But, he made it very easy to picture everything. And eventually, all those little details built upon each other and were in the end, vital to solving the story's mystery.

Characters. Because of the distant perspective, there was not a lot of emotional buy-in on the characters. Like the hard-boiled detective novel that it was, most of it was told in a just-the-facts manner. Once again, though, as he laid down layer after layer, we did get to see the characters as more than cardboard, even if I wasn't completely invested.

The Story. The biggest draw was the story. For the first pages I fumed, I read passages in funny voices to my children, I just couldn't believe his style. But my dh continued to encourage me to read a little farther. And he was right. It was a great thriller with a top notch mystery.

Take away, the story comes first. Make it compelling.
 Second, keep the readers vision clear. Your words are the only thing the reader has to visualize a story.
Third, pace. Whether this is done by writing structure, or interest within the story, the reader needs a reason to stay hooked.
Fourth, make the reader root for the main character. Reacher wasn't particularly likable, and quite ruthless in the end, but he was a meticulous investigator with his own code of ethics - create qualities the reader has to admire.

It was a very strange experience to read this book from a writer's perspective, and on the other hand enjoy it as a reader. But, I think it did serve to remind me that there's no one right way to write. And that the story, in the end, is king.



  1. I've got a love/hate relationship with books like this. I want to cry because the writing is so...unconventional, but I get sucked into the plot and HAVE to finish reading. Drives me crazy.

    I love your point about story being king, and that the style can vary so widely in the published world. A mystery is the perfect market for this style of writing because detail and plot progression is key when uncovering a mystery. A romance, however, would probably suffer if the writing was focused only on visual cues, rather than the emotions of the characters. (I'm talking about romance as a genre centered on internal conflict and a happy ending, such as Carla Kelly's books, Borrowed Light or Marian's Christmas Wish. Both great books, by the way.) Plot is still key, but in these instances, the plot revolves around characters, rather than events, and I think a style such as you described would end up hurting the story.

    Glad you powered through and found out you liked the book. It's always nice when that happens. Great post, Susan!

  2. Kathleen Dalton Woodberry wrote something that has always stuck with me about Twilight being such a compelling story that it managed to shine through the poor storytelling. I guess that's what we want, first and foremost, right? A story that will survive all our shortcomings as authors. On the other hand, it is nice when our shortcomings aren't so obvious.

    I've read several books that have left me scratching my head. I Am Number Four was one. It seemed like the authors had to have a list of rules they were deliberately breaking. It was that bad, and yet, I couldn't stop reading.

    Just last week I read Scarlett. I can't remember who it was by, but it was the story of Robin Hood told through the eyes of Will Scarlett, who is actually a girl disguised as a boy. Scarlett turned every single "was" into a "were." She was the only one who did it, but she did it a lot. I thought it would drive me crazy, but that ended up being another book I couldn't put down.

  3. I agree that story is king. I also think that different genres have different conventions, and what works in a thriller won't work in a romance novel.

    I've read a lot of books by Micheal Crichton. The writing is functional but not interesting and there isn't much depth to the characters (we never get very deep into anyone's POV), most of the time I don't even remember their names once I finish the book, but I enjoy his stuff. He always has an interesting story idea (like a dinosaur park)and that is what keeps me going.

    Great Post!!


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