Monday, June 4, 2012

Wordcraft -- Rollins on thrillers, part II

Last Monday, bestseller writer James Rollins spent much of his discussion of thrillers last month’s DFW Writers’ Conference describing a story’s hero -- the protagonist. But as important as the hero, is his or her antithesis -- the antagonist, the “dark mirror” of the hero.

(Because of the limitations of the English language, from here on I’ll speak of the antagonist as male, although we can all name a dozen great female antagonists.)

There was weeping and gnashing of teeth among thriller writers, I’ve heard, when the Soviet Union imploded. Because a good antagonist -- a good villain -- is more valuable than rubies. Which is why alternative history writers resurrect Nazi German, the Soviet Union, even Genghis Khan. And why writers of serial suspense only kill their bad guy stand-ins, never the ultimate bad guy, who’s too valuable to waste.

“The creation of the antagonist is as important as the creation of the main character,” Rollins emphasized. In fact, the “antagonist must be smarter, more resourceful,” than the hero. Just as the protagonist is the hero of your story, the antagonist is the hero of his own story. He “should not be bad for the sake of being evil. The antagonist, in his own head, should have a reason for what he does.”

Shakespeare’s Iago says he’s bad because he wants to be? We don’t believe him for a minute -- obviously he’s lying. He’s bad because he’s consumed by jealousy. And how do you tell when a character, good or bad, is lying? Well -- are his lips are moving? We all lie, if only to ourselves.

See last week’s discussion of heroes, write them in reverse, and you’ve got your antagonist.

So now you’ve got your protagonist, your setting, your antagonist -- you’re finally ready to start your story. But where?

“With action,” Rollins says. “In the first sentence, you want to set up a question in the reader’s mind.” Introduce your main character as soon as you can, ideally on the first page.” (Just don’t use a hook so powerful you, as the writer, can’t live up to it.)
And give your protagonist a personal stake in the outcome. “Saving the world is great, but saving your teenage daughter is more personal,” Rollins said.

And while we’re talking about writing tools -- just what is the difference between surprise and suspense? Rollins looks to movies for an example. If two characters are in a restaurant talking about dessert and their table blows up, that’s a surprise. If instead, in the same scene, “you show that ticking time bomb” under the table, that’s suspense, because the readers/viewers now know something the characters don’t know. And worry about it.

And because suspense is holds more powerful interest for readers than surprise, he recommends seventy-five percent suspense to twenty-five percent surprise in a story. That way, not only characters but readers are shocked when the event happens.

(Next Monday -- It’s hard to imagine a writer better versed in either surprise or suspense than Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road and No Country for Old Men, among other books. Guest blogger Dallas-area writer Jim Dolan discusses the Gothic elements in McCarthy’s fiction.)

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