Don’t look back in doubt4 min read . Updated: 16 Mar 2013, 01:38 PM IST
Want to write a best-selling thriller? Here's what you should do
Did you ever want to write a James Bond-type best-seller but didn’t quite know how to? Okay, so to help you get started, in today’s column I shall reveal the formula.
The best way to go about anything is to consult the masters—in this case Ian Fleming, RIP, himself. Since for obvious reasons we can’t get an interview with the thriller writer, an excellent alternative is to consult the essay How to Write a Thriller, published in 1962, two years before his death. In this, Fleming put down, in exact detail, what a James Bond novel is made of. It’s amusing and amazing reading, at the same time.
He begins by telling us that when it comes to books written to earn money, and hook readers who browse in railway station bookstalls and airport bookshops, one must not be ashamed to create stereotypes—the heroes must be heroic, the villains must be epitomes of villainy, and the heroines need to be delicate enough to be worth saving.
The key requirements of the genre are: unmannered prose, unexceptional grammar, and a page-turning quality—which in turn eliminates long descriptive passages (unless they lovingly relate the heroine’s measurements) and details that may confuse or irritate readers. Each word counts and the plot must be kept moving towards the next thrill.
But what is it that thrills readers? Fleming has an interesting answer to this question; he calls it “a certain disciplined exoticism", meaning that hedonism, for example, such as in the form of a great meal, can thrill because it works as a contrast to the grimness of 007’s adventures (so now we know why James Bond gobbles up and guzzles down so much caviar and champagne, respectively).
Plots can be fantastic, improbable but not impossible, so don’t forget to include a few down-to-earth elements. When on thin ice, to keep the readers from questioning the veracity and plausibility of your plot, throw in familiar brand names—universal reference points—to reassure people that you know what you’re up to. That’s why James Bond was surrounded by so many identifiable products, from flashy cars to well-known hotels.
I double-checked these statements in a biography on Fleming and found that while working out his plots, however fantastic they may seem, he often relied on experts and facts—in those pre-Internet days Fleming sent out questionnaires to various correspondents to check details. Interestingly, when naming good characters he often picked names of people he knew as a student, while he named crooks after people he disliked. Goldfinger, perhaps one of the most memorable evil masterminds in literary history, was named after an architect whose work Fleming didn’t hold in high esteem.
Keeping these instructions in mind, write 60,000 words over six weeks, and there’s your James Bond novel. But don’t waste too much time on revising and editing! “If you once look back, you are lost," writes Fleming. You’ll ask yourself: “How could you have written this drivel?" Once he finished with a draft, he spent a mere week correcting the most glaring errors and rewriting certain bad passages.
Does this really work or was Fleming fooling around with us in his brazen essay? Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as the English say. I recently got a chance to do a reality check when I met Sebastian Faulks, CBE, British author and expert on literary pastiche, who in 2006 was commissioned to pen a continuation to Fleming’s original James Bond series.
Faulks revealed that he indeed followed the basic rules laid out by Fleming in How to Write a Thriller: “I thought it could be helpful, so I read it. He describes his typical working day in Jamaica: which was get up, go for a swim, a bit of snorkelling, write a thousand words, two cocktails at lunch, short snooze, go back to the beach for a bit more scuba-diving, come back to the terrace, another dry martini or two.... I based my working model very much on Fleming’s, though unfortunately I live in central London so I had to cut back on the scuba-diving."
The trick is to successfully nail down the characteristics of Fleming’s style without turning the story into a parody. Ambitiously, Faulks started out by rereading all the James Bond stories in chronological order. Fortunately, Fleming’s writing style was typical standard journalese and simple to copy: short sentences, lots of active verbs, few adjectives, no adverbs and even fewer semicolons.
Faulks’ Devil May Care (2008) is set in 1967, the Summer of Love, a year after Octopussy. The conservative James Bond bumps into hippies and other connoisseurs of recreational drugs in the streets of London. The villain’s a megalomaniac chemist planning to destroy Europe with cheap drugs. The heroine got upgraded—Bond’s love interest here is a banker and more educated than Bond himself.
Did it do as expected? By and large the reviewers felt it was on the same page as Ian Fleming’s novels, even though the acidic Christopher Hitchens complained that Bond was placed in too few romantic situations. On the British best-seller lists Devil May Care made it to the No. 2 slot, just below Harry Potter. Fleming himself may have been proud.
Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru.