Posts Tagged thriller

‘Skinny-dipping in greenish-hued waters’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Consuelo Roland

for logoWe often don’t realise what surprises our own work holds for us. My guest this week tells me that while writing her post, she realised she was seeing her novel in a fresh light. She’s been on this series before, so is no stranger to Undercover Soundtracks. This time she has a psycho-sexual tale of a husband who vanishes and a wife who follows him into a seductive, mysterious and dangerous night world in which they all become creatures of darkness, ‘skinny-dipping in deep greenish hued waters charged with sexual tension and lustful predilections’. The novel is Lady Limbo, the writer is Sunday Times Fiction Prize nominee Consuelo Roland, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Hacking to music’ – the Undercover Soundtrack, Ian Sutherland

for logoOn The Undercover Soundtrack, we’re used to writers using music to summon the muse. My guest this week goes one better. One of his main characters is a computer hacker, who limbers up by listening to Vangelis’s music for the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise. In real life, the author has a lifetime’s experience in the IT industry and seems adept at opening files in people’s pasts – Dave and I used to play 1492 incessantly as background for our own writings. My guest did it again when his editor revealed she had trained as a musician, like another of his characters.  He is Ian Sutherland and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack – when he’s finished hacking the pasts of his production crew and blog hosts.

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‘Plundered people and rotten exploitation’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Paul Sean Grieve

for logoMy guest this week had talismanic pieces of music in his mind while he wrote his debut thriller. Indeed he says the music was such a guiding force that he cannot imagine how anyone reading the book could not hear it too. He chose anthems to embody his characters, their state of mind, their dilemmas and the way they change in the story’s events. They are protest songs, wry looks at characters who are abandoning their principles and songs of obsession and downfall. I’m also delighted to report that he includes Peter Gabriel – one of my long-time favourite musicians. He is Paul Sean Grieve and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Abhorrent combinations… fear not as the music writes the story for you’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Josh Malerman

for logoMy guest this week says his novel was written in a trance. He rented an attic from a musician, who he could hear practising in the rooms downstairs, brought along a cageful of finches and set them free to fly around him as he typed. You’ll see from the title why they seemed like a good idea. These avian muses were also treated to the soundtracks of several movies – Rosemary’s Baby, The Fog and Creepshow – which doubtless helped them get further into character. When he needed to crank up the intensity, there would be two songs howling at once – the radio at one end of the room, classical music at the other. My guest reports that sometimes his birds got tired and stared at him. This endearing aural vandal is Josh Malerman, his novel is the post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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Bring on the empty horses: handle synonyms with care

5232325286_09d118be15_zI have a friend who is French, and despite years of living in England, he uses a vocabulary that is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. He became a legend when he referred to a top-down convertible as a ‘topless’ car. (I am so looking forward to the SEO results of this first paragraph.)

I’m currently reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, and one of the narrative strands is in the voice of Alex, a Ukrainian who speaks very little English.

In an attempt to seem more educated and impress the hero, Alex is, as he himself would put it, ‘fatiguing his thesaurus’. In his account, people sitting around a dinner table or at the wheel of a car are ‘roosting’. If something is nice or good, it’s ‘premium’. If a character is standing still they are ‘reposed’; annoyed is ‘spleened’. Alex’s choices are often unintentionally ridiculous, and he has no idea of their appropriateness or connotation.

This creates various literary effects in the novel, which I’ll come back to if you’re curious. But actually, a lot of writers – across all types of fiction – choose words that make their action or characters unintentionally ludicrous or comic.

In times of trouble

This particularly seems to happen with dramatic moments.

In a fight, the heroes might be ‘whacking’ and ‘walloping’. A vulnerable character might get their hand ‘squashed’ under an attacker’s boot, or ‘bounce’ down the stairs. These words might be accurate, but they have a comic ring that ruins the atmosphere. In a scene where a much-loved character is found murdered, there will be ‘blood-splattered’ walls. (Try this instead from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’) Someone discovers the body and lets out a ‘squeal’ or a ‘squeak’ – which sounds jolly instead of appalled.

9780340839959Accuracy and gusto

This might happen for a number of reasons. Quite a few of my clients are merry souls even though they write dark stories. Or they’re trying to make a description dynamic, but in their vigour they pick a word that has gusto instead of menace. Or they’re trying to be accurate about what’s in their mind’s eye – after all, blood probably does splatter and spurt from a slashed artery. The trouble is, it sounds slapstick.

In prose, words suggest pictures and atmosphere just by their shape and sound. Those beginning with ‘s’ seem to be especially risky – I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen unfortunate appearances of squashed, spattered, squatted, squirmed and squelched.

Ear and eye

To control our text fully, we need to develop an ear for the mood suggested by a word, and for how it looks on the page. This is different from the way they might work if you were describing the scene to friends, who would have your personality and vocal delivery to disguise the odd inappropriate word. Similarly, you might be led astray if you read a lot of scripts instead of prose. Screenwriters don’t have to be so sensitive to these subtleties. They are presenting instructions for an experience that will come to life in other media.

But on the page, you are creating the actual experience. Your word choice is your tone, the personality behind the scene, the theme music, the lighting. We have to examine these qualities every word we use, both its sound and its shape. Look at that Thomas Harris line again, about a gore-splattered room: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’

In Everything Is Illuminated, the word choices appear oafishly comic, haphazard; mangled, even. As with all well-executed tomfooling, this belies a great deal of skill. Each odd word has been chosen by the author with great care, with an eye and ear for the grace of a sentence, for how jarring or surprising it might be, and to encourage us to think of what it might really mean. And this clumsiness also gives the narrator a great transparency; he is so unaware of other connotations his narrative has a quality of charm and honesty.

Choose synonyms with care.

Thanks for the thesaurus pic, Julie Jordan Scott

Do you have trouble picking the right synonym? Do you have any examples of writers whose descriptions hit the spot for you – or don’t? Let’s share in the comments!

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‘This song says it’s time to get serious’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rebecca Cantrell

for logoMy guest this week says she always begins a project by assembling a sequence of music tracks. To start with, she notices every word and note, but after a while they settle into a familiar environment – a mental writing room that claims her attention and tells her it’s time to immerse. The novel she’ll be sharing with us is set in 1938, so her soundtrack is a mix of her own favourite contemporary songs to help capture the mood, and then a lot of material from the period of her story to conjure the historical period. She is NYT bestselling thriller author Rebecca Cantrell, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Notions of past and present hold no sway here’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Andrew James

for logoMy guest this week describes his novel as having a subliminal soundtrack that wormed into his head and influenced the period, the tone, characters and the ties that connect them. The novel, Blow Your Kiss Hello, is a mystery and a thriller with a bit of Other too. It’s the story of a man searching beyond the boundaries of here and now in the hope of finding his missing girlfriend. It’s set mostly in the 1990s with threads of 1640, a crossing that becomes apparent as Faithless meets Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aenas. He is Andrew James and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Songs to capture sadness, isolation and heartache’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Stacy Green

for logoIt’s an extra pleasure to be hosting this week’s guest. For a number of years we’ve corresponded about agents, publishing options and writing questions, and many of her queries have resulted in useful posts. Now here she is with her first novel, a romantic thriller called Into the Dark, published by MuseItUp. If you guessed she needed a dark soundtrack you wouldn’t be far wrong. She is Stacy Green and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘It’s all about capturing the emotion’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Laura Pauling

Living with a teenage daughter is a bonus when you’re putting together a writing soundtrack for a teen spy trilogy, but my guest this week compiled her playlist as much for tone and sound as for lyrics. She is Laura Pauling, and she’s over at the red blog talking about the Undercover Soundtrack to A Spy Like Me.

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New Year special – writing sins that scupper a story Part 4: Did You Hear About The Morgans?

Weak story links, lazy plotting, wrong point of view, unsatisfying endings… Although Chez Morris we’ve taken time off from writing, we’ve seen some DVDs that have roused me to write posts of protest. So, to keep your critical faculties ticking over until life resumes as normal, I thought I’d share them with you in this five-part mini-series. (And yes, beware spoilers…)

 

Today: Did You Hear About The Morgans?

Did You Hear About The Morgans? features a couple from New York who are separating. Out one evening to discuss their divorce, they witness a crime and are forced to go to a safe house, in a tiny town hundreds of miles away from the city.

This sounds like a great concept –danger, soul-searching, an unsophisticated town to put the New Yorkers back in touch with what really matters.

Writing sin 1: story delivers on expectations only superficially and not deeply

Did You Hear About The Morgans? delivers on none of the promises, except in the most mechanical way. There are a number of mishaps and small-town oddities, but they seem to operate only to set up superficial and unsatisfying pratfalls later.

There are nominal attempts to get the Morgans involved in the community – Mrs Morgan, who is a real estate agent, helps the doctor to sell his house, and Mr Morgan, a lawyer, helps an ornery old grump to write a will. None of these have payoffs later, or are particularly funny, or – most important – challenge the characters at any personal level. They seem to have been put in only to show that the Morgans had jobs, and to make the community like them. But in a story like this we want the change to be the other way round – the main characters have to grow to like the community and thus have discovered some new values.

Taking the Morgans out of New York didn’t force them to act in new ways, so there was nothing gained by doing it. All it seems to mean to them is that they miss their lattes, vegetarian restaurants and the internet. This story is partly a fish out of water scenario – and should be more than simply a way to force characters to spend time together. The setting should be instrumental in the characters’ change.

Writing sin 2: wooden characters

This is the central problem. The main characters are wooden. They never discover anything about themselves. It’s a story about a reconciled relationship, but we never see how the two Morgans relate to each other now, what they were like at the start, what had gone bad and how it changed.

There are hints at fertility problems and conflict about starting a family, but these look as if they have been flung in in a desperate attempt to press emotional hot keys, rather than being thought through.

The characters also don’t live up to the professions the writers gave them. Mrs Morgan ran a company so famous that she was on the cover of a glossy magazine. Mr was a high-powered lawyer. They should have had some corresponding personality traits, such as tenacity, ruthlessness and ingenuity. When people like that are in conflict with each other, particularly emotional conflict, they should become ugly. It looked like nobody wanted to risk making the Morgans a bit nasty. This misses the point of a story like this. If they don’t bring nasty traits out in each other at the start, they have no way to mellow at the end.

Writing sin 3: changing the story direction without putting enough work into the new elements This is just a guess, but it looks to me as though Did You Hear About The Morgans? started life as a thriller. Probably a lot of that material was taken out, but the thriller elements that remain (including how the hitman tracks them) are the best honed and have obviously had multiple drafts.

Also, the supporting cast are far better realised than the main characters. Although they have less screen time, each of them gives us a sense of a real person with aims, hobbies and troubles – conspicuously lacking in the main characters.

It looks like the film was rewritten in a hurry, but nobody paid any attention to working through the main characters properly.

 

Tomorrow: Sherlock Holmes

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