Review: “Snow Crash” By Neal Stephenson (Novel)

After I read Neal Stephenson’s astonishingly good “The Diamond Age“, one of the first things that I did was to enthusiastically order a second-hand copy of Stephenson’s most famous cyberpunk novel – “Snow Crash” (which was written before, and seems to be set before, “The Diamond Age”). I then… somehow didn’t get round to reading it until a little over a month later. Hence this review.

So, let’s take a look at “Snow Crash”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2011 Penguin (UK) paperback reprint of “Snow Crash” (1992) that I read.

Snow Crash begins in a futuristic version of America that has no real central government. The country consists of lots of small “burbclaves” and “franchulates”, which are territories and outposts of various groups and organisations. And, part-time hacker, katana enthusiast and Mafia pizza delivery guy Hiro Protagonist is barrelling through them at a ridiculous speed in his car because if he doesn’t deliver a pizza within the next few minutes, the Mafia will not be pleased.

However, he is being chased. Not by the police (they don’t exist), but by a “kourier”. A teenaged skateboard-riding courier called Y.T., who works for the RadiKS corporation and gets around by car-surfing using a magnetic harpoon. And she’s just harpooned Hiro’s car. Hiro tries to shake her but then they both run into trouble and Hiro ends up crashing his car. With only a couple of minutes left on the pizza box’s electronic timer, Y.T. agrees to take the pizza. She somehow manages to deliver it on time, which impresses the Mafia.

A few days later, with no car left and his Mafia job just a memory, Hiro focuses on one of his other sidelines, gathering random information for a central database. To do this, he enters the Metaverse – a virtual reality world – but ends up returning to the headquarters of his old hacker buddies. When he enters the virtual building, a random stranger offers him a program called “Snow Crash”. He refuses, thinking that it’s probably just a virus.

After seeing his ex-girlfriend Juanita talk to his old friend Da5id, she warns him about Snow Crash. But, when Hiro talks to Da5id, the conversation turns to Snow Crash since Da5id has a copy of it. Since Da5id’s got more anti-virus software than a pharmacy, he decides to open the mystery program out of professional curiosity. Needless to say, things don’t go well…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is… wow! This is a cyberpunk novel! Seriously, it’s up there with William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” in the pantheon of great cyberpunk novels. Imagine something like the anime version of “Ghost In The Shell” mixed with “The Matrix”, mixed with Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” graphic novels… then remember that “Snow Crash” was not only written before these three things (and probably inspired them), but that it’s about three times deeper and more complex too.

This novel is, like Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”, a novel that respects the reader’s intelligence. However, it is a bit more of an “accessible” novel than “The Diamond Age” is. Even so, you should probably take a few notes and set aside a fair amount of time to read it. But, trust me, it is well worth your while. To call this novel gripping would be an understatement – it is a fast-paced, slick thriller that somehow also manages to be extremely deep and complex at the same time.

There’s just so much to talk about in this novel. In essence, this is a novel about viruses – or, rather, how information can spread like a virus. It is also a novel about culture too – contrasting the fragmented cultures of the story’s micro-nations with Borg-like monocultures and/or religions. It is a novel about the “gig economy” (written before this phrase was even coined). It is a novel about the value of community and friendship. It is a novel about identity and identity politics. It is a piece of social satire. It is so, so many things. Seriously, if you want an intelligent novel, read this one (or “The Diamond Age”).

But this isn’t to say that this novel is boring. It really isn’t. Seriously, this is one of the few things that I’ve ever seen that can tell a thrillingly action-packed story that would put even the most spectacular modern CGI Hollywood movies to shame (and, remember, it was published in 1992!) whilst also being intelligent enough to have a deeper resonance and impact on your thoughts and emotions than you would expect.

The characters in “Snow Crash” are, in a word, brilliant. Although they are slightly stylised and larger-than-life (the main character is literally called “Hiro Protagonist”!), they come across as unique, interesting people. They’re also not really your typical thriller characters too – or at least they weren’t when this novel was published in 1992, so this novel is a really refreshing read.

Seriously, this novel’s characterisation is economical enough not to get in the way of the story whilst also being deep enough that – for example- you’ll find yourself welling up with tears whilst reading about a cybernetic dog called Fido who only appears in about two or three short scenes.

The writing and narration in this novel is brilliant. Cyberpunk narration typically relies on “information overload” in order to make the reader feel like they’ve been plonked into a high-tech future. This novel is no exception, but it does it in a bit more of a moderate and controlled fashion – and is paired with some brilliantly informal and fast-paced “matter of fact” narration. This informal tone really helps to put the “punk” into “cyberpunk”, whilst also being much more readable than the Victorian-style narration in Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” too. Seriously, this novel is that wonderful thing – a novel that is easy to read, yet incredibly sophisticated.

Literally, the only criticism I have of the writing in this novel is that it contains a few info-dumps about religions, ancient history etc… which are then concisely summarised in a seven-page segment later in the novel. The info-dump segments can break up the pace of the novel a little bit and it would have been even better if these parts had been left intriguingly mysterious, with the summary providing the reader with the information instead (which would also allow it to serve as a plot twist or a reveal too). Still, this is only a small criticism.

Although the edition of “Snow Crash” that I read is about 440 pages long, don’t let this fool you. This is one of those rare 400+ page novels that more than justifies it’s length. Seriously, it crams more into those 440 pages than many novels would struggle to do in 800. But, although this is a fast-paced, information-overload, adrenaline rush of a novel, don’t expect to blaze through it in a couple of evenings. Even though this novel travels at a hundred miles an hour, the road it travels along is thousands of miles long. But, this is a book that you’ll want to spend lots of time with.

In terms of how this 27 year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged incredibly well. The narration mostly still sounds incredibly fresh, the sci-fi stuff still seems incredibly futuristic and the story is still incredibly gripping. When this novel was first published, it was probably wildly ahead of it’s time. Even now, it still seems fairly modern and/or futuristic for the most part. Literally, the only clues that this novel is 27 years old is are the fact that there are a small number of brief “politically incorrect” moments that probably wouldn’t appear in a more modern novel.

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece. If you love the cyberpunk genre, you need to read this book (if you haven’t already). If you want something with three times the intensity of the average spectacular modern Hollywood movie that also recognises that you have a brain and want to actually use it, then read this book. If you want a novel that makes you feel rebellious, read this one. If you want a gripping thriller, read this book. If you want to lose yourself in an interesting fictional world, read this book. In short, read this book.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five.

Review “Night School” By Lee Child (Novel)

Well, it has been way too long since I last reviewed a novel (novel reviews will become a regular feature late this year/early next year though). And, I hadn’t planned to review one today – but, after spending about five and a half hours binge-reading a second-hand charity shop copy of “Night School” by Lee Child, it felt appropriate to review it too.

This review will contain some PLOT SPOILERS, but I’ll try to avoid major ones.

This is the 2016 UK Bantam Press hardback edition of “Night School” that I read.

“Night School” is a novel from 2016 that is the 21st thriller in Lee Child’s famous “Jack Reacher” series. Like in the other novels in this series that I’ve read, “Night School” tells a self-contained story that doesn’t really require any knowledge of other novels in the series.

The story is something of a prequel to many of the other novels, with the events of the story taking place in 1996. Jack Reacher is an American military policeman who has recently been awarded a medal for a covert mission in Eastern Europe.

He’s on the up and up, and there’s a lot of military gossip about his next assignment. But, when Reacher is summoned to the Pentagon, he learns that he’s been… assigned to take a training course in forensics and inter-agency co-operation.

Of course, when he arrives at the facility, there are only two other students. A highly-commended member of the FBI and an outstanding member of the CIA. Between the three of them, they quickly realise that they aren’t there to study inter-agency co-operation or forensics……

One of the very first things that I will say about this novel is that about the first two-thirds or so of it are better than the later parts. Like any good thriller, the novel starts out in a mysteriously exciting fashion.

In some ways, the beginning and middle of “Night School” are reminiscent of an American TV show like “24” or “NCIS” and, in other ways, these parts of the story are more like a classic modern European thriller (like a more fast-paced version of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl Who Played With Fire”).

Yet, during the later parts of the story, there’s less suspense. The plot twists seem predictable, hollow and clichΓ©d. The ending also seems somewhat anticlimactic. So, this is a story that is more about the journey than the destination. Everything leading up to the later parts of the story is fast-paced, complex, mysterious and thrilling (enough to warrant a marathon binge-reading session). Yet, the story gradually starts losing dramatic value as it progresses.

From what I’d heard about “Night School” before I read it, I expected it to be more of an “action movie”-style novel. But, it is very much a traditional-style thriller. Yes, there are suspenseful chases and a small number of well-written fight scenes (eg: a 2-3 page description of part of a fight that only lasts a few seconds). But, this is more like a cross between a spy novel, a political thriller and a detective novel than an action thriller novel.

A lot of the story includes several parallel narratives involving various agents, detectives and criminals. For example, there are scenes where the novel’s main antagonist is a few hundred metres away from the main characters, and neither of them realises it. Like in many good thriller novels, these scenes are interweaved in all sorts of cool ways.

One cool thing about this novel is that Reacher’s old colleague Frances Neagley makes an appearance here. Although I’ve read at least one novel featuring Neagley (“Bad Luck and Trouble” in 2009/10), I couldn’t remember a huge amount about that novel. Still, the name and the character were instantly familiar to me.

As for the characters, they’re adequate and functional. Jack Reacher is mostly (more on this later) still the smart, stoic hero that we all know and love. Yet, the main characters sometimes seem slightly “flat”. Likewise, even the novel’s romantic sub-plot feels somewhat random and slightly passionless. Surprisingly, the most well-developed characters in this novel are the main antagonist and a German detective called Griezman (who helps Reacher out throughout the story).

However, and this might be because of the 1990s setting or the fact that Jack Reacher is younger in this book, but he’s a little bit more aggressive than usual in this novel. What I mean by this is he’s slightly more likely to kill or attack people for reasons other than self-defence. Like an “edgy” 90s action hero, a couple of these scenes are also accompanied by pithy dialogue too. Although this stuff seems very mildly out of character for Reacher, some elements of this change in his character are foreshadowed in a very early part of the novel.

As usual, Lee Child uses a fairly fast-paced and minimalist narrative style, peppered with occasional descriptions. And, as gripping as it is here, it didn’t quite seem to have the same substance as some of his other novels. The narrative style seems a little too minimalist in some parts. Even so, it keeps the plot travelling forwards at a suitably fast pace, which is never a bad thing.

The novel’s mid-1990s setting is also handled in a fairly interesting way too. For the most part, the novel reads like a fairly “timeless” thriller story, with relatively little 1990s nostalgia (eg: there are some references to the Millennium bug and the end of the cold war. Likewise, there isn’t a mobile phone in sight either. But, aside from this, it could almost be set in the present day).

Yet, the mid-1990s setting also has a noticeable effect on the plot, with the story drawing on both the more imaginative/silly traditions of the 90s thriller genre (between the end of the cold war and 9/11, thriller writers had to be a bit more imaginative since they couldn’t just rely on popular fears for source material) and more “serious” contemporary concerns about extremism and terrorism too. Seriously, Lee Child absolutely nails the “mid-late 90s thriller” elements of the story perfectly.

This slight hint of 1990s silliness, along with some witty descriptions/dialogue and a hilariously gross scene set in a nightclub also help to lighten the tone of the story slightly too, which is never a bad thing. Although “Night School” is a suspenseful thriller novel, with some slightly “gritty” crime-based segments, it never really becomes bleak or depressing.

The rest of the novel’s settings are handled in a fairly interesting way too. Most of the story takes place in Hamburg, and this city is described in a fairly minimalist way – which helps it to seem “modern” and “realistic”. Yet, the city also seems slightly drab and generic too – which is both a strength and a weakness.

By making the city blend into the background slightly, Lee Child is able to focus our attentions more on the events of the story. Yet, the fact that it takes place in a version of Germany shown from the perspective of an American character imagined by one of Britain’s bestselling authors kind of means that the setting often comes across as more “generic European” than anything else. Lee Child is an expert at writing American settings, but mainland Europe really doesn’t seem to be his forte.

All in all, this isn’t Lee Child’s best novel, but it’s hardly a bad novel either. I mean, it was still compelling enough to binge-read in one marathon session. Yes, the beginning is better than the ending. Yes, this story is much more about the journey than the destination. But, it’s still a fairly well-written thriller novel. Not to mention that it’s kind of cool to see a vaguely 1990s-style thriller from 2016.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and a half.

Short Story “Heist” By C. A. Brown

Raxe drew his plasma pistol and let out a deep sigh. It was turning into one of those heists. Unlike in the holograms, he thought, a good heist is supposed to be simple. It isn’t meant to be some convoluted clockwork puzzle, filled with last-minute close calls and all guns blazing drama. The best heists are boring, dammit!

Beside him, an oil-spattered steel panel clanged quietly. Jurina looked up from a tangled mass of wires and stared at Raxe with bright green eyes: ‘We’ve got level-six drones incoming. I can’t throw them off for much longer. If they don’t patrol this corridor soon, they’ll send an alert.

Use the Burner.‘ He grunted.

No can do. The locking algorithms on the vault would get caught up too. Unless you’re willing to spend the next five weeks building a new pathway, we’ll get nothing. Fight them off.‘ Jurina hissed.

With this?‘ Raxe almost shouted, as he waved the plasma pistol around. Any hope of stealth had long since gone out of the window.

Well, yeah. Why did you bring the bloody thing if you weren’t going to use it?‘ Jurina retorted, every word punctated by quiet bleeps from a collection of glowing lights behind a nearby service hatch.

It’s for luck. It’s for show. It’s… It’s like a fire extinguisher. You keep it around in the hope that you won’t.. Oh, forget it.‘ Raxe levelled the pistol at a nearby archway. Of all the places to have a gunfight with level-six security drones, this was by far the worst. The only thing that this grotty maintanence alcove had going for it was that the drones could only attack from one possible angle. Unfortunately, that angle was also the only exit.

Position?‘ He barked, as he stared at the trembling sights on top of his pistol. In that instant, he regretted not spending those extra thirty credits on a targeting module. Despite all of the wild parties that the thousands from the Centauri Job had funded, those thirty credits had seemed like a useless extravagance. With a pang of regret, Raxe remembered how smug he’d been about not falling for any of the merchant’s clever sales patter.

In an oddly calm voice, Jurina said: ‘Four of them. In the corridor. Thirty metres and closing.

Four?‘ Raxe spat. ‘Our probe… your probe… only showed two. This is a storage facility, not the bloody Nebula Reserve!

Jurina was silent. Raxe took a deep breath. Mechanical clanking filled the air. His sweaty fingers tightened around the slick grip of the gun. The tip of his index finger brushed against the rough edge of the trigger. His heart pounded in time with the clanking. The first bulky, angular shadow appeared on the wall opposite. It seemed to linger there for what felt like five minutes.

As soon as he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, Raxe let rip. With a furious pop, a marble of white-hot plasma zipped across the alcove and hit home with a quiet hiss. He heard a deafening clang, followed quickly by a drawn-out crackling sound. A fraction of a second later, the air was filled with groaning and whirring. Raxe pressed himself against the wall. Jurina ducked behind the service hatch, the trailing mass of wires following her.

The groaning got louder and louder. Raxe held his breath. Then, everything was silent. Letting out a long breath and keeping his plasma pistol in front of him, he edged along the wall. When he reached the corner, he held his gun out and used the reflective edge as a mirror.

A second later, he doubled over. Jurina peeked out from behind the panel. Laughter filled the air. She raised an eyebrow.

By now, Raxe was standing in the middle of the corridor and looking down at a crumpled heap of twitching metal. With a smile, he said: ‘You aren’t going to believe this! They’re level-six drones all right, but they’re cast-offs from the Nebula Reserve. If they can’t hire someone to clean this corridor, what do you think happened to the drones’ routine maintenance schedule? It was a miracle that the poor things were still able to walk. They went down like skittles when I knocked over the first one.

Jurina raised an eyebrow. ‘If they can’t hire someone to maintain them, there probably isn’t much in the vault. Hold on…‘ Quiet bleeping filled the air for a second. Finally, with a thin smile, she said: ‘I hope you’ve been working out, Raxe. Some guy in Stuttgart will give us three hundred for the scrap metal.

“Haul” By C. A. Brown (Halloween 2017 Sci-Fi Stories #7)

Stay tuned for the next short story tomorrow night πŸ™‚

This is gonna get noisy!‘ Rich wound down the sky-car’s window and reached for the antique military rifle. Ignoring the rain hammering his face and the constant rush of neon lights below, he calmly leaned out of the window and braced the rifle against his shoulder.

Get on with it! They’re gaining on us!‘ Steve snarled, barely even taking his eyes off of the altimeter.

Squinting against the elements, Rich took aim at the flashing red and blue lights behind the sky-car. The antique rifle’s circular magazine rattled silently as he tightened his hold on the wooden grips, gritted his teeth and pulled the trigger.

CHATCHATCHATCHATCHAT! Click!

Above the loud ringing in Rich’s ears, he heard a quiet popping. There was a bright orange flash. Rich almost dropped the rifle. A plume of black smoke stood out against a glowing green electric billboard. Rich ducked back into the sky-car.

‘,,,,,’ Steve said with a frantic look in his eyes.

WHAT?‘ Rich shouted, blinking at the flickering array of iridescent afterimages that swam in front of his eyes.

Steve shoved a map towards him, before easing off on the thrusters slightly. As the afterimages began to clear and the ringing became more muffled, he heard Steve shout: ‘Find us somewhere to lay low! The whole bloody city probably saw that! We’ve got five minutes at most.

Turning on the courtesy light, Rich squinted at the map. Being careful not to look at the light, he glanced up at the windscreen. The green safety lights of the Westford Tower flickered to his right and the amber pyramid on top of the FleeceFayre Casino glowed blurrily to his right. His weary eyes scanned the map until he found their location. Quickly, he began to tick off locations in his mind.

Get a move on!‘ Steve barked, as he banked left sharply, narrowly missing a bright yellow sky-cab. A muffled honking sound echoed in the distance.

Got it!‘ Rich muttered ‘Pirate Paul’s Pleasure Palace isn’t too far from here. There was something in the paper last week about them closing down for refurbishment. We can land inside the roof display.

‘If you expect me to land this thing in the mouth of a giant skull, then you’re having a fu…‘ Steve paused for a second. Above the pattering rain and roaring engine, the plaintive wail of sirens echoed in the distance. ‘….that might not be a bad idea. Hold on!

Pushing the stick forwards, the air car descended sharply. Before he could even level out properly, Steve cranked the retros to max. The engine groaned in protest. The bright yellow windows of an office building flickered uncomfortably close to the passenger window. Rich grimaced. Steve took a hard left and started the landing thrusters.

Then, in the blue gloom, the skull came into view. Even without the lighting display, the pearly white teeth seemed to gleam invitingly. Furrowing his brow, Steve gently glided the sky-car towards it. ‘Here goes nothing.‘ He muttered.

It was, Steve thought as he caught his breath, a textbook landing. As long as the plod didn’t notice the thruster burns on the skull’s teeth, they were home free. Beside him, Rich gasped and trembled frantically. Catching his breath, he shouted: ‘We did it?… We did it!

Ssssh!‘ Steve hissed, putting his finger to his lips. The air was thick with silence. Steve let out a sigh of relief: ‘No sirens. We’re in the clear. Let’s get outta here before anyone gets too curious.

As Rich cracked an emergency glow-stick, Steve reached below the seat and pulled out the briefcase. As the stick bathed the car in faint green light, Steve leant forwards and squinted through the windscreen. ‘Is that… sand?‘ He muttered.

Yeah, there was something in the paper about them turning this into a viewing platform. They were importing sand from somewhere exotic. Tortuga Bay, I think. Hey, do you think it’s worth anything?‘ Rich grinned.

We don’t…‘ With a quiet hiss, Steve opened the doors ‘… have the bloody time. Now, get a move on!

The sand crunched quietly underfoot as the two men left the car. Keeping the briefcase close to his chest, Steve followed the glow-stick and listened to Rich’s slow footsteps. A few seconds later, Rich stopped and turned around: ‘There should be a wall here.

What? Don’t tell me we’re going round in circles.‘ Steve sighed.

Below the green light, Rich just shook his head. ‘No. This sculpture can’t be more than a hundred metres… ugh.‘ He spat black fluid and dropped the glow-stick.

Steve leapt back. In the dim light, he could see something shiny poking out of Rich’s chest. A second later, he felt something brush against his spine. The stench of seawater filled the air. A low croaking voice said: ‘Gimme the treasure, lad.‘ Steve dropped the briefcase. With a quiet slop, he saw the point of a rusty cutlass shoot out of his stomach.

As the numbness washed over his body, Steve fell onto the soft sand. Just like sunbathing he thought, as a smile crossed his wet lips. As all of the noises began to fade into peaceful silence, he could have sworn he heard a grumbling voice say: ‘Arrrr! More paper? Ye said there would be gold here! Five hundred years… and not a speck o’ gold!

Five Qualities That The Main Character In Your Thriller Story Should Have

2015 Artwork Qualities Thriller Protagonists Should Have sketch

Well, as I’ve probably mentioned before, I’ve been watching a TV show called “24” quite a lot recently. Although I don’t plan to review any of it, it’s probably the closest televised equivalent to a well-written series of thriller novels (such as Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels) that I’ve ever seen.

And, as anyone who has watched “24” knows – the show revolves around a protagonist called Jack Bauer who is, in many ways, something of a traditional “action hero” character. Yes, he’s a little bit more morally grey than traditional heroic characters – but he’s a handsome, muscular, ex-military character who is (mostly, but not completely) emotionless.

But, as anyone with any experience of the genre will probably know – good thriller protagonists don’t necessarily have to be action heroes. In fact, a good thriller protagonist can be literally anyone, as long as they have at least one or two of these qualities. Some of these qualities might even surprise you:

1) Individualism: Thriller novels are at their most thrilling when the protagonist is essentially on their own. This goes back a long way and it can be seen in one of the first modern thriller novels ever written – “The Thirty-Nine Steps” by John Buchan, where the protagonist (Richard Hannay) is on the run from the police for most of the novel, after being falsely accused of murder.

In Dan Brown’s more recent thriller novels – his protagonist (Robert Langdon) is a university professor. He isn’t a member of any organisation and sometimes even ends up being chased by the authorities. Likewise, in Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels, the eponymous Mr. Reacher is essentially just a hobo who wanders around America.

Whilst there are plenty of thriller stories where the main character is part of a team or an organisation (and, technically, “24” falls into this category), a good thriller protagonist will usually find themselves completely alone against the world.

So, why do thriller writers do this?

As well as adding more suspense to the story, it’s also because of the emotional payoff at the end of the story. Basically, it’s a lot more satisfying to see one person defeat a hundred villains than it is to see a hundred people defeat one villain.

2) Intelligence: Even if the main character in your thriller novel is a muscle-bound action hero, then they can’t be an idiot.

Yes, action movies and first-person shooter games might have cemented the idea that heroic characters in thrilling stories should be slightly stupid – but this is most emphatically not the case in the thriller genre.

Why? Because having a stupid protagonist in a thriller story is hilariously unrealistic. If someone was being pursued by a group of powerful villains and/or by the authorities, then they wouldn’t last long if they weren’t intelligent.

Likewise, if your main character is trying to solve a crime or uncover a conspiracy, then they’re probably going to have to be fairly smart in order to do this.

So, brains can often count for far more than brawn in a good thriller story. Not only is it more realistic, but it’s also a lot more satisfying for your audience to see your main character outsmarting the villains occasionally, than it is for them to see your main character fighting the villains again and again.

3) Courage: This one should be fairly self-explanatory, but most people enjoy the thriller genre because thriller stories allow us to vicariously feel like badasses. So, it goes without saying that a good thriller protagonist should be courageous.

However, be very careful not to confuse courage with foolishness. In other words, if your main character is going to do something dangerous, then they better have a good reason for doing it. And they should probably also be smart enough to know if there’s a less dangerous way to do the same thing.

4) An Outlaw: If your thriller story is set in even a vague approximation of the real world, then it’s important to remember that no-one in your story is above the law. This includes your main character too. Generally speaking, the kinds of things that thriller protagonists do tend to be very legally questionable in the real world.

Even if your main character lives in a country with extremely lax weapons and self-defence laws (eg: America), then they’re probably still going to have to answer to the police if they even so much as get into a fist-fight, let alone a gun fight, with anyone.

Likewise, if your protagonist breaks into somewhere in order to gather evidence – then there’s a good chance that they might have to explain their actions in court if they get caught. Plus, the evidence they’ve collected may not even be admissable in court.

In effect, most thriller story protagonists are criminals. But, they’re often very good criminals with good motivations. What this means is that they can’t take a conservative attitude towards authority, rules, regulations and laws. They have to be willing to rebel against authority and break the rules when they feel that it is the right thing to do.

5) Non-aggression: This sounds counterintuitive but, as anyone who has ever taken any martial arts lessons will probably tell you – even half-speed free fights in the safety of a dojo can be painful, exhausting and unpredictable things.

So, imagine how much worse an actual fight (where both people actually intend to injure each other) would probably be.

When I studied martial arts for a while when I was about sixteen or seventeen, I remember the sensei (who was a retired policeman) once pointing out that most real fights only last for something like ten or fifteen seconds. He also pointed out that if the other person is carrying a knife then, regardless of how well-practiced you are at disarming techniques, you’re probably still going to get injured. So, yes, real fights of any kind are something to be avoided at all costs.

Likewise, if you’ve ever been paintballing, then you’ll probably know how unpredictable and painful even a safe simulation of a gun fight can be. How, unlike in the movies, you have just as much of a chance of being shot as you do of shooting anyone on the other team.

There’s a reason why people who have done anything even vaguely close to real combat usually don’t tend to be aggressive people who like to start fights.

Violent conflicts are unpredictable things that – at the very least- tend to result in a lot of pain for everyone involved. So, if the main character in your thriller story is ex-military, ex-police or anything like that and has had actual experience of violence, then they’re probably going to be sensible enough to know not to start any fights unless it’s absolutely necessary to do so.

In other words, a good thriller protagonist should only use violence reluctantly and/or in genuine self-defence (eg: when there’s no way to quickly retreat from the situation or resolve it peacefully).

Yes, hyper-aggressive “action hero” characters might look cool but they’re also hilariously unrealistic – and are probably very likely to spend most of their time in hospitals, graveyards and/or prisons.

———————-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

How To Add Some Trickery To Your Thriller, Detective and/or Spy Story

...and a few household stationery supplies.

…and a few household stationery supplies.

Even though this is an article about writing thriller fiction, I’m going to start by talking about TV shows for a while. Trust me, there’s a reason for this.

Anyway, I was watching a TV series called “Burn Notice” on DVD recently and it made me realise something interesting about storytelling, particularly in thriller stories.

Although some of the stuff I’m going to talk about here is similar to an article about sci-fi/fantasy fiction I wrote last May, I’ll be looking at more “realistic” types of fiction in this article.

Anyway, “Burn Notice” is a show about an ex-spy who is trying to track down whoever mysteriously fired him from his job – he also solves crimes, helps people and/or outwits criminals in every episode too. It’s a really cool show, but this isn’t a review of it.

But, one of the interesting things about the show which could be useful to thriller writers is the fact that whenever the main character does something sneaky – he’ll usually explain what he’s doing in a voiceover. In other words, we get the illusion that we’re learning super cool secret spy tricks and this vicariously makes us feel like super-cool secret agents.

Sprinkling your story with cool-sounding “information” is a perfect way to keep your readers fascinated. But, since you’re probably not a spy or a detective, then how do you do do this?

For starters, you don’t actually need to talk to any real spies, detectives etc… about how they do their jobs and what tricks they use. Although if you somehow can do this, then this is probably a bonus.

Likewise, you should NOT look up information on the internet about exactly how people carry out activities that would be dangerous and/or illegal. Even though it might seem like an obvious way to do background research for your story, it is a really stupid idea! And, in some cases, it may even land you in legal trouble. So, don’t do this!

In other words, you don’t really have to know anything – since not knowing anything doesn’t mean that you can’t write about it in your story. The trick is to trick your readers into thinking that you know what you’re talking about. Still with me?

The best way to trick your readers into thinking that you know as much as a trained spy, detective etc… does is to start small. In other words, show your main character using a couple of small (non-illegal and non-dangerous) tricks that actually work in real life.

These can be spy/detective-related things (eg: like the main character finding a good place to hide a piece of paper). But they can also be totally random unrelated things that most people don’t know about (like how to extend the life of a marker pen).

As long as it isn’t illegal, violent or dangerous and it sounds like something that most people don’t know and would probably like to learn, then do your research and add it to your story.

A good place to start for researching cool obscure things is a site like Wikihow or, for more directly spy/detective-related things, then check out online articles about things like computer security, home security etc..

Showing you main character protecting himself or herself against the bad guys by using a realistic non-violent security technique that anyone can use is a great way to impress your readers.

For a good literary example, check out the first chapter of Lee Child’s “Gone Tomorrow” (an excerpt can be found here). In this chapter, the main character (an ex-military policeman) is able to spot a suicide bomber because he’s memorised a list of warning signs that tell him what to look out for.

Now, once your readers see these small realistic things, then they’ll probably assume that you know what you’re talking about. So, when it comes to the really dramatic stuff – you can just make it up or, even more sneakily, leave a few details tantalisingly vague. As long as it doesn’t sound blatantly unrealistic, most of your readers will probably believe you.

But what if they don’t? Well, this isn’t as much of an issue as you might think.

Chances are, any actual detectives, spies etc.. that read your story will probably be glad that you aren’t actually teaching the general public anything dangerous or secret.

Not only that, most people are smart enough not to imitate things that they read in thriller novels – so they’ll probably never check. At worst, if your story becomes extremely popular, then any films based on it might eventually appear in a segment of “Mythbusters” or something like that (and, let’s face it, having something based on your work appearing on a major TV show is hardly a bad thing).

So, remember, if you make sure that the small stuff is realistic, then you can just make the big stuff up and most of your readers will probably believe you.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Three Sneaky Ways To Spread Out The Good Stuff In Your Story

2014 Artwork Spread out The Good Stuff Sketch

As anyone who enjoys reading or writing horror or thriller fiction will probably tell you, you can have too much of a good thing. The same thing is, surprisingly, true for erotic fiction too – but I won’t cover this genre in this article.

It’s slightly counter-intuitive, but whilst a story in one of these genres should scare, thrill or excite it’s intended audience, you can’t actually do this by including nothing but scary/disturbing or action-packed scenes in your story.

As I’ve probably said before, without a contrast between “safe” and “dangerous” or “ordinary” and “exciting” in your story then everything quickly just becomes boring.

It’s like trying to hold a fireworks display in the middle of a bright summer day – the fireworks might look spectacular, but they won’t really stand out against the bright blue sky.

For example: If a horror story contains literally nothing but ominous apparitions, oceans of blood and terrifying monsters (whether human or supernatural) then it often loses it’s scare value pretty quickly because people quickly know what to expect and aren’t really that shocked.

Likewise, if a thriller story contains literally nothing but car chases and gunfights then, believe it or not, this can get very boring after a while.

Even if you think that one of your favourite stories is the one exception to this rule, take a closer look at it and you’ll probably find that it actually isn’t. You see, there are actually quite a few sneaky ways to spread our the good stuff in your story without your reader realising that you’re doing this. Here are three of them:

1) Atmosphere: Although you can’t fill your story with nothing but dramatic stuff, it doesn’t mean that you can’t trick your readers into thinking that this sort of stuff could happen at any minute. The main way of doing this is through the atmosphere of your story.

For example, if you’re writing a horror story about a swarm of flesh-eating leeches that lurk in the plumbing system of a small village in the middle of nowhere, then you can’t show the leeches attacking people on every page. Your readers will get bored quickly and the leeches will have no-one left to eat after about a hundred pages or so.

But, you can show you characters pausing cautiously whenever they so much as look at the shower or go to wash their hands. You can show them hearing the occasional ominous gurgling sound in the background. You can show a dripping tap suddenly stop dripping. I’m sure you get the idea.

All of this stuff doesn’t actually show the flesh-eating leeches, but it gives your reader the impression that they could attack the main characters at any second by creating an uneasy, ominous and threatening atmosphere.

2) Backstory: If you’re writing a fairly “ordinary” scene between two scary/thrilling scenes, then you can spice it up a bit by giving subtle hints about your main character’s previous experiences with these kinds of things in the past. These can either be included briefly in dialogue or, more cleverly, by how your main character reacts to things.

For example, if you’re writing a thriller story featuring a grizzled ex-commando as the main character and your current scene features him sitting at a train station and waiting for someone, then you could add a little bit of drama to it by adding a line like “As he stood up and reached for a discarded newspaper, he felt a lancing pain in his knee and thought back to that mission in Antwerp five years ago. No, he thought, this will be nothing like Antwerp.

Likewise, having secondary characters briefly refer to something interesting that happened in their past or showing traces of an interesting past (eg: “The old woman lit her cigarette and effortlessly blew a heart-shaped smoke ring“) can also be a subtle way of keeping your audience interested during “ordinary” scenes.

3) Mix it up: Just because, say, horror becomes less scary the more often horrific things happen in your story doesn’t mean that your non-horror scenes have to be completely “ordinary”. Just because you’re taking a break from one type of interesting scene doesn’t mean that you can’t include other types of interesting scenes. So, don’t be afraid to mix it up.

The thing to remember is that for any scene to have a dramatic impact, it must contrast heavily with the other scenes in your story. So, it’s ok to include other interesting stuff as long as it is different from the main interesting thing in your story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚