First of all an apology. I really thought that with a little help from my friends this post was going to appear last Thursday. But, well, technology and I simply don't get along, and somehow it didn't. So here it is now. Better late than never? Not for me to say.
And talking of friends... Sometimes things happen which make you find out who your real friends are. Things have happened big time in my life over the past few weeks, and one of those real friends has been Chris Nickson. He's finished writing a new novel, organized a launch for another, engaged in discussions for two big events due to take place in the next few months and a whole lot more besides – and he still found time to fill my Thursday Dead Guy slot five times while my own life has been more than a little pear-shaped. And he's done a brilliant job; I've made sure there was time to read his posts, and they're far more interesting than anything I could come up with. Thank you doesn't begin to cover it, but I'll say it anyway: thank you, Chris; you're a star as well as a good friend.
The undulating pear-shape seems to have settled into something a little more stable and circular, at least for the time being (though no doubt I'm invoking the wrath of the gods by daring to voice that thought) so I'm afraid you're stuck with me again. And one of the several factors which ganged up to fill my life with rush and chaos was a ton of paid work which all arrived at once (see earlier posts for what happens if a freelance isn't available/turns work down/doesn't deliver to deadline despite the depredations of Real Life), and it provided me with something rather interesting to post about. Well, I thought it was interesting; let's see if anyone out there agrees.
Some people claim that crime fiction and thrillers are formulaic. My considered view of those people is that they can't possibly be reading enough of either to come up with an informed opinion, but that's a whole other post, and not what I want to delve into today. This claim came into sharp focus the other week, when I was asked to supply feedback on a thriller.
The setting is often – I'm tempted to say usually – makes a thriller different from every other one I've read. In this case it was a world I knew little about, but it was clear from the outset that the author knew a lot. That was fine, excellent in fact; I love a book which tells me things I didn't know. There was a tad too much detail now and again, but nothing a good editor couldn't deal with. The biggest problem was the ending. Now, I would challenge anyone who tried to argue on the side of formulaic; I read a lot of crime fiction, possibly not as many thrillers but still plenty, and no two are ever alike. But there are certain conventions. Not many, but they exist, and for good reasons.
This is where I set myself up to be knocked down; feel free to throw the ball at the coconut, but be ready with some justification, because to me, what I'm about to say is stating the obvious. It's this: at the final face-off, the hero/protagonist has to take centre stage; it's up to him – or her; no reason it can't be a her – to take the bad guy down. The protagonist can't be unconscious, incapable, or worst of all, dead; it's his/her story, and s/he has to be the one to take it to its conclusion.
So, when I reached the face-off and found the protagonist played no part whatsoever, I felt cheated. All the more so because he was a great character who had developed as the narrative progressed, and surprised himself by what he achieved. The effect wasn't the climactic finish to the adventure which every good thriller deserves; there was plenty of action, but somehow it felt flat. The reason was it all happened without this intriguing guy who I felt I'd come to know, and who deserved the chance to take down a villain who had wrecked his life. He didn't need to develop brand-new fighting skills, or become a crack marksman at the eleventh hour – but he did need to be there, and even if it happened by accident, his finger had to be on the final trigger.
That's not formulaic; that's just a basic convention of the genre, and it's a genre which doesn't have many. You might just as well send the beautiful heroine off to marry someone else in a romance.
And of course now, having argued my case so strongly, I'm starting to feel a little insecure. Someone tell me, please: am I right about this? Or are there other ways to end a thriller?