On holiday this week, there are many, many novels around me – mostly intelligent US fiction – but no eReaders, and I’ve spotted very few doorstop pulps. Several of us are getting inspiration for new writing pieces from books, but of course you don’t necessarily improve your trade from upmarket literature. Pulps are important at an early age. I learned a lot from reading the stories of Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and exotic adventures like ‘Coral Island’ and ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’. The common factor in the books I loved was strength of characterisation, then unusual situations and locations.
Genre writers obsess about their plots, yet in many of the best stories relatively little happens, and it’s the characters that stay with you. A great character in a weak plot is still preferable to a weak character in a great plot. Too much plotting is more harmful than too little, and the journey must always remain true to the characters. The moment you have your leads acting because of plot thrills, people disbelieve what they read or see. This is the moment when Glenn Close returns in ‘Fatal Attraction’, the moment Indiana Jones climbs into the fridge, the moment Ethan Hunt jumps off a skyscraper. It’s melodrama over organic development.
Read any book that Alfred Hitchcock planned to turn into a movie – and there were a lot of them – and you’ll soon discover that most have something in common. They have at least one fascinating, indecipherable character. On the first page of ‘Before The Fact’ by Francis Iles, we’re told that heroine Lina will discover her husband Johnny is a murderer.
Suspense escalates as Lina finds clues to Johnny’s behavior – his gambling, his stealing – and gives him the opportunity to explain his actions. Johnny is so charismatic that he always has a plausible excuse, and despite everything he still brings light into her life. The tension lies in wanting to know how long it will be before she ceases to be blindsided by him, until the book’s devastating final chapter explains the true nature of victimhood.
This chapter is so logical that it seems the whole book works backwards from it. Alfred Hitchcock’s version ‘Suspicion’ had the famous glowing-glass-of-milk scene but has an entirely different ending that wrecks the story’s trajectory.
My first few novels featured few memorable characters. With ‘Spanky’ I learned that bad-boy characters gave me licence to have fun, even if the book’s success entailed trudging around Britain’s shopping centres with the complaining cover model in tow for my signing sessions. I particularly enjoy writing strong female roles, which is why I had so much fun creating ‘Plastic’. But older readers can become quite conservative – others want their female characters to obsess about rich, princely, handsome men who strand them in complicated relationships. It was ever thus; remember the dreadful ‘Bridges of Madison County’?
When you create strong characters, you can put them in any situation and know how they’re going to react. And as I sit down now, with a blank screen before me, the first thing I start to think about is an interesting leading role.
The result, I hope, will be ‘Nyctophobia’ for next year, a haunted house story that’s virtually free of gore or violence. We associate ghost stories with shocks now, but many of the best examples merely have a sense of creeping dread, and the dropping feeling of mistakes that cannot be unmade. There are too many ghost stories to list here, but I’ll work up a list of best films next post.