When I was 6 years old, the stories I wrote had more car chases in them than Paul Walker’s entire career. If anything could explode, it probably would, and if it couldn’t, then the laws of physics were bent so that it did. In short, I loved writing action.
I still do. Whether there’s a long lead up to it, or whether it happens out of nowhere, a burst of action is a staple of the thriller genre. When planning Certainty, I had certain set pieces in mind, and ended up writing nearly all of them. Not the one on the train, obviously. I had an interesting approach when first writing the novel. I initially thought of it like it was levels of a videogame. Let me explain. First, you go through the standard henchmen (the lead-up chapters), and then you battle the massive, screen-filling end boss (the set pieces). The opening half of the first part of the book was written like this. The structure fit the allegory.
I stopped writing with quite those same thoughts thereafter, but the idea of set pieces being important remained. I remembered a book that James Patterson wrote called “Cat and Mouse”, where the first half ended with a series of action sequences that flowed into each other. I found it exciting. There was a bomb in a hospital – a big shock – and Alex Cross’s shout of “BOMB!” before throwing himself to the floor was a really exhilerating sequence to read. It built from there until Cross’s nemesis was spoiler alerted, not telling.
Yes, yes, I know: James Patterson. Guilty pleasure. Which pretty much stopped when he did his whole “release a book every 5 minutes and no, I’m not going to tell you how much of it I actually wrote” thing, unfortunately. I digress.
But after reading thrillers from various authors who really know how to handle pace, I knew for sure that’s what I wanted to do myself. Certainty was going to be all about it, about the ebb and flow as a writer of knowing when to speed up and when to slow down. The set pieces were designed in such a way as to thrill and build character at the same time.
The best action piece is at the end of the second part of the book. It builds and builds and builds. Seems to peak, then builds again to a new climax. And just when you think it’s over as it slows down, it sucker-punches you with the most intense bit in the entire novel up to that point, and leaves the reader on a massive cliffhanger. It was the most exciting sequence I’d ever written.
It’s strange, then, that after being so obsessed as a child with writing about things that chase or blow up, the best chapter in the novel doesn’t have a shootout or a car chase or a fist fight – or any action at all, actually. It’s eighteen pages of four people in a room, talking. It should be deathly boring. But it’s where everything comes together. My 6 year old self would be appalled. Before I started the novel, I would have been beyond amazed that I’d ever write anything like it. But I did. And it works.
There’s more than one way to thrill.