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Straight proof: what any of us can learn from Dick Francis

Beat this, as the opening for a thriller:

I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me.

I've given micro-attention to a short piece of prose before, in An Education in Writing. And I've talked before, in Running With Wolf Hall, about what's going on when you read a whole book that sets you alight. And then the other day I wanted to have a think about how to build thrillers, and for the first time in many years I plucked a Dick Francis off my shelf, and read it. And another, and another, and another, in three days. (This one is Straight, since you ask.) I find them that addictive, although of course when you read a such a writer back to back, you do start to be more aware of the skeleton they share than the individuality which Francis tries to bring to those skeletons. Which of course was the point of my reading: to find what it is which they all have in common.

But, actually, that opening line is an education in writing in itself. Most particularly, it's an education in Telling, in the technical sense. This is information, not an evocation to draw us into a particular place and atmosphere.  New writers so often believe that the only way to engage the reader is to admit us to the inside of someone's emotional life, but we can't yet care about the  character, and you could argue that it's three sentences of total plot spoiler. And yet it's highly effective. So, how and why?

1) Francis always writes with a character as an internal narrator: his main character is both the main actor in the story and the teller of the story. This bit is very much the character as narrator, but a narrator with an urgent story to tell. He is, implicitly, saying, "Listen! Something terrifying happened to me!"

2) It's far-out in psychic distance, informing us neutrally about certain facts, not evoking them through a subjective consciousness. But the nouns - brother, life, gadgets, enemies, horses, mistress - are potent ones, and so are the only two verbs - inherited, killed - so things are vivid: it's Showing, in the sense of being things which easily come alive in our minds.

3) Those potent words act like sweets, luring us in to want to know more. There's all the difference in the world between this, and what I see a lot of in writing which is hoping to "intrigue" by withholding information. The latter doesn't intrigue, all it does is frustrate the reader, especially at the beginning of the book where we don't have much invested in the main character. Why should we bother to read on, when you're not giving us anything which makes us want to find out more?

4) The words lure us in, but they don't give much away except that the narrator did, actually, survive. (But then we knew that, because he's telling the story.) They rub up together, creating friction and, above all, the instability that is crucial at the beginning of a story: this combination of things is not going to stay peacefully the same for a moment.

5) One lure is the promise of a world that the reader knows nothing about: a lot of the appeal of this kind of thriller is the "non-fiction pleasures": a bit of special knowledge, some expertise, a whiff of how things work. It's the same appeal in another form of James Bond's or chick-lit's brand-names, or the police procedural.

6) It doesn't just make us expect the physical action of gadgets and horses: the image of inheriting your brother's life and mistress is ready-packed with emotional instability. (So are horses, for some of us.) There's a story here ... One of the things Francis is so good at is creating an emotional arc which forms and resolves in among and through the thriller arc. It's not the most sophisticated analysis of love and sexual relationships you've ever read, any more than the moral universe of his work has the profound complexity of George Eliot, but both are always there, there's just enough moral and emotional complexity (he's good on friendship, too) to keep the likes of me happy, and they always work together.

7) The voice of the narrative - essentially the same in all Francis's books - is there from the start. We know where we are: direct, practical, adrenalin-inducing, and feeling rather more (brother-life-mistress) than he's ever going to give away in detail.

8) The rhythm and balance of the sentences is spot on. Although it reads completely naturally - no one would call this fancy prose - in fact it conforms to some of the most classic rhetorical forms by exploiting our pattern-making human brains: building in threes (three is the fewest number that makes a pattern), with the repetition making the things that are different stand out. Short phrase, longer phrase, we expect the third to be longer still: "I inherited ... Inherited ... ... ... I inherited ... and it nearly killed me." Bang.

9) It's living proof of the fact that it is not incorrect to have a comma before an "and". In English punctuation, it would have been incorrect to have a comma (an "Oxford comma") after "horses", although American punctuation loves Oxford commas. But the comma before "and it nearly killed me" is very properly separating off that final clause. It's not compulsory, since both clauses are quite short and it wouldn't be confusing to have them run straight on. But the slight lift that the comma gives after "I inherited my brother's life" is crucial, reinforcing the repetition of the Inherited phrase, and then going in for the kill. As I was discussing in Don't Plot, Just Play Fortunately-Unfortunately, it's the sort of sentence that asks for an EastEnders-style drum after it - doof, doof, doof - which says "Wow! That was a surprise! And now what's going to happen?"

10) If you read the book (or most of his others) you'll find that the last paragraph captures and evokes the first and, again, the repetition evokes what has changed: if you want to know what's going on with that, you could read John Yorke's Into the Woods.

And after that lot, what are you waiting for?

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