Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Travesty of False Drama

A terrorist has snuck a nuclear bomb into the U.S. and plans to detonate it in Washington D.C. during Memorial Day weekend. Super CIA agent Mitch Rapp will risk everything to stop him. Dum dum dummmmm.

That's the basic plot of Memorial Day, one of thrillerist Vince Flynn's popular Mitch Rapp series. Last year, I read the first five books in the ten-book (and counting) series when I was traveling and at other times I wanted to read without being consciously aware that I was reading. They're not bad, I suppose — I mean, they deliver what they promise: they're mindless and silly, but they're better than squinting furiously at the plane's 10" screen to catch the latest Zac Efron vehicle.

But my No. 1 problem with most of the Rapp books is also my No. 1 problem with The Girl Who Played With Fire so far (I'm about halfway through). The conflict is false, and thus so is the drama. Here's what I mean: Because I already knew that Vince Flynn had written five more Mitch Rapp novels after Memorial Day, I was at no time concerned that the terrorists were actually going to succeed in blowing up Washington, D.C. Similarly, because I know there's another Millennium trilogy novel after The Girl Who Played With Fire, I can be reasonably confident that Lisbeth Salander isn't actually guilty of the murders she's accused of— or if she is, Larsson's got some (probably far-fetched) trick up his sleeve to ensure that she's not caught, convicted, or killed. (Not spoiling anything there — even though it doesn't happen until about halfway through the novel, the murders that hinge the plot are revealed on the back cover blurb! Seriously? Seems to me like a blurb-writing fail, there.)

The false drama doesn't totally destroy the reading experience, but it sure lessens it a bit. Less cynical readers might be thinking, "Well, Greg, you know what you're signing up for with these thrillers, and if you can't accept that the evil-doers' plot has a chance, then why read them?" My response: I guess I'd hoped that the author is able to create conflict with a touch more nuance and a little less transparency. What we have in these cases is basically a false choice: Either the world is destroyed or it's not, or either the main character on which a trilogy is built will be spending the rest of her natural life in Swedish prison, or she won't. And it's pretty easy to work out the answer.

Please understand an important distinction. My issue here is not that the plot is preposterous or not believable, or that I'm talking about a mystery that's too easy to solve from clues in the text. Sure, Lisbeth could be guilty of the murders and, sure, God forbid, a terrorist could get a hold of a bomb and blow up a city. My issue is that we know the plot is preposterous in the context of what we know from external circumstances, i.e. more novels in a series. I suppose it could be argued that when these novels were first published, readers may not have known there would be future novels with the same characters, so the drama is real. And maybe that's true for some readers, and as a result, they read these books on the edge of their friggin' seats. But I suspect most readers were aware that these weren't isolated books. At least I'd hope so.

But you know what medium does this idea of "false drama" in such a way as to make the fact that you already know what's going to happen irrelevant? Movies. Think Titanic. The King's Speech. Apollo 13. Those are three incredibly dramatic, incredibly fantastic movies, all with an already-known ending. Sure, the comparison to thriller novels isn't not totally accurate, but it's in the same ballpark. Just thought I'd throw that out there...

So what do you think? Have you run across novels in which you lost interest because of this false drama? Why was the drama false?


  1. do you really read novels to find out what happens? what about when you read a classic, when you often know the full tenor of the story beforehand?

    it should be enough that the choice (end of world/saved world) is viable within the book. you can know one way won't happen, but nobody IN the book should know it.

  2. When you read books in a series,the fun can be found not by figuring out the end results before the players do but in seeing what new insights the characters might glean from their latest set of adventures.

    This doesn't excuse poor writing or plotting(which has made me abandon some series altogether)but it helps to keep in mind that's the journey not the destination here that keeps those pages a-turning.

  3. The drama in the movies you list (I'm not sure about Apollo 13 because it's been forever since I've seen it but I'm going to plow ahead anyway) is about the relationships between characters, not about the outcome of the external plot. "Real people caught up in history" or whatever the current marketing phrase is. But "Titanic" is essentially a romance, not the story of a ship sinking.

    My problem with thrillers in general is that the stories are usually just machinery to set up, complicate and solve a single problem and the characters are just parts of the machinery. They're sort of like roller coaster rides. You pretty much know how they'll turn out, but you want the thrill of being on the ride. Either that stuff works for you or it doesn't.

  4. @Ben - Well, yeah! I think more so than any other genre, you read thrillers to find out what happens. You're certainly not reading Vince Flynn for the paragon-of-the-craft writing! And I'd say the best thrillers do both: They keep you reading to find out what happens AND the choice is viable within the framework of the plot.

    @lady T - Normally, I'd agree with you - but in Mitch Rapp's case, you know just about everything you need to know about him after the first three pages of the first in the series. He's not exactly a deep character, nor are the others in the series. In regards to The Millennium Trilogy, your character-building point is certainly valid. We're learning a lot more about Lisbeth's past in this second novel than we did in the first - even if we're pretty sure we know she's not going to jail.

    @Scott - Yeah, you're exactly right, and that's exactly my point - the drama shifts from knowing what will happen at the end to engaging character-focused narrative. And we're certainly on the same page about characters in thrillers - you described Mitch Rapp to a T. He's just there to take us on the roller coaster of whatever contrived and implausible plot Flynn wants to tell us about. But, there are also thrillers (like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), where there's a ton of drama and you don't know the outcome based on external factors - so you read both to be thrilled and to find out what happens at the end. Those are the best - and by best, I mean silly fun to read.

  5. That's an interesting point and I never have thought of it like that. Could it be the reason I don't read thrillers anymore? Perhaps...

    But I do like novels that work the other way around. It's been years since I've read "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" by Gabriel García Márquez. And here, the title already reveals the story. The protagonist will die. Yet I found it a thrilling and gripping read. It takes a skilled writer to make it happen.

  6. I have read a couple of books with this 'false drama' but so long as there was something else alongside the obvious ending that I wanted to find out, like do they get together? Did her mother ever forgive her? then my interest was held. If not, then it's a dead loss for me. It's like Scott said - if the story is about a relationship point with the backdrop of a story to which we know the ending already, then it's fine. But in the case of Lisbeth being accused of murder? I don't buy it. And that (and the fact I abhor gratuitous use of violence) is why I'm not reading the rest of the trilogy.

  7. Great posts. I'd say that if the author's writing well enough to keep you engaged in the story, then problem solved. Once a writer doesn't give the reader reason to wholly commit to the story, then reader starts thinking about things like believability, and asks questions. There's an old saw in screenwriting: If the viewer starts coming up with equally plausible ways the story could go or even starts pointing out holes in the story, then the movie's a dud. No matter the story, the reader won't question it if the character is well defined enough and someone you want to follow. It all starts with character, and wants and needs. I get bored with these thrillers too, because things are often too broad and mechanical even when the author takes time to set up character. But that's just me, and why I dig writers like James Lee Burke and Charles McCarry.

  8. For me, the writing in the Steig trilogy was so terrible that the believability of the plot was irrelevant. Dragon Tattoo was by far the best, and I read it before I knew the others would also be Salander books. Believe me, it's WAY downhill from there!

  9. I see where you're coming from, saying that book #5 of a 10-part series can bear about as much dramatic consequence as an episode of Miami Vice.

    But your main deal seems to be the forgone conclusion aspect, so let me ask this: has there ever been a book where you found yourself irrationally thinking that there's no friggin' way the hero's getting out of this one? Or the flipside--that you know the thing ends tragically, yet you're caught up in the story, hoping that it won't? People have this with Shakespeare performances so involving that they feel maybe, just maybe, Hamlet will live through this one. But that's bloody Shakespeare. This is Vince Flynn and the effect isn't there. But have you had that experience before? That to me signals a *great* book when it makes you forget its forgone conclusion.

  10. @superheidi - Yeah, similarly, I loved Skippy Dies - in which the "ending" is also revealed in the title and then confirmed in the prologue. But Paul Murray is such a masterful writer, I had no trouble staying with him for 600 pages. Talented writer, indeed!

    @Kath - Certainly agree - there has to be something else beyond the false drama. In the Millennium Trilogy there definitely is - yes, with some pretty gratuitous violence. In Vince Flynn, there definitely is not. But they still make a flight go quicker. ;)

    @Steve - Well, a cynic would say a lot of screenwriters these days breaking the rule prescribed by that old "saw." But it does make sense - character is king.

    @2many - Well, I'd say two things. 1) They're thrillers so you're not reading them expecting David Foster Wallace, and 2) They're translations, so it's hard to tell whether any writerly craft may have been lost in the Swedish-to-English to conversion. But you're right. The writing IS abysmal and often distracting, but I'm willing to overlook it for story. I actually enjoyed Played With Fire. Good ending.

    @Doug - Well, in regards to the flipside, I'd again cite Skippy Dies, as well as those three movies I mentioned. Knowing a story will end tragically, but staying invested takes a writer with incredible talent - like Shakespeare. ;)

  11. @Greg — Great point about scripts breaking rules. At the same time, it's still always about character as you say.

  12. Sometimes the point of reading a thriller is to know HOW that foregone conclusion comes about. I know that there will be a next book on the series, so yea the character survives, but how the hell dos he do it. Specifically in the case of the Millenium Trilogy the third book is a continuation of the story, so you could think of it not as a three story series, but more as two stories in three volumes, but that's just my take on it.

  13. Yep, hence my general disinterest in thrillers.

    Though I totally agree with you on the movie thing. King's Speech was incredible.

    I suppose in order to create something (book or movie) in which the ending is so predictable, you better make it one helluva ride getting there.