Lee Irby teaches history at Eckerd College and lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is the author of the historical mysteries 7,000 Clams, The Up and Up, and Unreliable.
Genres can be stern taskmasters, none more so than the thriller with its conventions of suspense that come variously from Aristotle, Poe, and Dan Brown. The action must unfurl from the novel’s inception and should be compressed to fit into a short time window. A web of intrigue should span the globe and reach the very highest vaults of power. Forces of darkness conspire to work against a sympathetic protagonist who must battle relentlessly, overcoming obstacles, solving puzzles, and usually saving the planet from wickedness or annihilation.
Taskmasters can coax mediocre work from the lazy and great work from the inspired. The trick is in mastering the conventions of genre with the required depth and confidence so that an author can turn the tables. The reason that Dan Brown sold 40 million copies of The Da Vinci Code wasn’t because he slavishly followed all the rules of the genre; it’s because he had years of erudition in his head that genre allowed him to organize in a coherent fashion. In effect, genre gave him a road map to follow but without a destination clearly marked out. He began with a dead body, but the dead body of a very interesting person—perhaps the greatest dead body in all of commercial fiction, a curator of the Louvre. This was the hook of all hooks, and Dan Brown has been justly rewarded.
So the convention appears to be: begin with a dead body. But an author must push beyond that simplistic formula and constantly probe the outer limits, such as Alice Sebold did in The Lovely Bones—with her dead body serving as narrator. Here the genre established a basic rule, but this basic rule in no way precludes fictional possibilities. A novel written in genre is still a novel, from its inception a playful medium to address deeply human concerns. Authors cannot allow genres to dictate action, to assume control of the novel. At the same time, when writing a thriller, an author can’t spend thirty pages dwelling on how his mother once kissed him good night as a child, as Marcel Proust did.
Which leads to another thorny problem: the relentless present of a face-paced thriller. The building of suspense resides at the heart of any good thriller. To find out what happens next is why readers turn the page, of course, and so action reigns supreme. But action without strong characters is thin gruel indeed, and here is where true artistry comes in, the ultimate challenge of genre that resembles a battle. Can the author bend genre in a way that allows for full creative expression without sacrificing pace?
The conundrum lies in delineating character while delivering plot twists and the other expected tropes. Gillian Flynn is particularly adept at filling in the backgrounds of her characters while maintaining the foot-falls of mounting dread. The vivid details of her small-town landscape in Gone Girl help fuel the action, showing that the world of her novel was fully realized. It’s a thriller, but very much rooted in lives we recognize. She didn’t let genre replace the hard work all novelists must do.
Genre can be liberating, in an artistic sense. To follow and break the rules at the same time can lead to moments of true serendipity. For me, it has elevated the concept of form, the actual structure of the novel, to become the most crucial element, because as in architecture, form follows function. The best architects use local materials and take advantage of natural topography, as Frank Lloyd Wright did with houses like Falling Water, which was built over a waterfall.
I look at genre in a similar way. A thriller, like a house, must have certain features: a bedroom, a dead body, a kitchen, a bad guy. But there is no limit to the possible arrangements of these tropes. In effect, the conventions of genre have opened up new vistas of form to explore, new ways of telling a story that demand much from me as an author. I feel free to take risks knowing that I must adhere to certain storytelling parameters of a thriller, while testing to see how much stress my experiments can take.
I fully expected Unreliable to fail, since I was adhering to and violating every convention of a mystery/thriller I could summon. Eventually I assumed it would collapse, and yet it never did because the familiar tropes I subverted maintained the structure. To paraphrase the Bobby Fuller Four, I fought the genre, but the genre won.