Meeting Mode

Although an author should always be reading books, there is the danger that the wrong lessons will be drawn from them. One misstep stems from the professional nature of many authors’ daytime employment. As one of its main components, the thriller genre uses high-level meetings to discuss the threats posed by the villainous force, usually of a catastrophic nature. I call them “the President scenes.”

Consequently, a neophyte author will include those scenes in his manuscript as well. The affinity such an author feels is natural. His daytime hours are occupied with tons of meetings. He knows exactly what sort of drama can emerge from them. As a bonus, the hoary dictum “Be true to life” can be followed.

I don’t mean to disparage meeting scenes. They serve an invaluable purpose: they add a global dimension to what might be regarded by readers as a series of low-level struggles. If the problem isn’t going to throw the Earth off its orbit, why are we bothering to read the book?

So the author happily sets to work. Is there a grave threat? I’ll have a meeting called to discuss it. While I’m at it, I’ll throw in real-life data about, say, the machinations of ISIS. The reader will actually become educated as well. That’s the way I feel whenever I finish a good book.

Okay, so now’s the time to ask the curmudgeonly editor: what’s wrong with that approach? The answer can be found in the structure of the book. What must you have in a thriller? Action, lots of it. A meeting doesn’t create action, unless you regard shouting on the same par as a fired gun. Worse, the whole purpose of a meeting is to comment on action. That’s secondhand narrative. That’s reacting to a past event. You put in enough meetings, the reader’s eyes will glaze over. Damn, is it really time for the next meeting?

A good writer uses a meeting as a secondary plot element. Its function of providing a global context is necessary because a thriller’s action tends to involve only a few characters in a local setting. Raise the stakes of the book, yes. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that a meeting in a book is any more exciting than the meetings you hate facing every day at work.

Exercise: The other vital component of a thriller is strong pacing, so the reader hurtles forward from event to event. Review your manuscript and at the end of every scene, write one sentence that encapsulates it. When you’re done, how many of those scenes feature genuine action, and how many involve people talking about action? Your ratio of action to reaction scenes should be around 3:1.

“Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases: 1. It's completely impossible. 2. It's possible, but it's not worth doing. 3. I said it was a good idea all along.”
 —Arthur C. Clarke

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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