Thrillers and Real Life

By Nick Kolakowski

Crime fiction and thrillers can darkly reflect real-world events. The novels of Richard Price, for example, take as inspiration everything from the crack epidemic (CLOCKERS) to gentrification in New York City’s Lower East Side (LUSH LIFE). Dozens of novels have delved into fictional ramifications of actual disasters such as 9/11. This verisimilitude even extends to film: the original Scarface (1932) used Prohibition as its backdrop, while the 1983 remake selected the Mariel boatlift.

In the hands of a writer attuned to nuance, a hefty dose of reality can serve as nitro in the plot’s engine, leveraging the audience’s existing emotions about a particular event while often sparing writers some of the burdens of wholesale world-building.   

Executed clumsily, however, real-life events can also grind a fictional plot to a halt. Take the original Scarface. Threatened with censorship by the Hays Office, director Howard Hawks not only edited out some violent bits, but also had Richard Rosson (a reliable but less-recognized director) film a heavy-handed sequence in which a newspaper editor and civic leaders argue about the then-current scourge of gangsterdom. It’s only because the scene feels so self-consciously inserted that it doesn’t wreck the whole film – “It can’t hurt the picture,” Hawks reportedly insisted. “Everyone will know it wasn’t part of the picture.”

If you’re going to blend the real into your narrative, it probably helps to stick to that well-tested, long-trusted rule: show, don’t tell. Following a character as they deal drugs on a street corner, find a dead body, and land in a considerable amount of danger? Intriguing. Having a character talk for pages about the socioeconomic effects of drugs? Great for research papers—but with every passing paragraph, you risk the reader either skimming ahead or closing the book for good.

One thriller writer who managed to break the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule was Michael Crichton, who not only leveraged real-life issues to the proverbial hilt, but often had his characters spew pages of dialogue about those issues. In the novel JURASSIC PARK, a group of characters besieged by velociraptors in a fortified villa decide to distract themselves by talking—at considerable length—about everything from the ethics of genetic engineering to whether anything could truly destroy the world.

While the book stays on-point in terms of pacing, that scene isn’t very realistic. I don’t know about you, but my speechifying in such a situation would probably run along the lines of, “I don’t want to end up a dinosaur’s entrée.”

I’m convinced that Crichton got away with this because he knew how to weave such bits into his narrative in a seamless way. One of his historical thrillers, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, offers similarly lengthy expositions about everything from colonial exploitation to the economy of Victorian-era London. But Crichton often incorporates such digressions into suspenseful sequences, such as a character struggling onto the roof of a high-speed train. At his peak, Crichton was masterful at this sort of thing, but it’s a hard trick for writers to successfully replicate.

Last year, when writing my new novel, A BRUTAL BUNCH OF HEARTBROKEN SAPS, I initially fell into the trap of telling instead of showing—and I’m no Crichton. Most of the plot takes place in rural Oklahoma, in a small town ravaged by the twin blights of dead industry and the opiate scourge. When I rewrote, I realized that too many characters paused in their conversations to comment on the economy, or the rising number of overdoses among friends and family. Such passages felt inorganic, and I ended up nuking most of them during the second and third drafts. In their place, I took time to actually describe the crumbling infrastructure and desperate characters, and the result (I think) flows a bit better.

That’s not to say you can’t have a character discuss the situation around them. I reserved those bits of dialogue for my main antagonist, as a way to make him more understandable and even a bit more human. If you’re stuck in a dead-end place, where everything you’ve loved has decayed over the course of a few decades, you might become angry enough to do some pretty horrible things. 

The next time your manuscript needs a little “oomph,” consider folding a real-life event or controversy into your narrative—but also keep in mind that, in most cases, just a bit can go a very long way.

Nick Kolakowski’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, Washington City Paper, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, North American Review, The Evergreen Review, and Rust & Moth, among other venues. He lives in New York City.

To learn more about Nick Kolakowski’s debut novel, A BRUTAL BUNCH OF HEARTBROKEN SAPS, click on the cover below: