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Transcript for Episode 16.32

Writing Excuses 16.32: First Page Fundamentals – THE KILLING FLOOR, by Lee Childs


Key points: A thriller introducing an iconic character. Incomplete sentences, pop, pop. Foreshadowing. A very brief cold open, and flashback. Layers of questions about what’s going on and what’s going to happen. Short, blunt, simple sentences, with rich visual imagery.

[Season 16, Episode 32]

[Dongwon] This is Writing Excuses, First Page Fundamentals – THE KILLING FLOOR, by Lee Childs.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dongwon] Okay. So, this week we’re doing the last of our three deep dives. We’re going to do a close reading of the opening page of one of my favorite thrillers that introduces the character of Jack Reacher, who will be the protagonist of this series for however many books there are, 10, 11 books. I think he’s an incredibly iconic character in the field of thrillers. Yeah, so we’re going to have a quick reading of the first couple paragraphs of most of the first page here.

[Mary Robinette]

I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

The diner was small, but bright and clean. Brand-new, built to resemble a converted railroad car. Narrow, with a long lunch counter on one side and a kitchen bumped out back. Booths lining the opposite wall. A doorway where the center booth would be.

I was in a booth, at a window, reading somebody’s abandoned newspaper about the campaign for a president I didn’t vote for last time and wasn’t going to vote for this time. Outside, the rain had stopped but the glass was still pebbled with bright drops. I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrops on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns. This was heavy stuff. One revolver and one shotgun ran to the back. One of each rushed the door.

[Dongwon] So, the two examples we’ve done so far have been very high-minded, very beautiful language, very high prose. I mean, we’re talking two master stylists of the American canon here. In fact, a lot of times, when I’m on Twitter, I will see somebody start to make fun of Lee Childs’ writing. They’ll flag it as quote unquote bad writing. I could not disagree with them more. I think this is some of the most effective writing for the genre that we are talking about, the character that we’re talking about. I think there is a rhythm and a beauty and a poetry to it all on its own. It is not trying to paint an incredibly moving, chilling Gothic picture, it is not painting the rich interiority of a depressed person, it is instead engaging with how a particular person sees the world and how that makes them good at two things, investigating and extreme violence.
[Howard] Calling back to the discussion of asking questions and then answering them. “I was arrested in Eno’s diner.” Well, I have a lot of questions already. “At 12 o’clock.” You know, the time at which you were arrested was not one of the questions I had.
[Howard] But thank you for the additional information. “I was eating eggs and drinking coffee.” Okay, that’s also not one of the answers I needed, but thank you for completing the picture. Then, “A late breakfast, not lunch.” Oh, wait. Eggs, coffee, 12 o’clock. Maybe I should have been asking that question. But, no, again, that’s not the question I had, but thank you for completing the picture. I love the way it works, because with each reveal quote unquote, we’re being given information that isn’t what we asked for, but which completes a picture, and the tone of it says, “Hey, that first question you had about me getting arrested? Pfft. That doesn’t actually matter. We’ll get to what matters later. Let me tell you about my eggs.”
[Dongwon] Well, the thing that’s implicit in that is his superiority as an investigator, right? It’s not in the Sherlock Holmes, I’m like I’m going to prove I’m so much smarter than you. But there is an element to this, it’s like, “Hey, dummy. You didn’t ask important questions, which is what was happening. Why was I here?” All of those things that led up to this moment. You start to get a sense of how does Reacher’s brain work. How does he see the world? How does he, like, put all of these things together? I love the inferences that they can pull from this. A thing that we will later learn about Reacher is that he is fundamentally homeless, he doesn’t have a home. He’s itinerant. So he doesn’t have a car either. So that whole wet and tired after a long walk in the heavy rain from the highway to the edge of town… Why was he doing that? Why was he walking through the rain to get to this diner to have this late breakfast? Also, just so many bad things have happened to him already by the end of this paragraph, like, that’s not a fun way to be, he’s getting arrested, and yet, we don’t get rage, we don’t get anger, we don’t get depression. We just get, “Eh. It’s a Tuesday.”

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The other thing that I notice about this is the way… Again, I always tend to look at punctuation, because of the audiobook narrator background. There’s so many incomplete sentences in this. When he’s describing things, it’s these quick pops of things. Brand-new, built to resemble a converted railroad car. Like, that’s not… That is… That’s the entirety of it. There is no verb there. Well, built, I guess. But it’s just… These incomplete sentences that just give you these pops of his notice. It’s like… For me, what it mimics is kind of the way his eyes are darting around and looking at things. It’s like, “I noticed this, I noticed that, I noticed this.” I don’t linger on anything, because I can’t afford to linger on things. I have to keep moving forward.
[Dongwon] My guy doesn’t have time for verbs, what are you talking about?
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Dongwon] Who needs subjects to sentences? Objects? Forget about it.
[Mary Robinette] These are ridiculous things. Grammar? I don’t have time for grammar. I’m wet and tired. I gave you a subject verb right there. I was wet and tired. What more do you want from me?
[Dan] Yeah. I…
[Howard] Had this been written by Melville or MacLaine, there would be semicolons.
[Mary Robinette] Right!
[Dongwon] Exactly.
[Howard] There would be a truck fun of semicolons.
[Dongwon] [garbled]
[Howard] In order to capture that voice.
[Dongwon] But you said MacLaine when you meant Jackson. I think you meant Shirley MacLaine instead of Shirley Jackson.
[Mary Robinette] Very different people.
[Howard] You’re right. I did mean Shirley Jackson.
[Dan] I would read either a horror novel or a thriller novel written by Shirley MacLaine.
[Dongwon] Absolutely.
[Dan] That sounds wonderful. So, I find it really delightful that people kind of mock this language. In large part, because, that is, I think, fundamentally, a bit of genre bias. That this can’t be good writing because it is airport bestseller thriller. But who this language reminds me most strongly of is Cormac McCarthy who is considered to be one of our best living writers. It’s because this is not considered literary fiction that the exact same writing style that leaves out verbs and has short, punchy, very descriptive painterly sentences suddenly doesn’t count anymore because of the genre that it’s in. But if you look at this, the first sentence of that third paragraph is enormous. It is 2 to 3 times longer than any other sentence in here. That always jumps out at me. Like, why does this merit so much extra time and attention? The sentence is, “I was in a booth at a window, reading someone’s abandoned newspaper about the campaign for a president I didn’t vote for last time and wasn’t going to vote for this time.” There’s so much in their. There’s… It’s such a… Not just long, but a complicated sentence. Which forces your brain to kind of look at that and say, “Well, why does this deserve more than the others?” Not having read the book… I’m three for three now, on not having read Dongwon’s big examples. I don’t know why that one gets more attention than the others. But it’s…
[Dongwon] But it’s…
[Dan] Go ahead.
[Dongwon] I think it’s a little bit of the person slipping through the detective. Right? You just get this digression where he can’t contain his irritation with the world. He can’t contain the reasons why he’s chosen to exit society and live this itinerant life. Right? He’s an outsider, an outsider by choice, because he can’t even be bothered to care about who’s President, because to him, it doesn’t matter and it won’t matter because whoever it is, it sucks. Right?
[Mary Robinette] Well, structurally, what he’s doing, like, every time he’s got a longer sentence, it is actually a sentence about him. “At 12 o’clock, I was eating eggs and drinking coffee,” is longer. “I was wet and tired after a long walk and heavy rains.” “I was in a booth at a window, reading somebody’s abandoned newspaper.” It’s… When we get even a hint of interiority that we linger on things. But the other thing I think is that part of the reason that he stretches that out is because the character’s a little bit bored. This is… It’s not en… It’s not so much that we get bored, too. It’s just enough for us to say, “Oh, he was there for a little while reading this. Then stuff started going down.”
[Dongwon] Which he’s still not interested in.
[Mary Robinette] He’s still not interested. Exactly. Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] I do bef… I do need to pause us for the book of the week, and then we’ll come back and talk about some more things. The book of the week this time is one that I want to talk about that Dan wrote.
[Dan] Yay.
[Mary Robinette] So, Ghost Station by Dan Wells is also a… It’s a Cold War spy thriller. I listened to the audiobook, which is fantastic. It’s beautifully narrated. It is not science fiction or fantasy, so those of you who know Dan that way, this is straight up historical fiction. It’s right… Right like a week or so after the [inaudible]
[Howard] Berlin airlift.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s right after the Berlin wall goes up. It is twisty, it is tightly paced, you’re deeply in the main character’s head, who’s a cryptographer. What he notices and doesn’t notice is so important to the entirety of the book. This is… It’s a great book. One of the things were going to be talking about when we come af… Come back from me raving about how much I love this book, and I loved it a lot, is we’re going to be talking about foreshadowing. Listening to this book and listening to it twice, it is, in and of itself, a master class and how to handle foreshadowing.
[Dan] Well, thank you.

[Dongwon] One other thing I want to point out, which is a very small note here. But we’ve been talking a lot about how saying your book should be for somebody, not for everybody. But he does something that is so canny in this newspaper line where he talks about a campaign for a President that I didn’t vote for last time and wasn’t going to vote for this time. I don’t care where you are on the political spectrum, you feel that, right? You could be left, you could be right, you could be a libertarian, you could be a communist. Anybody is going to read that line and be like, “Yeah. That President. I know which one you’re talking about.” They’re all… Everyone has a different person in mind. It’s so smart that he doesn’t alienate anybody, but still talks about politics, because that’s how we all feel about politics, right? So it’s just this tiny little moment where sometimes withholding specificity can open the door to identification. Even though most of the time the more specific you are, the more you’re going to find that connection.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The reason he can get away with it here is because he does not care about it.
[Dongwon] Yeah.
[Mary Robinette] So he’s being nonspecific about a thing he doesn’t care about.
[Dongwon] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] But I want to talk about the foreshadowing which is that he… He opens with, “I was arrested at…” And then he… Essentially, what he does is everything that follows that is a flashback. Until the arrest happens. So he’s saying, “Bear with me. Bear with me, I’m going to get to the good stuff.” So that’s… We can call that foreshadowing, although it’s… Or we can call it a very brief cold open, and then flashback. But he also does some other interesting foreshadowing in here that I’m going to have Dongwon talk about.
[Dongwon] Yeah. So I think the other foreshadowing that’s going on here is… The thing that makes all of this remarkable is his complete disinterest in his complete lack of fear about getting arrested. That tells us so much about who he is as a person. One thing is that he’s white, he’s a man, he has all these elements that don’t make him afraid. But also, he’s police. He was formerly a military police, which is a thing that will learn later. So he has a connection to these people. He’s not afraid of them, he knows how they operate. Then the thing that comes immediately after where we stopped the reading is that this operation was for me. He knows they’re coming for him, not the cooks, not the waitress. He’s the target here because he knows he’s a dangerous person, or capable of great danger. What this is all setting up is that the police are interested in him, that they’re not interested in him because he committed a crime. They’re interested in him for some other reason. That’s adding this layer of foreshadowing, adding these layers of questions as to what is going on, what’s going to happen. Now, what’s going to happen is he’s going to be forced into working for the police to help them find the killer, right? There’s such an expectation across the structure of so many of these thrillers, but again, he’s blasé about men with shotguns and handguns charging at him is indicative of both his control of the situation and that foreshadowing, that foreshadowing that he knows that he can be useful to them and that that’s why they want him at the end of the day, not because he is a criminal.
[Dan] Yeah. Now, one of the kind of key principles of a character introduction is that we need to know not only who this person is but why do we like them. This extreme competence and lack of fear that you’re talking about is a big part of why we start to like this guy. But I’m reading ahead a little bit, and in the next paragraph, he has this huge thing where he talks about reason after reason that he knows they’re coming for him and for nobody else. So what does he do? He finishes his eggs, and then he puts a five dollar bill under his plate. Because he knows he’s about to get arrested, he knows he’s not going to have time to pay, but he wants to make sure that this diner doesn’t get shafted out of the money he owes them. That says an incredible amount about the character.

[Dongwon] One last thing I want to bring up is this language isn’t beautiful. It’s short sentences, it’s blunt sentences, it’s very simple. But actually, the imagery is quite beautiful. He pauses in the middle of this scene to say, “Outside the rain had stopped, but the glass was still pebbled with bright drops.” Then he like kind of jumps forward to “light bars flashing and popping, red and blue light on the raindrops on my window.” He’s pausing for these rich visual images. I know exactly what this diner looks like. I can see it in my mind. I can feel the vinyl of those booths. I can smell it. You know what I mean? He’s so evocative with his imagery. We get caught up in the staccato pacing of it, his observations, that sort of like military mind looking for the threats and dangers. But the writer behind that is showing us a rich and textured world. So, just because you’re being blunt, doesn’t mean you can’t have beauty in what you’re doing. That you can’t have aesthetics really coming forward in a powerful way. One of the things that makes this work so well for me is it’s operating on like all these different layers at once. It’s just firing on every cylinder, character, plot, setting, writing, all those things are really coming into play here in a way that I find incredibly exciting and absolutely makes me want to turn to the next page and find out, okay, what happens when the cops get in the door? Okay, what happens when he gets to the station? Okay, what happens at the next step of the investigation? Everything is just pulling me forward like a freight train. For me, I find it irresistible.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I would also argue, having… Since we just did the master classes with Amal about poetry, that this is actually beautiful language, and that if you took this and did a paragraph break where most of these periods are, that… And presented a chunk of this as free verse poetry to someone, that they would believe you and would talk about the capture of individual elements.
[Dan] Yeah. Well, this has a lot of that density of kind of meaning that we talked about with Amal. Sentences like here “I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot.” That’s a visual detail, but that’s also an audible detail. Because we can hear instantly what tires on gravel sounds like. We know that, and it’s very familiar. There’s a lot of different sensory information all packed into very small spaces.
[Howard] Yeah. I noticed, scanning back over it, that he doesn’t use comparison to describe things. There are places where he uses words that might more commonly be used to describe other things. “They were moving fast and crunched to a stop,” gives us a sound effect as they are stopping. But it’s very straightforward description. He doesn’t compare the red and blue lights on the raindrops to something else to help us see red and blue flashing through the raindrops. He just calls it like it is. It’s very direct.
[Mary Robinette] That is consistent with the character.

[Mary Robinette] Which brings us to our homework. Dongwon, I think you have that this week.
[Dongwon] So, I think our homework is to sort of take what’s been done here, and take a lesson from that. Write an introduction to your story that focuses on entirely the character’s view of the world. Maybe, again, take that scene that you worked on for the past couple homeworks, and rewrite it again. Not necessarily the character reflecting on their interiority, but how does the character interact with the world? How do they see the world, both in mechanical and philosophical ways? How is what is happening in the world around them filtered through their point of view? When we say point of view, this is what we’re talking about.
[Mary Robinette] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.