Tag Archives: Lee Child

Pacing, Description, and Painted Toes

Pacing is a tricky learning curve for some, like me.  Other writers seem to have an intuitive feel for it and know just when to give us that beautifully painted descriptive passage that informs character and even moves the story along.  Whenever my co-editors Jen and Sue read their work during our Writing Circles sessions, I’m always gobsmacked at the brilliance of their pacing.

viellaHow often we read this criticism of novelists and short fiction writers:  “Too much description.”  Although sometimes that’s right on, more frequently I find that description is misplaced.  One of the ways a master storyteller shows his or her skill is by knowing where a descriptive passage works, and where it must not set one painted toe.

And it’s worth learning where in story structure these places are.  For example, during the quiet moments where the character is finding that he or she is not what she was, description adds to the importance of the moment, and of course you want to get out the brush and paints when you’re drawing out a reveal moment (the unopened letter’s in his hand, the stranger’s on her doorstep).  GG winner Joan MacLeod nails the placement in her perfect story ‘The Salt Tour’ in Issue 3 of Pulp Literature. Best selling thriller writers like Lee Child are masters at knowing exactly when to use description and figurative language and you can examine a book chapter by chapter to see where he’s placing action, description and figurative language.  For a perfect example of description informing plot, conflict, and character, take a look at the moment Harry Potter first enters Hogwarts dining hall.

I think of description like caesura in music.  Stop on the wrong bar, it’s a hand in the face. When it’s rightly placed, wow.

Scene Cuts: What Can You Teach Me Today, Lee Child? Part 2

leechildmay1How can a writer cut scenes to raise tension and keep the reader up late at night?

Returning to A Wanted Man, I notice that Lee Child cuts the scene right after the moment when the characters realize that the stakes are ramped up. FBI Agent Sorenson, investigating a kidnapping, says to her investigating partner,

“She’s seen their faces. They’ll kill her.”

Structurally, we’d expect to see our characters react to this raising of the stakes, but Lee Child cuts the scene right there. He doesn’t show the investigators’ reactions because our reaction will be just the same as that of the investigating team. Tension rises even more sharply when we readers feel the fear for the kidnapped woman first hand, rather than second hand through narration.

If the characters’ reactions had been different than the reader’s reaction—for example, if an antagonist felt guilt, calculation or satisfaction about the hostage’s situation, or even if the two investigating characters had experienced differing individual reactions—then wouldn’t our master writer love extending that scene!

Thanks very much for your help once again, Mr Child.


Lee Child, A Wanted Man. Bantam Press, London, 2012.


What Can You Teach Me Today, Lee Child?

What can you teach me today? I ask one favourite author after another.  Your book woke me at two AM.  What makes you such a wonderful storyteller?

Today I’m looking at an exchange between Lee Child’s FBI investigator Julia Sorenson and the FBI nightshift technician who has answers that she needs to catch two murderers by morning.*  Sorenson, in Writers’ Journey** terms, is the hero in this exchange.  We will see what the FBI technician, who ought to be an ally, reveals himself to be.  As well, I’m fascinated to see how the exchanges of power between them will ramp up the tension.

Sorenson begins the phone exchange.

“I need to know about the victim.”

(Her goal clearly stated, for the technician and for us).

T “Can’t help you there.”

(In four words, the technician reveals himself as a threshold guardian/gatekeeper who must be turned.)

As of now, the Technician holds the power in the relationship.

S “I need your impressions.”

(A professional courtesy to lowly technician)

T “I’m a scientist.  I was out sick the day they taught Clairvoyance 101.”

(I’m not a technician, I’m a scientist god, lofty and unreachable. You shall not pass.)

S “You could make some educated guesses.”

(Yes, you are a scientist, so how about some of those godlike scientist powers).

T “What’s the hurry?”

 (The scientist is soothed, but won’t sacrifice godlike competence to speed.)

S “I’m getting hassle through two separate back channels.”

(The tease. Will he bite?)

T “Who?”

Now, Sorenson holds the power. She is the gatekeeper to inside knowledge.

 S “First the State Department, and now the CIA.”

She has given him the answer, so now the technician has the power back. But he’s so lofty that he has to show off.

 T “They’re not separate. The State Department is the political wing of the CIA.”

(He has allowed her foot inside his gate. Is she strong enough to force it open?)

 S “And we’re the FBI, and we’re the good guys here, and we can’t afford to look slow or incompetent. “

(Note his first reasons for guarding the info; she turns perceived danger on its head.)

S “Or unimaginative.”

(ramps up the danger to T)

S “So I’d like some impression from you (a beat) or informed opinion (a second beat) or whatever else they taught you to call it in Cover Your Ass 101. (She’s through the gate, he’s blooded and swords are locked. Will he yield?)

The technician says,

“What kind of opinion?”

And the power struggle continues.

 Thank you very much indeed, Mr Child.

A Wanted Man, Lee Child, ch 23. Bantam, 2012.

**The Hero’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Arthur Vogel. 3rd Ed. Michael Wiese Productions, 2007.