In these days when supplements drool over the latest serial boxset and books are read on screens, it’s hardly suprising there’s a new breed of writers who like to keep a foot across different mediums.
Gregg Hurwitz is one of those guys, which is perhaps why his novels manage to be so pacey and tightly-structured – the story unfolds tightly and logically, like a screenplay – and yet remain grounded in rock-solid characterization. The Survivor was his last book, published last year I think, and it hurtles along like an episode of 24.
Nate Overbay is ex-military, suffering from PTSD, and is also in the early stages of a fatal degenerate disease – Lou Gehrig’s. Consumed with survivor’s guilt, Nate’s been on a downward spiral, and his wife and daughter now live with another guy. We first meet Nate on the ledge of a bank, intending to end it all by jumping into a dumpster. Instead, he witnesses a brutal robbery. Not caring whether he lives or dies, Nate heads inside and shoots dead most of the robbers. But his insane act of heroism infuriates Pavlo, the Ukranian gangster behind the robbery, who demands Nate gets the safe deposit box his thugs were after – or his wife and daughter die.
Hurwitz continually cranks up the tension so that poor old Nate is overwhelmed by his awful situation, and delivers a succession tense set-pieces. There’s a great scene when Nate has to sneak back into the bank in order to get the document that Pavlo’s thugs failed to acquire.
But Hurwitz also knows that a protagonist – in one-shot novels, at least – must be changed by his experience. As well as having an external journey – to save his family – Nate also has a personal journey to take – to turn away from suicide and become once again engaged with the world.
And remember what we noticed about Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex, the way the plot continually twisted this way and that, undermining our expectations. In The Survivor, there’s a terrific what-the-heck midpoint moment where one character does something so immensely stupid that you want to strangle them. It’s a breathtaking moment, and it sends Nate’s predicament to a totally different level.
The Survivor has got a hell of an antagonist, too – he’s kind of an evil mirror-image of Nate – a monster who does awful things for very personal reasons, and there are times when you actually feel an unexpected sympathy for Pavlo. That’s terrific writing.
Hurwitz clearly has stories in his DNA. He studied Shakespeare at university and writes for television – he produced and wrote episodes of the ‘V’ remake that was on last year – and as well as his other novels, which include the equally excellent You’re Next, he writes comics such as Batman and Wolverine.
What I liked: We first meet Nate on that ledge at the bank, just on the verge of the action, looking in to see the robbery begin. Hurwitz doesn’t leave us hanging for three chapters while he fills us in on Nate’s military history and his illness and his estrangement from his family. There’s no faffing about – he smashes us straight into the story, and Nate’s backstory is allowed to unfurl along the way.
Giving your character a problem from page one is a good way of getting your readers to immediately engage with them, and it dispenses with a lot of set-up that could dangerously slow the pace.
Another technique that’s common in crime thrillers is to introduce a protagonist in a moment of crisis near the end or the middle of the book and then flashback to how the story started – but unless you’ve got a few surprises up your sleeve along the way, it can be a hard trick to pull off.
What about you? How do you like to start your stories?
Do you like to begin with a bit of slam-bang action, or something more leisurely, that enables the reader to get to know, and to like, your protagonist? Are your beginnings bang-bang or kiss-kiss?