How to Write a Spy Novel
So… you said you really like spy stories, and I just got an idea for a spy story. :D The problem is, I know diddly squat (er… my mom says that; I’m not sure if anyone else does! :D ) about spies and spy stories. :P Is there anything I need to know about them… or should I just wing it and see what I end up with? ;)
Love in Christ,
First off: DON’T WING IT! Whatever you do, do not wing the spy novel. I winged my first spy novel plot and ended up with so many twists and subplots with no resolutions that you couldn’t see the main plot (OK, slight exaggeration). If you get an idea that will change everything mid way through, great, but plot it out first and see if it’s vaguely plausible.
A spy novel needs to be thought out beforehand, even more so than novels of most genres. Unlike, say, a quest fantasy, where plot points can be shuffled or cut out or added without too much trouble, everything needs to be compactly connected to the main plot. (Unplotted) whims simply do not have a place.
I know you’re very excited and want to sit down and start writing right away, but you shouldn’t. If you start before you have your twists and ever-so-important plot points planned, you will be tempted to throw in twists and sidetracks and obstacles at every turn. This breaks the pace and spell, not to mention you run the risk of losing the main plot. No matter how big a panster you are (I’m right there with you), you need to accept this. Plot your major points. Plot your major twists. Plot your ending. Make a dreaded outline.
While plotting, make sure you do not lapse into a dreaded cliche. This is generally true for all genres, but in a spy novel you simply can’t get away with it. Ever since the spy novel was invented, people have been searching for plot twists and uniqueness. I’d say “There isn’t much left,” but imagination is boundless, so there is plenty left. You just have to find it.
A rule of thumb: if you’ve seen it done once, there are a lot of people who have seen it done a thousand times. TVtropes has an excellent list of spy tropes, many of which are cliches or have cliche versions. I highly recommend it.
There isn’t much unique to spy novels as a genre. First and foremost, they are thrillers. Knowing how to write fight scenes, chase scenes, and standoffs (ooh, I’m getting future post ideas) is imperative. That was one of my goofs in winging a spy novel: I didn’t know how to write a fight scene. I figured that out at the first one that came along and quickly searched for the information now contained in the above link.
But those are not the defining element of thrillers. Suspense is, and it is made in many ways.
Pacing is key. There should never be a relaxing moment for your characters. This doesn’t mean you should annoy your reader by keeping the pace racing ahead at headache speed. But something should always be happening. If there is a “dull” moment it needs to be peppered by the fact something else is going on at the same time and the point of view character knows it. In other words, keep scenes tense either for the characters or the reader.
You keep the reader tense by keeping secrets from them. Never, ever let the reader know everything. Give them just enough information to keep reading, wondering what the whole picture is. Scatter the hints naturally. Kill every single info dump and spread the information through a scene or two in suspenseful snippets.
For example, if you start a scene with a man hiding in a room, the reader wants to know from whom he is hiding, why they want him, and what his plans are. In that order. So give the answers in the reverse order. The man loads his gun. His plan. He positions himself. In between text. Next the man destroys a piece of paper, thinking he can’t afford it to fall in the wrong hands. Why his enemies want him (and a new question – What was on the paper?). There are noises, and the man prepares himself. In between text. KGB agents walk in. Who he is hiding from. The entire scene can end without the question of what was on the paper being revealed.
This tension and suspense would be completely destroyed if the man curses his enemies at the beginning of the scene, reads the contents before destroying the paper, and is then forced to action when the agents walk in.
Never do the expected, either. This is hard, because we want to go with the first scenario that comes to our mind. Thing is, the first scenario that comes to our mind has been done before. A lot. Take the time to think of unique and different twists. Think about what is expected in a situation – what would normally happen, what would a person normally act – and take an opposite route. This is fresh and new and most importantly, different. The reader wants to know how this different thing will turn out.
Some genres can get away with bending facts. Soft science fiction comes to mind. But a spy novel can not. The basic premise of spy novels – daredevil heroes running around on wild, exciting, adventuresome missions – is less than factual. Everything else must be, otherwise you lose the world, reader, and trust.
If you are going to use spy gear and guns, research them. If your spy is hopping around countries and borders, research and create plausible political scenarios (Don’t have your spy running to North Korea when they need a break.). It pays to do your geographical and cultural research. Little real details can make an incredible difference.
In short, plot it, be unique, know what you’re doing, be suspenseful, and be accurate. With a healthy dose of writing knowledge, these will help you write a spy novel that stands out.
Have you ever written a spy novel? Do you have any other tips about how to write them? Do you read spy novels? If so, what do you look for in a new read?
Posted on February 20, 2011, in Adventure/Thriller, How to Edit, On Writing, Posts by Genre, Spy Novels and tagged how to write, plotting, spy, suspense, thriller. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.