Learning from Lee Child

A few weeks ago I was asked to do manuscript evaluations at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference. After reading the first 20 pages of a few of these, I started noticing that the writers were having a difficult time getting the story going. Sometimes the author  started out with a long description of the weather. Sometimes he began with  a prologue that delayed the beginning of the real story in order to  frontload some backstory information into the text.  Sometimes he just seemed to be in love with his own vocabulary.  I realized that by the time I was 20 pages into these submissions, I  didn’t know much about what these stories were really about.

I decided that it might be useful to analyze the start of a crime novel by a really good writer. Here is the first 200 words of  The Killing Floor by Lee Child. Let’s read the complete text below and then go over it line by line and see exactly how much story Lee Child packs into these very few words.

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.

Now let’s take it one line at a time.

I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee.

By the third word we know a very important piece of information,  that this is going to be a crime story.  The narrator and main character, Jack Reacher, is in a diner, not at his supper club.  This tells us that he is a guy who lacks pretension. He’s having eggs and coffee, not brioche and cappuccinos.

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.

He sets the scene. It’s  daytime. It’s raining. Lee Child isn’t spending much time giving the weather report. Just what you need to know. And he gets a lot of other information in as well. The fact that he is walking in the rain instead of driving tells you more about Reacher, that he is modest, that his tastes are simple. He didn’t drive up in a Ferrari or a Buick. He walked.  And he’s walking from the highway to the edge of town. He’s coming into the town, not going to the diner from his home. He’s an outsider.

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.

Nice short description of the scene. Most people already know what a diner looks like. So he doesn’t need to embellish much.  He focuses on the big design. Bright and clean, resembles a railroad car, etc. Doesn’t bother to go into the details, what’s on the wall, color of the table tops.  The reader doesn’t need to know all these details, and Reacher, the narrator, wouldn’t be noticing them either. That isn’t what Reacher is all about.  The fact that it is a diner also  sends a kind of ineffable message. There’s a noir quality to the scene.

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

Tells us more about the kind of guy Reacher is. He’s  cynical and worldly wise. Not sentimental and not  an idealist, not an intellectual. Doesn’t suffer fools.  (He’s reading a discarded newspaper, not a copy of Hegel’s philosophy.) And notice how he uses short choppy sentences, sometimes just phrases. The words are simple.  You wouldn’t find Reacher in a Henry James novel.

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.

Now the action begins.  It starts right out of the gate. Lee Child’s delivers. We are about 150 words into the book. And the police cars pull up with lights flashing and popping. The cops burst in armed to the teeth. Covering all the doors.  We already know they want Reacher.

Hey –  let’s turn the page!

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3 Responses to “Learning from Lee Child”

  1. Gunnar Hansen Says:

    “The diner was small, but bright and clean.” An interesting reference, too, to Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

  2. andyrossagency Says:

    I never associate Lee Child with literary allusions, but who knows?

  3. Jess Says:

    Just came across this post. Interesting. I wrote a novel targeting the Christian industry. None of the publishers my ‘then-agent’ sent it to were interested. I read The Killing Floor and rewrote, picking up the pace, cutting out all the Christianity, a lot of introspection, and getting to the point on the first page. My first 50 pages placed with top 10 finalist in the 2011 Killer Nashville contest, and it won FIRST PLACE in a Mystery/suspense/Thriller category of the 2011 Christian Writers of The West contest. All this to say, Lee Child is really an excellent writer to study and your post is excellent.

    Now … to explore your archives. :)

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