WHAT ANNE PERRY DOES: SUCCESSFUL WRITING TECHNIQUES
January 22, 2016
Anne Perry. Author of the William Monk and Thomas Pitt series –The face of a Stranger; The Cater Street Hangman—Perry is an authorial behemoth. She published her first book in 1979 (The Cater Street Hangman), introducing her series character, Thomas Pitt. Since then, she’s published dozens of novels, and is an international bestseller. At seventy-seven, she still writes regularly, publishes often, and tours the world attending writers’ conferences and panels.
In short, she’s a badass.
I wanted to use this post to talk a bit about some things I noticed that Perry did in The Face of a Stranger (1990), the first book to introduce William Monk. There is much to be gleaned here, both as a writer and as a book editor (in my case).
Perry writes primarily historical fiction, crime-detective novels set in Victorian late nineteenth-century England to be specific. The Face of a Stranger is set in 1856 London. Monk wakes up on page one, barely conscious, in pain at a hospital with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. As it turns out, he works as a detective for the police and got into some trouble the night before. So, in essence, we discover his reality as he does. Great plot.
“He opened his eyes and saw nothing but a pale grayness above him, uniform, like a winter sky, threatening and heavy.”
That’s the first sentence of the novel.
Two things I notice about this right away: One, she starts the story with ACTION. Notice how she’s not solely describing something (there is description, though); she’s not TELLING the reader anything. Instead, we have a character who is actually performing an ACTION. (I keep highlighting the word ‘action’ because, as a book editor, I notice that this is often lacking.) The character is doing something, involving movement (opening his eyes). That’s key. She allows the reader to experience this action through the character’s movement, versus using summary or ‘telling’ to report something to us.
Also, she uses the active voice. Meaning that the character (‘he’ at this point) does the action, the action isn’t being done TO the character, which is passive. Passive would be if she said: “His eyes WERE open when Sally walked in.” When passive, the action is done TO the character, versus the character performing the action themselves. Readers empathize and identify more when a character DOES the action, because we can relate. We’ve probably done it, or seen it done.
“Did this man know him, or merely of him? Was he a public figure Monk ought to recognize? Or did he pursue him for some dutiful and anonymous purpose? Might he only be looking for information, or could he tell Monk something about himself more than a bare name, put flesh and memory to the bleak fact of his presence?”
The above is from page 5, and is regarding Monk thinking, wondering to himself, trying to pick up the memory pieces of his now-confusing life. What is obvious is that the narrator asks a lot of questions. I noticed that the use of internal questions were all over chapter one. Now, part of this might be due, clearly, to the plot-line: He’s woken up in a hospital without a clue who he is. Naturally, he’ll have lots of questions.
But I think also, in general, a character having internal questions re the narrator is a good device. Why? Because isn’t that how the human mind operates? We constantly ask ourselves questions, do we not? Of course we do. And that often leads to more questions, some of which eventually get answered—accurately or not—and some of which do not. But the point is: Readers can RELATE. We can empathize. And when readers can relate and empathize…readers care. And if they care…they’ll read the whole 300 pages, as long as it’s well-written and the plot and characters stay strong and engaging.
“Were they his? Surely not; the emotions jarred on him and he found himself pulling a face at the mawkishness of the subjects, even feeling a touch of contempt.”
The above is from page 12 of the novel. My observation here is EMOTION. So we have direct, active-voice action. We have a character that has internal questions which makes him relatable. And now we have emotion, which furthers our connection to the character and continues even more our likelihood of caring and following this protagonist. Since this became a long-standing series, obviously it worked.
I noticed that Perry used this emotion-technique all throughout the first chapter. And what’s interesting is that she very clearly STATES the emotion. She literally uses the word ‘emotion’ perhaps half a dozen times in chapter one. Then she will describe the emotion being referred to: terror, fright, fear, anger, jealousy, sadness, shame, regret, etc. Some novelists like to be more subtle and ‘literary’ about this touch/device—Perry is very commercial—but depending on your feelings around that, and genre books, you might take a lesson from Perry: It’s alright to concisely name the emotions your protag is dealing with.
Again, we identify. IDENTIFICATION of the reader with the main character is key. She does this strikingly. I noticed that Suzanne Collins did this same thing in The Hunger Games. Again, maybe not the best written book, but it has sold like nobody’s business. I’m not saying you should ‘copy’ Collins or Perry. I’m only suggesting you could, like myself, learn from successful authors whose books are already on the market.
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