What I learned from Robert Ludlum (#SFWApro)

A while back I mentioned reading Fritz Leiber’s “Four Ghosts in Hamlet” without really getting any insight into problems with my own theatrical ghost story. I had better luck rereading Robert Ludlum’s The Matarese Circle.

One of the standard criticisms I get from beta readers is that when I shift between POVs in a novel, it’s confusing and doesn’t engage readers. Another is that if I have a big cast up front, my readers don’t know who to root for — who’s the protagonist? Ludlum’s novel has lots of scene/POV changes and the two protagonists (Brandon Scofield and Valenti Taleniekov) don’t appear until Chapter Three.

Instead, the opening chapter starts from the POV of a disgruntled Army officer driving his superior to a whorehouse on Christmas Eve. POV switches to the general, who’s gunned down in the middle of sex. Then to the Oval Office where the president gets a list of the five Soviet assassins most likely responsible (Taleniekov is one of them). Only the Soviet premier calls and informs the president all five are accounted for (proof to follow) and that no-one on the Soviet side is responsible.

Cut to a similar assassination at a Soviet military officer’s dachau, a similar report to the premier (with Scofield highlighted) and a similar conversation with the US president. Only then do we shift to Scofield, in the middle of an unrelated operation which goes sour, and then to Taleniekov, as an elderly spy tells him the secret of the Matarese Circle.

Other than reading the back of the book, there’s nothing in the first two scenes to indicate who the protagonist is. Almost nobody in the opening scenes turns up again, which I’ve heard argued is a Fatal Mistake: no reader wants to invest in characters who just disappear! Nevertheless, it works.

Why? Hmm, possibly the people who want the protagonist clearly introduced are just a minority viewpoint.

Also possibly it’s because the opening is gripping. We have sex, murder, conflict (the disgruntled officer is a minor but interesting character), hints of something very big at the international level … and Ludlum takes his time with it. I’ve known thrillers that would seemingly hurl the action at me non-stop and then move to the hero getting involved. While Ludlum does get wordy in spots, the detail in the setting makes it work.

I’m not sure how well that translates into what I’m doing but I’ll certainly keep in mind.

As for POV shifts, I notice Ludlum is very careful not to make them too short, though when the action is building, they come faster. And it’s usually clear how each scene ties into the overall plot (I think that may be one of my problems). The scenes end at the “right” place, which is some sort of resting place in quiet moments, a cliffhanger when things are revving up. That, I think I’m pretty good at, but I’ll watch closely.

I’ll save the actual review of the book for Saturday, but as a learning experience, it was excellent.


Filed under Reading, Writing

3 responses to “What I learned from Robert Ludlum (#SFWApro)

  1. I read the sequel to this, the Matarese Countdown, when I went through a Ludlum phase a few years back. They are well-plotted and exciting, but after reading 4-5 of his books in a short period, they became too formulaic. That said, I might checkout the Matarese Circle – it sounds like a good read.

  2. I agree, Ludlum is not something to binge read.But yes, Circle is worth checking out.

  3. Pingback: Books I’ve been reading, mostly on vacation (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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