Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Secret Struggle for the Magic It (How to Write Spy Fiction)

According to Robert McKee’s excellent book on screenwriting, you can’t write in a particular genre until you understand the conventions and elements that it demands. This is one of the reasons that writers who strive to improve their craft benefit from reading the work of others who have mastered a specific genre.

In developing the script for my own novel, I also created my own understanding of the elements of the spy fiction genre. I’d like to share this concept here (along with pertinent examples where I can find them) in the hopes that it will help increase your appreciation of both the spy fiction specifically and the creation of genre fiction in general.

The Elements of Spy Fiction
Based on my exposure to classic and modern spy fiction, there are three fundamental elements that can be described simply as the secret struggle for the magic it. I’ll break down these concepts to make them more understandable:
  1. The “Magic It”: There is a person, object or piece of information that drives the story. Whatever this “it” happens to be, it is so important that people are willing to kill and risk their lives for it. For example, in Skyfall the “magic it” starts off as a list of undercover agents (information). In Spy Game, the “magic it” is the spy held in the Chinese prison that is scheduled to be executed (person). In The Hunt for Red October, the “magic it” is a rouge nuclear submarine (very large object).
  2. The Opposing Groups: There are at least two people, agencies, or countries struggling to acquire whatever the “magic it” happens to be. For example, in Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy the opposing groups are the British Circus and Moscow Center. In La Femme Nikita the opposing groups are Covert One and Red Cell, while The Bourne Identity pits rival factions within the CIA itself as the opposing groups.
  3. The Secret Struggle: For reasons that are inherently logical to the story, the opposing groups need to keep their conflict hidden from the outside world. This is what separates spy fiction from most mysteries, thrillers and legal or police suspense novels. Both the protagonist and the antagonist work from the shadows, employing similar techniques of stealth and deception. In many spy classics, it is often difficult to tell who the “good” and “bad” guys are based purely on what they do. This gray area is one of the elements that make stories like The Gentleman’s Game, Rain Fall and Ronin so compelling. The definitions of right and wrong often boil down to malleable issues of money, ideology, coercion and excitement.

Applying the Elements to My Own Work

The premise of the book I am writing now involves a young spy who is forced to infiltrate an international smuggling ring by seducing the leader of the group. The “Magic It” here is information. The protagonist has to find proof that her lover is tied to arms smuggling. There are two opposing groups; the mercenary spies sent to infiltrate the smugglers and the smugglers themselves. Both groups need to use secrecy and deception, either to illegally ship weapons around the world or get into a position to stop those shipments. By creating a story that satisfies the elements of spy fiction, I can build a stronger narrative that can hopefully appeal to the millions of people who devour this genre every year in books, TV shows and movies.

The Dark Side

While understanding the conventions of any fictional genre can satisfy the expectations of the audience, writers must, at the same time, be very aware of the clichés that are particular to their genre. Avoiding these pitfalls is the difference between creating a classic story and a half-baked mess. Next week, I’ll try to define what the differences are between conventions and clichés and explain how my novel will try to rise above the ordinary.

So what are the elements of your favorite fictional genre? How do your favorite books capture or transcend the conventions of the genre and redefine them? Let me know what you think in the comments...

Have fun.


  1. Tough question. I get a lot of books sent to me by guests and I buy a few on my own and have a vast collection in my personal library. Genre, for me, is not as important as voice, style and technique are when it comes to deciding whether I like a book or not. This applies to fiction as well as non fiction. In fiction, I'm drawn to narratives that are compact yet engaging. I hate 'fluff'. I can spot it a mile away. It makes me think the author is just writing to reach a word limit even though that may not be the case. Prose should be poetry with legs. Perhaps the easiest way to get my point across is through example. I read a James Patterson book this year, finished it in a couple of days and threw it in a corner somewhere hoping that I'll never have to find it again. All gimmickry and no depth. I also read Dennis Lehane's, Shutter Island, and was caught up in the story from beginning to end. The prose was so rich you could cut it with a knife but it did not slow down the pace of the plot at all. I keep re-reading, Jorge Luis Borge's fictions because they are cerebral, imaginative and reflective of a mind that knows literature. I'll never get tired of his writing. Everybody is writing today and everyone wants to be a niche writer--terrorist plots, erotica, etc. A lot of the stuff people send me suck. Mommy blogger wants to be the next J.K. Rowling but barely made it through community college. Scientific genius wants to be the next Arthur C. Clarke but knows nothing about real life dialogue outside the classroom. I guess what I'm saying is that people who have really lived life and read a lot of literature and passed a few English classes shine on the page and I see it immediately. The rest are like the millions of failed entrepreneurs of the 90's who thought they could make a fast buck in a growing market but didn't even know how to compose a basic HTML document. And the literary agents and publishers who push their garbage because it's trendy really get my goat, too, as you well know. To use a phrase from one of Jim Morrison's songs, the late Doors singer, and apply it to literature being produced today, I conclude with his words: True sailing is dead.

  2. At this point, to keep it simple, I would say that my novel is Mythiopedia, but I think most think of it as Paranormal.