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 writers who strive to improve their craft benefit from reading the work of others in their genre.
In developing my Crime and Passion Universe, I also created my own understanding of the elements of the spy thriller 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:
- 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 rogue nuclear submarine (very large object).
- 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 Secret Service 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.
- 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 Dark Honey involves a young spy trying to find, fix, and finish a traitor to her mission of stopping sex slavery. The “Magic It” here is a person who happens to be her former mentor and lover (creating multiple sources of inherent conflict). There are two opposing groups; one group of spies trying to catch the target and another group of spies trying to protect him. Both groups need to use secrecy and deception in an international game of cat and mouse. By creating Dark Honey to satisfy the elements of spy thrillers, I built a stronger narrative that can hopefully appeal to the people who devour this genre every year in books, TV shows, and movies.
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, and if my premise is interesting to you, join my Kickstarter to get your copy of Dark Honey and all the other books in the world of Crime and Passion.