Monday, 3 January 2011

Eight Writing Lessons from Larsson

Love him or loath him, there's no denying his sales, and only the most ardent refusenik could say his novels aren't compelling and interesting. So what's the secret?

No secret, just good story-telling techniques:

An effective prologue

After two chapters of info-dump in the first 'Girl' novel, Larsson had learnt his lesson by the second. He starts with a disturbing, intriguing and immediately compelling prologue, the full meaning of which is only realised much later in the novel, and with an interesting twist. The lesson for prologues? Provide an immediate hook, keep them relevant, and use them to provide narrative propulsion by foreshadowing.

Tell don't show

There are whole swathes of 'telling' in Larsson's novels – but the truth is the material is so interesting you don't care. Lesson? If your story is that good you can tell it how you want.

Convincing story-world

Larsson achieves this in two ways – firstly, he knows his material - his journalistic background adds weight to his depiction of Blomkvist's world and allows the reader to surrender to the story; his research into security tradecraft and hacking is deep enough to be convincing. Secondly, he drops in a lot of incidental details that add colour and depth to the story-world – the light, the weather, what characters are wearing etc. – but he drops these details in deftly amongst the most driving narrative, so they don't slow down the pace. Lesson? Authoritative material and convincing detail will encourage the reader to surrender to your world and therefore your narrative – not so much write what you know, but know what you write.

No purple prose

Hardly a metaphor or simile in sight. I don't know about you, but there's nothing that turns me off a story more than a ropy metaphor, nothing that makes me more aware of the author, and perhaps more ominously their talent or lack of it, than an unconvincing simile - and if you can't move for the things, you know the author is really trying a little too hard. Lesson? A telling, truthful detail is more compelling than an author demonstrating lyrical skills.

Keep two characters that should be together apart

He did it in the first book and he did it in the second – he kept Salander and Blomkvist apart but revealed to the reader that these guys just had to get together to effectively bring the story to a close. It's a device frequently used in romance novels – Larsson shows it can be used just as effectively in a thriller. The lesson? When two characters are in need of each other, keeping them apart provides narrative propulsion.

Sex (without emotional complications)

Blomkvist can sleep with Berger and her husband doesn't mind, Salander has friends who are happy for her to drop by when she's feeling horny with no suggestion of commitment. Perhaps it's just me, but sex normally comes with a whole heap of emotional strings and complications and expectations, so it's fun to inhabit a world where it comes a little easier than that. Decoupling sex and emotion for me rips out a lot of dramatic potential from a story, but Larsson keeps it interesting. Still, it makes for quite a sterile view of sex, particularly when placed alongside the sex-crime elements of the books.

Jump-cut between narrative threads

Jump-cutting is a cinematic device where the narrative immediately switches to another thread without transition. It keeps things pacy and interesting because narrative focus changes before interest can wane. It works particularly well in narrative form as it's a good vehicle for dramatic irony, whereby the reader knows things that the characters don't. Larsson uses this device particularly well to keep the pace up and also to heighten dramatic tension, but Larsson adds something extra - each narrative thread is essentially different aspects of the same story, so the reader doesn't have to re-engage with each thread, which can be a disadvantage of jumping between threads. Lesson? Use jump-cutting to add pace, dramatic irony, and further exploit the dramatic potential of your story.

Everybody loves a mystery

It's as old as the hills but there's no doubt that this is a major propulsive element of Larsson's novels to differing degrees. How often have you sat through a dodgy TV movie just because you had to find out what happened in the end? Larsson captures that but manages to tell you a compelling story in the mean time. Lesson? Well, you can figure that one out for yourself…


  1. Agree with everything here except for the telling part. I did at times get a bit bored with the large swathes of telling. Subsequently, I felt the book could have easily been 100 pages shorter and not lost a thing, mostly in the first half of the book. Very good story none the less.

  2. Hey JDuncan - thanks for stopping by and commenting. Certainly agree with you re. telling in the first book, but in the second, it seemed to work for me. I was devouring pages of stuff when I stopped and thought - hey, this is pure telling, and I could only put it down to the fact that I really wanted to know the detail so I didn't mind - but then I was reading it on my new Kindle - so maybe I was just loving the tech!

  3. James, thanks for this. I read the first chapter of Dragon Tattoo and couldn't stand the narrative voice, nor did I care about what he was setting up. I watched the film, hoping the story would do its magic if grafted into a different medium, but didn't really click with it even then. So I really wanted to know why so many people DID devour it, and its sequels. Which you have demonstrated here, with excellent reasons. I may find the books unreadable, but your post is very convincing and useful.

  4. In truth, Roz, I nearly gave up on Dragon Tattoo as well - I found the first two chapters hard going, loads of back-story and telling, but persevered because someone I trusted had recommended it, so I had to believe it got better, and by the third chapter thankfully it had. What eventually pulled me in was the story-world - I found that I was drawn into it. The fact remains that if there hadn't been such a fuss about it, I would have given it up, and I can't help but wonder what made the editor persevere beyond those first two chapters - one has to assume that the synopsis was great. A good story generally makes a good synopsis easier to write.

    The second book - playing with fire - I only tried because it was cheap and I wanted something to read on my new Kindle. Strangely I don't think I would have bought a hard-copy because I felt that I had 'done' Larsson - but found myself gripped from the very start. I think he got his opening very much sorted for the second book.

  5. I'd like to see a transcript of the editorial meetings where they negotiated about what to cut from book 1! Interesting that you nearly gave up too. Maybe I'm too cruel... ;)

  6. I don't think so - life's way to short to persist with a book you're not enjoying.