A couple of month's ago, I came across one of my favorite books on the shelves of a local Salvation Army Thrift Store. It was Red Storm Rising--Tom Clancy's classic military fiction novel. The topic is World War 3 in Europe and the North Atlantic. Tom Clancy does a lot of things right in this novel and any genre writer can learn from his techniques.
Hooking the Reader.
First, Red Storm Rising opens with action. A audacious act of terrorism acts as the catalyst that starts a chain of decisions that lead to war. As the attack unfolds, the reader wonders what it means and where it will lead. I first read this novel as a college student back in the late 1980s. I started reading it on an overnight Amtrak train taking me to down to the University of Florida after a Christmas or Spring Break. I initially read half of the meaty novel in one sitting on that train. Then, when I could hold my eyes open no longer, I fell asleep with the novel open in the seatback pocket. When I woke up, it was gone! One of the first things I did when I got back to Gainesville was go to the bookstore and buy a new copy. The Cold War was still scary in the 1980s and I was hooked. If you want to be successful as a writer, you definitely need to hook readers in the first few pages. I think Tom Clancy hooked me with action from the opening pages and by igniting my desire to know what happens next.
Handling A Large Widely Dispersed Cast.
One of the biggest challenges for an author covering an epic subject like a World War is handling a large cast that is scattered across the world. One thing I noticed immediately is that Tom Clancy opens every chapter by telling readers where the characters are. It's a small thing, but it helps immensely. Clancy also creates puts his characters in widely diverse situations. He looks at the situation from the perspective of a front-line Soviet General, an American submarine captain, a U.S. frigate commander and a U.S. Naval Intelligence officer. One of the most intense subplots highlights the efforts of an Air Force meteorologist and a couple of U.S. Marines hiding on an island taken over by Soviet paratroops. By giving his characters different roles, personalities, and geographic locations, it's easy to tell them apart.
Sympathetic CharactersRed Storm Rising
offers a number of sympathetic characters. Even the "bad guys" in the novel have sympathetic characters. For example, while it is easy to portray the Soviets as evil caricatures, Tom Clancy shows us humans working within a deeply flawed and corrupt system. The war is a colossal blunder that Clancy's Russian characters are unable to stop. However, as patriots, they march onward to carry out their orders, protect their soldiers, and try to attain their goals. As readers we can sympathize with characters on all sides of the war and care about what happens to them.
Clancy hops around the world with each character's experiences providing a different perspective on the unfolding situation. Chapters are short, but they are long enough to have significant experience and shed light on the unfolding war. But, they also leave readers wanting more and needing to know what will happen next to the characters. When Tom Clancy leaves a character in a bind, you want to get back to a chapter about him to see what happens. Even in re-reading this novel, I found it hard to put down.
No matter whether you write science fiction, fantasy, or military fiction, if you are planning to write a novel with an epic scope, Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising is a good example novel to study.