Spoiler warning: Spoilers for the John Rain series by Barry Eisler. Also, The Detachment reached #1 on the Kindle store this week. Congrats, Barry!
I don't often read series out of order, but Barry Eisler was kind enough to send me a review copy of The Detachment
when he visited the blog. The Detachment can be read as a standalone, although there are references to events from previous books.
While I often find “here’s what you’ve missed” sections boring, I enjoyed the backstory passages in The Detachment. They actually made me eager to go back and read the previous volumes. Now why would that be? Time to dig out the old magnifying glass.
Here are some sample sections. They center on the relationship between the assassin John Rain, his hitman buddy Dox, and his ex-lover Delilah. [Note: I don't actually know for sure if they describe events from a previous book, since I haven't read them yet, but it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this blog entry.]
Passage 1 (John Rain narrating):
The three of us had been through a lot together: first, as opposing players on hair triggers; then, when Mossad had brought me in to take out a rogue Israeli bomb maker named Lavi, on the same team; and then, most improbably, watching each other's backs for reasons that had nothing to do with national interests and everything to do with personal allegiances. What had bloomed between Delilah and me, I knew, was as improbable as it was precious.
I wound up telling [another character] about Hong Kong, and Hilger, and how Dox had walked away from a $5 million payday to save my life, and how I killed two innocent people just to buy time to save Dox's life.
[Another character speaking] "You told me [Dox] saved your life."
[John Rain speaking ] "That was the obvious part. He also proved to me that I could trust somebody. Of the two, I think the second had more lasting effect."
These passages made me want to know more. But what was it about them that caught my attention?
1. They described critical decisions Someone walking away from a $5 million payday to save a friend? Killing two innocent people to buy time? The loyalties and emotions promise an engaging story. (As a side note, the way these passages tell just enough to make you want more is this is a good example of how to get someone's attention by introducing a knowledge gap.)
2. They describe key points of change. Passage one outlines how the relationship between the three characters developed over time – from enemies to allies. Passage three describes how an event fundamentally changed John Rain’s world view. These are pivotal moments that let the reader understand characters more deeply.
So what lessons to draw from this? Well, at the surface level, boiling down backstory to key decisions and points of change is a good trick for your writer's toolbox.
But on a broader scale, it's a lesson on what makes a story. Good stories are about life's inflection points, the times when a character’s personality, relationships, or situation change, and the decisions that bring that to pass. These moments are so full of emotion, drama, and conflict that we want to hear more even if we know how things turn out. (This ties in to last week's discussion of spoilers.)
So readers, your turn. Any examples of decision moments or points of change, either from your own writing or from other books?
Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar.