2 October 2023
Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy
Benjamin Percy is a widely popular fiction writer, known for his action novels (if he’d permit you to categorize them as genre fiction). He’s published fiction and nonfiction in some of the biggest literary journals and taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop (where I just recently learned that Alexander Chee studied). Thrill Me is Percy’s craft book; it was published by Graywolf Press and is taught in fiction writing classes worldwide.
Thrill Me often reads like an action novel, since in it Percy has excerpted from the best of his genre and his own books (among others). At times, I wondered if Percy’s days contain more hours than mine, considering the sheer volume of examples he’s compiled to serve his lessons in this book: how else could he have time to read them all so closely? His breadth of knowledge serves him well, especially since his intended audience are new writers without genre specification because, as he writes, “…when you start to worry about whether someone is literary or genre, or literary crossover (whatever that means), you are devoting valuable brain energy to something that ultimately doesn’t matter. These are phantom barricades that serve only to restrict” (14). That said, his rapid-fire examples were often too much for my sensibility; they overstimulated me, and I frequently found myself taking a walk or skimming those sections for the meat of the lesson. I admit this makes me reluctant to read Percy’s fiction.
Every chapter contained lessons that are critical for the new writer like me. Here are the ones I plan to employ as I draft my current manuscript:
1. Chapter 2 – “Urgency”:
a. Ticking Clock: According to Percy, giving your story a timeframe or deadline or “ticking clock” helps to move the plot forward and create a sense of tension as time passes. “I strongly advise you create a ticking clock” (28). This was not something I had considered for my story; I’ve added a time bomb to my story since I read this.
b. Delay Gratification: Where it comes to propelling the story, Percy suggests we draw out the inevitable: “If a seduction goes on for weeks, months—if clothes peel off slowly—if nails and lips tease before taking hold—if patience gradually gives way to forcefulness—the more explosive the results, the more gratitude we feel” (31).
2. Chapter 3 – “Set Pieces”: Like the severed horse head in someone’s bed from The Godfather series, Percy suggests we create an iconic image that will represent our story (49). This was precisely how I developed my short story, “Drought.” It began with an image in my mind—a sort of American Psycho image—of an exceptionally fit naked man holding a bloody blade. From this image evolved my story’s opening scene…which was the story’s climactic moment and introduced the mystery of “who was murdered and how?” I like this advice; I can think of no great story that lacks an iconic set piece.
3. Chapter 4 – “There Will Be Blood”: In this chapter, Percy recommends writers not write every detail of violence (or sex): “You are a monster. I am a murderer. We have, each and every one of us, bodies in the basements of our minds” (54). Therefore, be judicious about the gore/sex you describe in your writing. Let the reader’s imagination do that job—unless the point is for the reader to stare at it baldly before them. This is a lesson I must internalize; I often write erotica, and readers of that genre do not generally want to look away when a sexual fantasy scene unravels. I admit, I’ve practiced writing this because it’s fun and interesting. Still, Percy has a great point; in literary fiction, the writer can give a reader more satisfaction if the details are spared so that imagination can work its magic.
4. Chapter 6 – “Designing Suspense”: In this chapter, Percy insists we map our story to know, beforehand, our protagonist’s worst-case scenario and rock-bottom moment. My own story was well mapped in my mind; however, I’d still not considered my main character’s worst-case scenario—which was problematic because without knowing the worst that could happen for her, her primary goal/motive was underdeveloped. Like, sure, this is the thing she wants, but what happens if she doesn’t get it? What’s the true motivation—avoiding what? Now I know. As for the rock-bottom moment, mine also was not yet determined, which meant that I had not yet determined the act/event whereby she makes the decision that marches her directly at the climax.
5. Chapter 7 – “Don’t Look Back”: In this chapter, Percy recommends that unless we have good intent, we should neither provide nor wallow in backstory—because it disrupts the progression of the main plot. When I read this, after having written some 20,000 words of backstory for this novel, I thought, “Well, what will I do with all this?” The truth is, Percy’s right. I could perhaps incorporate nuggets of that backstory into the action via interiority/memory/flashback, but the majority of this backstory is unnecessary. I’ll take his advice, here, as much as I can.
6. Chapter 10 – “Move Mountains: Activating Setting”: This was my favorite of Percy’s chapters because I love description—description is art. Description aligns itself with poetry. My manuscript currently lacks the setting description that I desire…and so this chapter ignited my imagination. Here are my favorite takeaways from this chapter:
a. Don’t Write Abstractions; get specific. Write settings you know. (118). This feels like home to me.
b. Settings Indicate Mood and Theme: “Never give us a generic description. When we enter a new space, show it to us—but through a particular lens: your character’s point of view, modified by mood” (120). This is precisely what Emily Brontë did in Wuthering Heights: the moors reflected the family’s moods so closely that it became a character unto itself. Percy continues, “Through setting we get a stabilizing stage, a glimpse of his character, and a map of his emotional arc” (122).
c. Sketch First: So as I read through this chapter, I started to fret—my own manuscript submission for this month lacks the setting development I want for it. What will I do? Thankfully, Percy addresses this: “Sometimes I’ll sketch a scene quickly and then return to it later to fill in in the blanks” (128). This is exactly what I’ll do. I’ll submit what I’ve got thus far, then come back later to finish developing the setting descriptions. Percy’s suggestion here is quite a relief.
7. Chapter 11 – “Feckless Pondering”: Here Percy teaches that while too much “feckless pondering” can stall your story, too little “feckless pondering” can disembowel it of meaning. There must be a balance of both. He tells us to make a graph of our story and ensure that it has peaks and valleys of action and reflection, action and reflection, action and reflection. Based on this suggestion, I moved one of my interiority/thought scenes later in the story, after the inciting incident and before my character’s “doorway moment,” where the protagonist makes a decision that begins her transformative arc.
8. Chapter 12 – “Get a Job”: In this chapter, Percy suggests that we give our characters a job that gives them a lens through which to see the world. He writes, “Writing is an act of empathy. You are occupying and understanding a point of view that might be alien to your own—and work is often the keyhole through which you peer” (149). Again, a great suggestion. Since I’d yet to fully develop one of my characters, I can see now how his hobby of photography and his job working in an alumni relations office at the local University will give him a particular view of the world.
9. Chapter 13 – “Consider the Orange”: Find you a symbol that can be returned to throughout. This is something one of my residency instructors also recommended. If you think about it, most great novels or films have some image or symbol that carries throughout the story. For example, Schindler’s List has the girl in the red coat. Perhaps a more obvious examples is the ring from The Lord of the Rings series. Percy writes that he doesn’t ever just choose a symbol and then work the story around it. Instead, it goes something like this: “After reading and rereading my work, certain objects or settings begin to sizzle and glow—and eventually a grid of electricity emerges, or a constellation that aligns the disparate parts” (159). This concept brings me joy; I have no idea yet what the symbol will be in my own story, but I’m beginning to look for what sizzles.
Percy’s craft book is a keeper; I admit, I’d use it myself if I ever taught a fiction-writing class. It’s fast-paced, interesting, and the flash-bangs don’t distract from its sound guidance. Most importantly, the chapters gave me a few different sets of goggles through which to look at what I’ve drafted of my own manuscript, adding dry ash and oxygen to my blaze.