Lessons from a Master: Relentless by Dean Koontz

Even more than writing, I love reading.  This weekend, I devoured a new book by Dean Koontz, Relentless, a terrific thriller by one of the masters of the genre.  I’d like to share a few thoughts about it with you.

I haven’t read Koontz for a while, but coming back is like coming home.  I used to be one of his biggest fans but for a while there, he seemed to have lost something.  I suspect there was something serious going on but what it was I don’t know.  I now have a ton of things to get caught up on.

This man used to scare the crap out of me.  I read Phantoms a long time ago and nearly peed myself.  He hasn’t been able to scare me for a while (no one has), but in Relentless, there were a few parts that gave me chills. I wasn’t reading it at night; I was sitting in the waiting area at the car repair place!

Relentless doesn’t hit the ground running like a lot of suspense thrillers.  Koontz takes the time to introduce the small family—Cubby Greenwich, wife Penny Boom, son Milo and dog Lassie—with whom we’ll be spending the next 356 pages.   Soon we care about them.  They are funny, endearing, and intelligent.

Cubby and Penny are writers.  Ordinarily I can’t stand reading books about writers, or watching TV shows about people with their own TV shows.  It’s all so meta, and fails at irony most of the time.  Cubby, the narrator, is likeable and funny, so you don’t immediately think, “Oh, another writer writing about writers.”  Both Milo and Lassie are unusual, nearly magical, and we know this will be important later.  (It is.)  The special canine is a trademark of Koontz, a longtime dog lover, used most effectively in Watchers.

The premise is simple.  An eminent but eccentric critic, Shearman Waxx, writes a scathing review of Cubby’s book.  Cubby goes to the restaurant where the critic is having lunch to get a look at the man, and inadvertently, or so he thinks, irritates him.  Waxx begins a campaign of terrorism against the writer.  To survive, Cubby and his family must uncover the motives behind his bizarre behavior, while desperately running for their lives.

Koontz tells the story in first person, which provides a tight, personal point of view and keeps the focus on what is most important to Cubby.  It also serves to make the villain more enigmatic.  Who is Shearman Waxx?  Why is he doing what he’s doing?  We never get inside his head, so we can’t know.

He uses short, sharp paragraphs, many of them one-liners.  Paragraph length is a personal style choice, and also one of pacing.  Shorter paragraphs move the reader through the text quickly.   He also favors long stretches of dialogue with no tags and you have to pay close attention to remember who is speaking.  It’s a Koontz signature; I would know it was his writing even if he wrote under the name Hortense Bandicoot.

When he gets to an important flashback, he changes tense (from past to present). The entire flashback has its own chapter and Koontz takes his time with it.

These two techniques make a long flashback stand out.  A shorter one is better incorporated into the scene in which it appears.   Writers often do a quick tense change from past perfect (He had thought about it long and hard) to regular past tense to describe what is happening in the flashback (His hands trembled as he cocked the gun) and back to past perfect (It had been his defining moment) to indicate the transition back to the current events of the story.

He plants several things and waters them with hints more than once, but holds revelation back until their significance can be both realized and utilized in the battle for survival.  We think we know.  We’re dying to see if we’re on the right track.  Wisely, Koontz doesn’t explain everything but lets us find out as we go along.  A classic suspense technique, it holds reader attention and allows for character development as Cubby’s situation changes.

The supporting characters in Relentless are very cool; they have everything the pursued family needs when they need it.  This seems very convenient, but most thrillers require a suspension of disbelief the same way horror, fantasy or sci-fi does.  Scenes where the protagonists find or learn sophisticated survival techniques without any help would make the book too long.  This genre is all about fast pacing.  Certain things have to happen at the right time for the heroes to escape or win a battle.  It’s better if they can pick up what they need as they go along, like characters in a video game.

Koontz uses one device I don’t like, foreshadowing at the end of a chapter:  “And we didn’t know then about the bad thing in the future.” Dan Brown gets criticized for this a lot.  Personally, I find this device irritating; I’d much rather get to the bad thing and be surprised.  Also, if I’ve gotten more than halfway through a book, chances are I’m going to finish.  The writer doesn’t have to be so obvious about manipulating me to turn the page.

A sociopathic villain chasing the protagonist has been done before.  TONS of times.  But Koontz has found a fresh twist here.  So easy to do it the other way around; most writers would have the writer chasing the critic who gave him a bad review.  Koontz turned it upside down.  This is a great way to get a fresh perspective on a story.  Since most or all stories are variations on the same few premises, it’s a good exercise to use.

Sometimes you won’t find a twist this way, but you will find a more effective perspective on a scene or a whole book.  For example, if you’re retelling a classic conflict such as an abusive marriage, switch sexes on the characters.  Have the wife beating the husband (it happens, really).  Change the POV to a supporting character, like Nick in The Great Gatsby, or the servant girl in Mary Reilly (a retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).  Have that character tell the story instead, his/her insights or misunderstandings driving the narrative.

I liked this book.  I recommend it even if you’re not a Koontz fan.  When I really get into a book, either I read it in two days or drag it out forever, depending on the length.  This was a two-day book, not too long and not too short.  It’s a good read for budding and experienced thriller writers and readers alike.  Enjoy it if you get the chance.

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