Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Poetic Thriller

by Mark Alpert
One of the many embarrassing secrets from my past is that I once considered myself a poet. Now, there’s nothing inherently embarrassing about poetry; the shame comes from writing bad poetry, and I was a pretty bad poet. I started writing the stuff when I was a senior in high school and continued through my college years and into grad school. As you might expect, the most common subjects of my bad poems were attractive girls I admired from afar. Like every adolescent I had strong romantic feelings, but instead of expressing them in the usual manner -- saying hello to the girl, asking for her phone number, etc. -- I recorded my yearnings in torrid verse.

To maximize my mortification, I feel obliged to provide an example. The following poem is titled “Katie.” It’s named after a Vassar coed I met at a college party in November 1979 and never saw again.

Dearest Katie, passing splendor,
my much too brief delight,
please say that you’ll remember me
on some cold November night.
Too quick you left my fierce embrace,
too slow was I to follow,
too many the miles of endless waste
that tear me from your special grace,
each step a cause for sorrow.

The poem is embarrassing enough on its own, but the story behind it is even worse. You might assume from the words “fierce embrace” and “much too brief delight” that Katie and I shared a night of wild, passionate sex, but that was just wishful thinking on my part. In truth, our physical contact didn’t go beyond shaking hands. At the party she was more interested in dancing with one of my friends (Duncan, if you’re reading this: that’s you) than with me. And the Tolkienesque phrase “miles of endless waste” is another overstatement; it refers to the relatively short drive between Princeton and Vassar, which I could’ve navigated easily enough if I’d had the nerve.

But I want to focus on the last line: “each step a cause for sorrow.” Even in my youthful ignorance, I realized this line was better than the rest of the poem. It had a certain romantic grandness. And it was a lucky accident that the best line came at the end. I’ve always admired poems with strong endings. One of my English professors in college used to say that the last line of a poem should give you the sense that a door is closing, a lid is being snapped shut. In other words, the best poems end with a bang. Just consider these great closers:

…And I remain despairing of the port.

…Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?

…First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

…and empty grows every bed.

This brings me to the connection between poetry and thrillers. Good suspense writing also ends with a bang. The last chapter of a thriller should have the fiercest battles, the biggest explosions, the most satisfying emotional payoffs. And in each of the book’s chapters, the concluding lines should deliver some kind of punch -- a surprise, a reversal, a revelation, a cliffhanger. It’s even true on the level of individual paragraphs and sentences. Consider the following two sentences:

He held a gun in his right hand.

In his right hand he held a gun.

The latter sentence is more effective, right? The most powerful, interesting, surprising word should come at the end.

I’m curious: Are there any other closet poets out there who made the leap to the mystery/thriller world? And are there other lessons from poetry that you’ve applied to writing suspense fiction?


  1. Good morning, Mark. Nice Saturday post. I especially loved your gem about chapter structure & endings. Paying attention to endings throughout the book can give a strong sense of pace, foreshadowing, and tension. On your sentence example, I think a solid ending is particularly important in a compound sentence.

    As for poetry, I quickly learned as a teen that I sucked at it. But in my YA debut, a cold case murder mystery with paranormal elements, I wanted my teen girl to struggle with writing a short poem throughout the book. She finally comes up with her last line & the poem's imagery on the final page.

    So I could blame my poor poetry skills on my character, Brenna, in my book In the Arms of Stone Angels. Here's HER poem:

    In the stillness of headstones,
    Darkness is my blanket,
    And forever is an endless song.
    In the arms of stone angels,
    I'm not afraid.
    Because finally and completely,
    I belong.

  2. Forgot to mention that the imagery of poetry can be a great notion that translates to thriller writing. Scene settings and even the internal monologue of some characters can add a touch of poetry to your narrative. Great post, Mark.

  3. Nice, Mark. At one time I did the beat poet thing, as all west coast college boys who read Kerouac and Ferlinghetti do. I still love A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND, especially "Dog."

    And that last line resonance is something i also work on. The sound. Leaving the reader with just the right emotional note.

    Since you an Jordan have included some verse, I shall as well. This is actually the only poem I think my dad ever wrote. He was an inveterate cigar smoker, and he came up with this little item. I gave it to a character in one of my historical novels:

    The sky is a huge blanket
    And the stars
    Are made by angels poking holes in it
    With their cigars.

  4. I think it's almost a requirement, to write bad poetry in high school. I've never written so much poetry before, and I've never really felt the urge to do so since then.

    Since everyone else has offered something, I shall as well. It's bad, but I was really proud of at the time:

    Lightning Listen Love Clouds

    grip the firmy grimy stars that
    prick out droplets of blood like
    the rose thorns they are.
    squeeze out the sour lemonade love
    that always falls cold and vain…
    like rain and yellowbright always.
    explain your explanations for every
    inch of my skin away to me with your
    moon rayed fingers away.
    remember, my most astral creature, that
    ever even though I will never be done…
    breaking, my heart will never…
    stop shaking, I can feel sizzle-fizzle spark
    the same you, your bedrock mentality
    and body.

    rinse out your dirty dishwater thoughts so stark;
    and kiss me in the dark.

    * * *

    As you can see, I was going through a serious e.e. cummings phase, and liked last lines from reading Auden and Dickinson.

    Writing poetry helped me learn about word choice and the meter of a sentence so I have no regrets. :D

  5. Love it. The only bit of rhyming I have done, other than snarky haiku, came from my first pubbed short story.

    A demon riddle . . .

    "Although, lovely you may be,
    you must correctly answer me.

    When north to south, finite I be,
    From east to west, infinity.

    Speak you now, or leave this place, never more to show your face."

    Any takers on the answer? ;)


  6. My only poem of note:

    I was just a child, a boy of ten
    When I went to the mountain where I'd never been
    And I heard the old folks talk and say,
    "There's a monster up here, still lives today
    With glowin' red eyes and a deathly look.
    I'm tellin' you, Boy, about Old Mack Cook."

    And so it goes for 30 verses.

    By the time it's done, The Ballad of Old Mack Cook is a thriller that rhymes. Not sure there's a spot in the book market for such a thing anymore . . .

  7. Great post, thanks! I wonder if most writers have tried poetry at some point? Since a teenager I have occasionally "felt moved" to write a poem and I still like almost all of them, although some of them I no longer understand!

    I never studied poetry beyond high school and never thought about how good poems have a thumping great ending. I do know I should be reading more poetry for my metaphor deficiency. (That one excluded.)

    John, I love narrative poetry (although not of book length, I must admit.)

    Terri, I have to have a go - is it the circumference of the earth? Broken north/south by the poles but unbroken at the equator?

  8. Most younger poets suck... I've definitely seen worse than this though (and probably produced some myself). But that final line really is always the most important. I'm not a huge thriller reader, but some of my favourite poem endings are:

    ... For there's more enterprise/In walking naked. (A Coat, Yeats)

    ... Is all that we see or seem/But a dream within a dream? (A Dream Within a Dream, Poe)

    ... To the wind she says, "They have eaten me alive." (In The Park, Gwen Harwood)

  9. Funny thing about poetry, is that most of the supposedly sophisticated poets I've met, the kind that go to poetry slams or expect government grants to pay for the verses they pen, tend to spout nothing but hatred, anger or rage and scoff at anyone who writes anything nice, or that smacks remotely of love or romance, etc. Oh well, so be it. The protagonist in a couple of my novels, Marcus 'Mojo' Johnson, is one poet who really doesn't care what 'real poets' have to say because he knows that not a single one of them has the balls to have a career in the Marines, marry an Alaska State Trooper, and crunch terrorists and bad guys with a flick of his rather powerful fingers. Therefore, he writes stuff his tougher than nails wife thinks is pretty. Like this he wrote just after saving an African village by killing a former Soviet Spetsnatz soldier turned murderous warlord along with a couple dozen of his mercenary soldiers in Sierra Leone:


    He inhales deeply
    The flowery scent of beauty hangs in the air
    Her nature-given perfume
    Felt more than breathed
    Quietly permeates
    The places she has been

    Soft, shining
    Her image fills his mind
    Eyes sparkling in the light of the falling sun
    Silken, smiling lips shimmer
    Luminescent amidst the dancing glimmer of candles

    He awaits the hour
    In which he will see her again
    No longer a prisoner to vain imagination
    Of that lovely form that
    He so strongly yearns to touch

    To wrap her with his arms
    Hold her body in a strong,
    Warm embrace
    Passionate, tender, powerful
    Pulsing spiritual harmony
    Their hearts take up
    The rhythm of the heavens
    Beating as one
    A song played before the dawn of time

    The day’s labor is made worthwhile
    The night’s peaceful glow sustained
    As they imbibe the wine of souls
    Growing intoxicated
    As they drink the vision
    The radiant vision of love

    If you don't like it, that's fine. But I wouldn't mock Marcus, he knows booby traps and can put ten consecutive bullets into a 3x5 card at 1800 metres. Find out more in my book 65 Below.

  10. stop bullying quotes
    This will be my first NaNo, so I really will take your tips to heart. I especially appreciate the advice about preparation. I've always gotten stressed over the idea of any type of numeric daily writing quota, but I think that advance planning will help. Thanks for sharing!