Though the format is common in Fantasy novels - and films of many types, though they’re often a bit Sith by the last one - it’s rarely encountered in crime or thrillers or noir or whatever the hell it is that I write. But with the publication of Blood Of Angels coming after The Lonely Dead and the original The Straw Men, it appears that this is what I have done.
The process of writing a trilogy is complicated - especially if, when you started out, you didn’t know that’s what you were doing. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. The three act structure is engrained in popular culture. Mainstream Hollywood movies are explicitly formatted this way: this was largely unconscious at first, but in the 1980s Syd Field’s famous book on screenwriting and the massive success of the Simpson/Brookheimer films made the paradigm into something approaching a law - and it’s now impossible to have a meeting with a film producer without the phrase coming up. More than once. Along with ‘rewrite’. And ‘delayed payment’. Bah.
But stage plays and novels had been settling into this way of being for a long time before Flashdance, and it’s there in everyday human experience too. Life starts out new and exciting and weird, segues into a long period where a bunch of stuff happens without making much sense, and then swerves into a final section where the stakes are suddenly higher, everything falls into context (for better or worse) and then it all ends. Relationships are like that too: in love, love, out of love - followed by the cold walk out into the cinema parking lot of starting the whole sorry business again. Even a visit down the pub goes pretty much the same way, with the first ring of the Time bell signalling the flip into the last Act of the evening. But it goes further even than this. Many of the best jokes follow a 1-2-3 structure, the last element being the surprise that provokes the response. And the time I’m spending right now with my (very) young son is suggesting that he gets this three act business already. The first time you do something tickly to him, it’s new - and as such is regarded with caution; the second time, he assimilates it as non-dangerous and actually quite fun; the third time he knows what’s coming and so there’s anticipation, and laughter. We never lose this basic reaction. 1-2-3 jokes merely take this repetition and subvert it for the benefit of our older and more sophisticated tastes: novels and films are just tickling for the over-tens.
For my own part, I’d previously written three science fiction novels, and though these were not related to each other in plot, character or even time frame (spread as they were over the course of several hundred years) they sit together comfortably on a shelf. They’re the same kind of thing. Then I found myself wanted to write something a little different: a story more rooted in the here and now, dealing with a long-term interest of mine - serial murder. The Lonely Dead was originally written as s standalone novel, as all my previous books had been. It was only when it came to editing that I began to suspect I hadn’t yet come to the end of my time with these characters, or with the situation they found themselves in. By the time I sat down to write my next book, it was for sure: I was going to be finding out a little more about Ward and John, and Nina and the Upright Man. The Straw Men weren’t done with me yet.
If I’d known this, maybe I would have approached a couple of things a little differently in the first book. I got quite a lot of grief - largely good-natured - after The Straw Men, for allowing the demise of one particular character. Let me tell you: no-one regretted that more than me. He had to die when he did, sadly - it never really felt like it was my decision - but when it came to writing The Lonely Dead, I really, really wished that guy was still around. His absence forced me to improvise, however, to avoid the easy way out, and that’s a good thing. I’d like to pretend I had the whole thing mapped in my head from the outset - like some George Lucas of multiple murder - but I didn’t. Some notions were there from the beginning, certainly, but the overall story evolved along with the characters. I have no problem with the fact that there’s been little long-range planning with the trilogy. I believe fiction should mirror life, and not just in accurate portrayals of places and emotion. There may be a kind of structure to people’s lives, and sometimes you can shoe-horn it into three acts: but destiny is only visible in retrospect. While you’re actually living it, life is a series of fumbled choices and compelling accidents, a muddy process in which some things are planned and others just happen, and you make the best of the situations you find yourself in. You don’t get to rewrite the past to ensure it steers you to where you thought you were going. It’s said that the Coen Brothers - creators of movies like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski - don’t allow themselves to undo any of the random plot decisions they make during the early stages of writing a script. This is what gives their work its fecund unpredictability, a strange and sometimes dreamlike atmosphere in which each individual step makes sense, but the overall story comes out pleasingly whacked.
I’m a little more rigorous about it than that, but I still like the stories to take on a life of their own. That’s what makes the process interesting, and it’s important above all else that a novelist is pulled along by his world, rather than the other way around. Sometimes that means you’re going to wind up be surprised by what you do, and finding your work prey to forces outside your control. This is what makes it realistic. Sure, we’d all like the people we care about to be around until the final reel, and we’d prefer it if the world treated us nicely, and the last page tied up our lives in a pretty bow. But you don’t get to choose that kind of thing in real life. Why should books be any different?
Anyway, now there’s a third novel in the series, called Blood Of Angels, which takes what has gone before and ramps it up and blows it wide. As with The Lonely Dead, you can certainly read it without knowing what’s happened previously. I once had a nice experience with a series, in fact (the Hap and Leonard novels by Joe R. Lansdale) in which I accidentally read them in reverse order, from last to first. There was something oddly satisfying about telescoping back into the characters’ history, seeing where they’d come from, from the God-like position of knowing what they’d been dealing with later on. But hey - it’s up to you. Read them how you like. I’ve done my bit. You call the shots from now on.
Is this really it for Ward and Nina and The Straw Men? Maybe. But… maybe not. Sometimes stories don’t just split into the same old structure, after all.
And, you know, I never actually said there was only going to be three…
Michael Marshall (Smith) is published in the UK by HarperCollins :-
One of Us
What you make it
The Straw Men
The Lonely Dead
Blood of Angels
More Information on the works of Michael Marshall [Smith] is available from:-