With spy thrillers I was practically clueless. Spy thrillers were SO FAR out of my comfort zone that I don't even know how I convinced myself to to try them. So I've bought quite a few books on the topic.
Now, I'll admit I did not apply the hero's journey structure to my J.J. McCall novels. At least not intentionally...even though strong elements of the journey and the structure certainly found their way in the stories. I can only attribute this to reading a lot, watching a lot of movies, and taking the story where my characters and instincts told me to.
With that said, I was really trying reach a deeper level of craftsmanship with Book 4. I wanted to more rigorously apply formal structure rather than just going with my instinct and what I'm finding is that formal structure is HARD especially if you want to apply it without appearing as if you've applied it -- and the finesse it takes to do it right is probably one of the main reasons why it works so effectively.
So as I read my books on craft -- right now that's Inside Story by Dara Marks and the 1-3-5 Story Structure Made Simple, one of the first key principles they discuss is theme.
The book says your story should have A SINGLE theme which drives the protagonist actions from beginning to end. At first, I was like I totally failed on the first exercise. My books don't have a SINGLE theme. But after two days of thought and contemplation I realized that it really does.
Analyze your last Work In Progress. Is there ONE single theme that drives your characters actions?
What's my theme? Well, it was tough nailing it down but I finally figured it out. The theme of the first two J.J. McCall books, without question is LOYALTY.
J.J. McCall is loyal...to an absolute fault. Her greatest strength is also her greatest weakness--LOYALTY.
In book one, we find J.J. in the midst of career turmoil. She's excelling in a thankless job which she remains loyal to because she's a true patriot. Loves her country and deeply concerned about the security of the nation. She's recruited Russian intelligence officers to work for the United States and she's extremely loyal to them--feels obligated to see to it that they are safe. When some get killed supporting her operations. the crisis of conscience and guilt literally drive her to drink herself to death. She's loyal to her family--her father and brother. She's loyal to the men in her life--Tony...and even Six to some extent.
And she takes on a HUGE amount of responsibility on her shoulders and internalizes her struggle to deal with the stress of it all. On the outside it looks like she can handle the weight of her loyalty with ease, but that's all a big facade. She's dying on the inside as a "kitchen alcoholic." Instead of getting sloppy drunk, she takes a thousand little drinks all day every day to help ease her anxiety and angst about everything.
And it's this drinking, largely due to the stress that comes with this extreme loyalty to EVERYTHING and her commitment to the well-being to everyone around her (except herself0, that may ultimately lead her to her doom.
It certainly threatens to do that at the end of Book 1 when she faces the GREATEST test of her loyalty to self preservation versus everyone around her. And, in this battle, nobody understands more than J.J. that nobody walks away a winner in that situation, which further compounds her drinking problems.
But as I think about every single book and every single critical scene with Six, Tony, and J.J., loyalty is the driving force at the heart of every decision, for better or worse. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in the last two books.
I challenge everyone who reads this blog to think about the SINGLE dominant "Theme" in your own books. Can you boil down your characters actions to a single theme? If so, what is it? And share if the feeling hits you.
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