Mini-Masterclass – Tana French

In life’s cracks, I’ve been absorbing as much fiction as I can and taking note of the experts at work. Any of the great writers will tell you that to write well, you gotta read well.

With that in mind, I decided it would be fun to share some of the stuff I come across that seems worth studying in the hopes that other writers will find it useful.

Last week, I picked up a book that’d been sitting on my office shelf for some time–The Trespasser by Tana French–and I’ve been bowled over by the stellar prose and storytelling. Tana’s won a buttload of awards (Edgar, Anthony, etc.) and I hope you’ll see why as I share a brief section with my own commentary at the end.

To give you some background, The Trespasser is set in modern-day Ireland and our protagonist, Antoinette, is a female detective assigned to the Dublin Police Service’s (Gardaí) Murder Squad.

In this scene, Antoinette and her partner are interviewing Lucy, the friend of a murder victim (Aislinn), inside her tiny six-room apartment building:

“When you came to the door, you said, ‘Is it Aislinn?’ Why would you think that?”
The cigarette’s shaking. Lucy stares at it, curls her fingers tighter to keep it still. “I don’t know. I just did.”
“Think back. There has to have been a reason.”
“I don’t remember. That’s just what came into my head.”
We wait. In the walls, pipes hoot and groan; upstairs a guy yells something about hot water and someone gallops across the floor, making the postcard curtains tremble. Next to Lucy on the sofa is a Homer Simpson stuffed toy with a rollie paper that says PRINCESS BUTTERCUP stuck to its forehead. Last night was a good one. Next time Lucy sees that toy, she’s gonna shove it to the bottom her bin.
After a long minute, the line of Lucy’s spine resets. She’s not gonna cry or puke, not now anyway; she’s got other things to do. I’m pretty sure she’s just decided to lie to us.

In 164 words, we’ve learned so much about Lucy, where she lives, and most importantly, the point-of-view character.

The dialogue is snappy–short sentences and to the point.

The paragraphs are also paced well. They’re short where it makes sense, longer when it comes to painting the setting.

Speaking of setting, we’re getting specifics that really take us there. A guy is yelling about “hot water.” There are “postcard curtains” which were described earlier in the scene. There isn’t just a toy on Lucy’s sofa, but a Homer Simpson toy with a rolling paper pasted to his head and a wacky message scribbled on it.

And then that last line–wow. There’s a lot of that sort of statement in this book and it really brings home just how sharp our protagonist is at her job.

I’m only halfway through this book and I feel like I’ve dog-eared half of those pages so that I can return to them for further review.

I hope you found this little post interesting, if not useful. I’m thinking I’ll make it a regular thing and would love to get your feedback.

-Phillip

6 thoughts on “Mini-Masterclass – Tana French

  1. There are books in my shelves I keep just for a brilliant example of just such concepts. THE MARCH by ELDoctrow – first pages an extraordinary example of setting up the entire novel. So many others…must be why I’ve kept so many books. TOO MANY!

    1. Hah! Yes, we have similar “problems,” Pam. Thanks for the recommendation on the Doctrow novel. Will have to add that to my collection.

  2. Harvey StanbroughJuly 29, 2019 at 4:36 am

    Excellent post, Phillip. Honestly, present-tense narration usually snaps me off. It sounds too much like stage direction. But it works in this case. I’ll have to read more to figure out why. Ms. French’s writing puts me in mind of the old noir masters, especially Raymond Chandler.

    1. Thanks, Harvey. It definitely works. Incidentally, my wife has a couple of her other books and recommended them. I’ll be reading the series and trying to learn from them as much as I can.

  3. I’ve enjoyed many of Ms. French’s novels, including The Trespasser. Thanks for the mini-lesson and the reminder of why and how we should read if we want to write 🙂

    1. Yes, I’m looking to catching up on the rest of the series! The Trespasser blew me away.

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