“Engaging an Audience: Components of the Thriller Writer’s Art” (by Mike Cooper)

Joining us this week is Mike Cooper, one of our 2012 Barry Award nominees, for the short story “Whiz Bang” (EQMM Sept/Oct 2011). That stellar story is a locked-room mystery, but its author is better known as a thriller writer. Mike Cooper is the pseudonym of a former jack-of-all-trades. Under a different name (which he used for his previous EQMM stories) his work has received wide recognition, including a Shamus Award, a Thriller nomination, and inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories. The sequel to his novel Clawback will be published by Viking in 2013. Mike lives outside Boston with his family. He spends a lot of time with his kids—as you’d guess from his post!—Janet Hutchings

At Bouchercon earlier this month, I sat on a panel discussing thrillers. That’s the sort of novel I write, but talking about one’s own work isn’t all that interesting. Instead, I prepared by reviewing some of the great writers in the genre. Eventually I chose one author, whose bestsellers are among the most widely read books in America, and whose writing exemplifies several aspects of the thriller. Based on an informal survey of the audience, he may also be one of those rare authors that everyone has actually read (besides Lee Child, naturally).

Of course I’m talking about Dav Pilkey, author of the phenomenal Captain Underpants series.

For readers of a certain age, few superheroes match the exuberant heroics of Captain Underpants. Disdained by grade-school teachers and librarians everywhere, not to mention parents who’ve had to read the books over and over to their preliterate offspring, The Adventures of Captain Underpants and its sequels are a riot of absurd action, gross-out humor, and potty jokes.

But the stories also demonstrate numerous components of the thriller writer’s art. Before transcending reader expectations, a good thriller, like any genre novel, must first fulfill them. Breaking down the structural elements of Pilkey’s stories can help us learn how it’s done.

Ordinary Heroes

Setting aside military and spy plots for a moment, a key element of many thrillers is their everyday, ordinary-Joe protagonist. A regular guy (or woman) is yanked out of his mundane routine, forced to run for his life, confront dangers and terrors he barely knew existed, find resources deep within himself, and defeat powerful enemies.

George and Harold fit the bill exactly. Fourth graders, they do well enough at school but chafe at the rules, find their classes uninspiring, and feud with the humorless disciplinarian Principal Krupp. Their primary amusements are silly pranks—itching powder in the football team’s uniforms, for example—and drawing comic books.

Not Superman, in other words, but Everyman.

Supremely Powerful Enemies

A thriller’s tension can only be ratcheted as high as the strength of the opposition, and Captain Underpants faces down villains of typically planet-wrecking capability. Dr. Diaper, for instance:

“In exactly twenty minutes, this laser beam will blow up the moon and send huge chunks of it crashing down upon every major city in the world!” laughed Dr. Diaper. “Then, I will rise from the rubble and take over the planet!”

Or Wicked Wedge Woman, with unstoppable bionic superpowers. Bionic Booger Boy, the Radioactive Robo-Boxers, and more . . . the list of supervillains appears limited only by Pilkey’s publishing schedule.

Educational Elements

Part of the appeal of a good thriller, perhaps ironically for a genre considered escapist, is the chance to learn something new. A foreign locale, espionage techniques, unusual skills—or simply the jargon and activities of unfamiliar professions. Among all the fart jokes and fighting robots, Captain Underpants occasionally slips in improving snippets.

For example, the boys’ repeated prank of rearranging letters on outdoor signs. “Joe’s Furniture—Come In And See Our Pretty Armchairs” becomes “Come See Our Hairy Armpits!” At school, “See Our Big Football Game Today” becomes “Boy Our Feet Smell Bad!” Who knows, perhaps our son’s current Scrabble enthusiasm stems in part from Captain Underpants word games.

Often the inside information has to do with our next topic . . .

Cutting-Edge Technology

Many thrillers include the newest, deadliest, coolest gadgetry—and in this sphere above all, Captain Underpants cannot be beat. From the Laser-Matic 2000 to the Robo Plunger (powered by Photo-Atomic Trans-Somgobulatory Yectofantriplutoniczanziptic energy), villains and heroes alike are armed with the most advanced machines science has to offer.

And really, did James Bond ever have to face down an army of sentient, steel-toothed Talking Toilets?

Complicated, Well-Developed Characters

If you’re in the small group of people who’ve never read Captain Underpants, the depth of Pilkey’s characterization might surprise you. Some of the action is cartoonish, sure, and the plots are absurd. But even his villains can have emotionally resonant backstories. Professor Poopypants, for example, is a brilliant scientist but teased for his name; when he becomes a science teacher at George and Harold’s school, it is unrelenting mockery from the students that finally drives him to a maddened attempt to take over the world.

Or take Dr. Diaper, who is defeated not by violence but by embarrassment (carefully placed rubber dog-doo convinces the doctor that he’s had an accident, and he flees in shame).

Even some of Pilkey’s asides are tellingly insightful:

It’s been said that adults spend the first two years of their children’s lives trying to make them walk and talk . . . and the next sixteen years trying to get them to sit down and shut up.

It’s the same way with potty training: Most adults spend the first few years of a child’s life cheerfully discussing pee and poopies, and how important it is to learn to put your pee-pee and poo-poo in the potty like big people do.

But once children have mastered the art of toilet training, they are immediately forbidden to ever talk about poop, pee, toilets, and other bathroom-related subjects again.

One day you’re a superstar because you pooped in the toilet like a big boy, and the next day you’re sitting in the principal’s office because you said the word “poopy” in class.

His conclusion—“adults are totally bonkers”—seems valid.

I suppose I’m not being entirely serious. Although I have read every word of Pilkey’s oeuvre I can’t say they’re truly classics, destined for generations of young-adult attention and lit-crit analysis. But that’s not the point. Many children, especially boys, really really love Captain Underpants. They read the books over and over and talk about them with their friends. They get excited to know a new one is coming next month. Heck, they write fanfic!—by making up their own comics in Captain Underpants style.

As a writer engaging an audience, Dav Pilkey has more than succeeded. It’s worth paying attention to how he’s done so.

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One Response to “Engaging an Audience: Components of the Thriller Writer’s Art” (by Mike Cooper)

  1. The day will come when Dav Pilkey is mentioned in the same breath with Dostoevsky. In fact, I just did it.

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