Lee Child is one of the most successful novelists on earth. Ever. He has sold tens of millions of Jack Reacher novels the world over, and yet he had no formal training in creative writing or story theory.
He learned his trade on the job whilst working in television on the ITV network in the UK. There he was involved with shows including Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown (TV series), Prime Suspect, and Cracker. He was involved in the transmission of more than 40,000 hours of programming, writing thousands of commercials, news stories, and trailers. He began to write novels seriously when he was fired from ITV during a restructuring.
You had no formal training. What are your views on formal training?
I suppose formal training does different things for different people, and all of us get interested in the process once we’re involved, but one absolute truth I am certain of is that the only essential training for writing is reading. If you are starting to write and you haven’t read a thousand books first, you’re not ready. To be a writer you must be a reader. After that writing is simply about personal confidence.
Did television teach you about story?
I learned a lot from working in television productions, but television changed out of all proportion for a very specific reason between 1980 and 1990 – a reason that intrigued me – and it was all down to a little device nestling in the viewer’s hand. In 1980, people sat in the chair and committed to one channel for the evening because they couldn’t be bothered to get up. By 1990, they didn’t have to get off their backsides to change the channel. They could do it from the chair. Channel hopping was invented and suddenly the world changed. We had to give people a reason not to change channel. One of the ways we did this fascinated me. Before the ad break in a football match we would ask a trivia question, and found something basic in the make-up of a viewer meant they simply had to know the answer. It didn’t matter if it was the most banal question – who won the FA Cup Final in 1895? Nobody knows, nobody cares, and yet there is something fundamental in our makeup that wants to endlessly raise and – most importantly – find answers to questions. I believe this is something writers need to understand. We raise and answer questions. Big questions that arch the full span of the story, small questions that arch a sentence or paragraph. Medium questions that span a chapter.
So stories are about questions?
It’s interesting to look back to the very reason we developed language in the first place, around 100,000 years ago. If you imagine how life was at that time, people would have been occupied the whole time with the business of survival. Nothing more. Getting through the day, and trying to be as sure as they could that they live through tomorrow. Language developed because it helped us to ensure survival. Why? Because it helped the human animal to co-operate. With language, a dozen or two people, working together, could be more powerful than any other creature on earth. So the roots of language are elemental, and the roots of stories equally important – they came into being as an extension of the need to survive.
It wasn’t fiction at that time. Story telling allowed hominids to project a life state to one another that educated and gave an advantage to the receiver of that education. We don’t know when fiction became a part of the picture, but clearly you can see how that would be a natural progression. From educating one another with the story of how three men fought off a sabre-toothed tiger, it could become more engaging and encouraging to the receivers of story if the tiger was captured, killed and brought back for dinner. Heroes were born. Stories still resonate with those elemental parts of our being. We are hard-wired to project ourselves into stories and to seek out and receive an emotional benefit from that story.
A good story will make us feel anxious and uncomfortable, but will end in understanding and hope or consolation. When my daughter was young I would hold her in my arms then pretend to drop her, only to catch her again a foot lower. It’s only a game, but it’s elemental in the same way. She learned a small, repeated lesson about trust and security and her relationship with me from that game. And that game does to a child what an author should do to its audience.
So what comes first in your story development process?
First and foremost in making a story work is character. In the plot v character discussion, I have no doubts – it’s a nonsense argument, because character is, always and forever, the essential primary driver. Look at the Lone Ranger. Everyone knows the Lone Ranger, but not a soul on earth can tell you a single event from a Lone Ranger story. We buy into characters, not authors or plots. It’s as simple as that. Nobody goes into a shop looking for a Lee Child book. They go into a shop looking for a Jack Reacher book. We don’t say, ‘Have you read the latest JK Rowling?’ we say, ‘have you read the latest Harry Potter?’ This is why I created Jack Reacher as the vehicle for my stories, and have not varied him from day one. I know people talk about character growth and development, but as soon as your character grows and develops, he hits the ceiling and cannot grow or develop any more, and you have to start again with another character. I prefer other characters around Jack to change and learn and grow. The crooks can learn severely harsh lessons. I’ll leave Jack as he is.
So I wanted Jack to be reliable and consistent in reader terms, because once someone knows what they get from a Jack Reacher story, they are more confident about investing in another one. I don’t mean financially – we all stand there in front of the bookstand and wonder why we’re thinking so long and hard about investing a few quid – but what we’re really agreeing to invest is far more valuable: our time. A book takes a lot of our time, so if we know what to expect from a book, we can invest with knowledge of what we are likely to get from the investment, and the consistency of Jack Reacher as a character gives a reader the confidence to pick up my book rather than someone else’s unknown quantity.
Why do you think Jack Reacher is so successful?
Jack Reacher is a strong character for many reasons to do with our fundamental being. In our real lives there are many basic things we want and believe in that we don’t get. At work, we suffer injustice from the megalomaniac who runs the department. We wish we could punch him in the face and we can’t. We just have to suffer in silence. When someone is burgled we want revenge, but we don’t get it. We want to see that burglar punished, but of course even if we get our hands on the crook, we don’t punch him. It’s not how civilised society works, so even if we do in some sense ‘get justice’, we don’t service our animal need for a knee-jerk, vengeful, violent response. So Jack Reacher represents us in these terms. He can do all those things we can’t do. He works outside the law. He’s highly moral, and caring – like us – but he’s brutal with the bad guys and capable of meting out that form of justice. We all wish we were him or could call him to sort out our own life needs. I believe that’s why my books sell – I am fulfilling an elemental need in my readers.
The second key factor in a story after character is suspense. As I said earlier, raising questions is the means by which a story can tantalise its audience, and choosing how and when you answer the questions, and therefore pay off the suspense, is your story. This is also the key to developing your story. I begin with an idea and the suspense drops out of the natural, logical questioning of that premise. So, for example, my next book has a premise that Jack Reacher wanders into a town and finds an elderly lady who is in need of protection. That’s the story in a sentence. So, logically, the first question we have to ask is obvious, isn’t it? What does she need protecting from? OK, so I introduce this mysterious establishment just outside of town, and that is at the root of the problem. So, the question is, what is the establishment? OK, so I made it an ex-military establishment, and it turns out it is nine-tenths underground. It’s enormous in comparison to the proportion on the surface. So what’s it for? What’s the problem it is causing? Who is inside and what are they doing? Why is the old lady in their sights? Clearly, from interrogating the premise, we can see that at a key point in the story, Jack Reacher is going to have to go inside this secretive establishment and pit himself against the unwelcoming, overwhelming and intimidating odds that will be stacked against him when he does.
I don’t really plan too much beyond this process. I start writing by instinct and, although I generally have an idea for the main events, the detailed story and possibilities just kind of open up for me as I go along.
The third key element of a good story for me is ‘education’. I think a good book should leave the reader knowing more about life than when he began.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I don’t understand it when writers talk about having to be disciplined and asking about how to ‘find the time’ to write, and wanting a method for getting going. I can’t help with advice there because if you need help in these areas you are probably not motivated correctly to ever be a writer. Writers must be desperate to write – driven – hungry – forcing themselves to leave their writing to go and do other things, not the other way around. I work in my office in New York. I do around four hours a day from about noon. I feel that’s about as much as I can do and remain productive. I’m not one for working in coffee shops or any public place, and I’m a little suspicious of those that do, because again it points, in my opinion, towards incorrect motivation. Many people I meet adore the idea of being a writer – the romantic image – but see the day-to-day job of writing as impossibly lonely and difficult.
I don’t have any great secret for success – I don’t think anybody does – but I can tell you a sure fire route for failure: sitting at a desk surrounded by ‘How To Write A Blockbuster’ rule books as your starting point means you are dead in the water from the kick off. Forget it. You must write because you are driven to do so, and writing should really be instinctive during the creative process. It’s mostly about confidence. Those who go looking to rule books and gurus are doing so because they lack confidence, not because they need rules, and when they sign up for a course of some sort, they may or may not get confidence, but there’s a good chance they will get hooked into following a formula. Just use courses and seminars to get reassurance that you are on the right lines and get yourself the fundamental knowledge that all storytellers should have, then just forget all that, tuck yourself away and write your story your way. There is no other way. After that, it’s a numbers game. If you write a story so you love it, there will be a proportion of people out there who will love it too. If that is a significant percentage, you will make a living. If it’s not, you’ll have 100 copies printed around the corner and have something to be equally proud of, because it’s your story. The commercial side is a different world – different issues – nothing to do with the story. Just write it, and worry about all that afterwards.
On the commercial side, it is really important to be professional. Treat every interaction with a publisher or agent as if it was a job interview – not a discussion of your art. Make a plan – you are selling units in shops now, not writing a story or being creative, so design your career around a solid, visible representation of what you plan to do as a commercially attractive professional writer. Publishers feel good about these things. I write a book every year – that’s 14 books out there now – and they like it that next year’s is finished and I’m working on the one for the year after that. If I wrote a book every five years, I’d have two out by now, and I wouldn’t be such an attractive commercial proposition. Remember, publishers are money men, not book men. They are looking at you as a potential business partner – not as a brilliant artist. If they feel it will be difficult to work with you, it won’t really matter how good your creations are, they will probably find someone else. Ultimately, we end up where we started: I believe the only training for writing is reading. Read 1000 books and then have the confidence to write your book your way. If you are correctly motivated and then go on to write lots and lots of words, if they click with a proportion of the populace, you have a chance of success.
Further conversations with luminaries from stage, page and screen are featured in The Story Book.