Tokyo-based author Michael Pronko has written two thrillers in the Detective Hiroshi series, “The Last Train” and “The Moving Blade.” He’s at work on book three.
You do such a great job of immersing the reader in the setting of Tokyo with detailed descriptions of culture, location, and food (!). But the book is a thriller. How do you balance the critical factor of establishing setting w/ moving the story forward?
Having a strong sense of place and a strong sense of story might seem opposed, but they create a delicious tension. On the first drafts of the novels, I usually have about twice as much description. And then, painfully, reluctantly, I cut, cut, cut. I save all those cut words in a huge “cuts” file. It breaks my heart to take out some of the culture, location and food, but the most detailed descriptions are exactly the ones that would distract and disrupt the pace and flow. Sadly.
On the other hand, sometimes I write passages in a first draft that read like pure action—too fast and too abstract. The details of a restaurant, a backstreet, or a face shape the action and add weight to the momentum. Chases are chases, but a chase through the crowded train platforms of Tokyo immerses the reader into the city’s life. You can’t stop the chase to describe everyone in the crowd. That’s anthropology, not narrative. But without seeing the crowd at least a little, the chase would be lifeless.
The same for the eating scenes. A discussion over sake in a small sushi bar at midnight lets the detectives’ discussion become as subtle and complex as Japanese cuisine. But I always want to hone in on the details of that vinegar-cured slice of fish with the silver-black skin cradling a dollop of ginger, but the story must move on. Like over-packing for a trip; you realize you don’t need to bring everything with you.
Balancing the diverse elements is a huge challenge. ‘Balancing’ might not be the right word. It’s more like music, which I usually listen to as I write, and rewrite. If a piece of music has no change in tempo, no pauses or calmer passages, it’s just too intense, and kind of irritating. It’s important to know where to take a break, how long to slow down and when to lock back into the propulsive drive.
That balance is especially important in the setting of Tokyo, because the basic experience of Tokyo is moving forward. Of course, people slow down and relax. But never for long. You feel one way on the express train, and another when you’re in the standing bar underneath the tracks. Another reason to slow down for details of the setting is that Tokyo has such fantastic ones. I’m captivated by some of the places I see in Tokyo, and want to pass that along to readers—to make them see and feel the place, to be there.
There’s no low gear in a thriller, no mystery without mashing the accelerator. Yet, moments of reflective stillness, when the description brings things to a halt, are also essential. Those moments allow meanings and understanding to come together. They allow the reader to reflect through the details.
The stopped moments in a novel also crank the tension as taut as possible. The narrative and descriptive forces pull against each other, for a moment, or two, of pure stillness, and then—twang!—off the story goes again. I find pleasure in writing both and in getting the two balanced just right.
To learn more about Michael, visit him at michaelpronko.com.