Michael Robotham’s novel Life or Death: A blueprint for writing a bestseller
Life or Death is THE novel you want to read, if you want to learn how to write a novel – any novel, no matter whether it falls within the crime thriller genre. There’s virtually no aspect about the craft of writing that Michael Robotham in Life or Death does not execute to perfection, while breaking many ‘rules’ of writing with aplomb:
- A great beginning.
- Character and plot.
- Creating a sense of place.
- Significant themes.
- A resonant title.
- A satisfying ending.
In 1995 Michael Robotham read a newspaper clipping about a man who escaped from jail a day before his scheduled release from a long sentence. The story continued to intrigue him, his novelist mind churning on two questions: first, why might a man do that, second, the perennial author question, what if? He knew he wanted to write a novel about this premise, but it took him years until he felt sufficiently confident he had the skills ‘to tell the story properly’.
Michael Robotham has done far more in Life or Death than ‘tell the story properly’. Even though his previous books featuring his two main characters Joe O’Loughlin and Vincent Ruiz are among my favourite crime novels, Life or Death reaches a whole new level of complexity and quality. It is no surprise that the novel was shortlisted for the two prime crime novel awards in the world: the American Edgar Award, so named in honour of Edgar Allan Poe, and the British CWA Gold Dagger Award, which it won.
The first chapter focuses on protagonist Audie Palmer. Only slowly does the reader become aware that Audie has escaped from prison, because from the first sentence Robotham breaks the rules and goes straight to a flashback scene.
Audie sees himself as a boy fishing on Lake Conroy with his dad, who teaches him not how to swim, but instead, how not to drown after a boat accident: ‘You hang on like a limpet.’ This flashback scene is only about a page long, but fulfils two important functions: it throws light on the warm relationship between Audie and his dad, making the reader care about Audie, while also informing the reader that Audie can’t swim.
So when the reader figures out that the adult Audie is on the run, and seeks to cross a lake hanging onto eight plastic bottles lashed together with strips of bed sheet, thus at risk not only from prison guards on pursuit, but also of drowning, the reader fears for Audie’s safety.
In addition, the first chapter features Robotham’s skills at beautiful writing: ‘[His] feet touch rocks and he drags himself ashore, collapsing on a narrow sand beach, kicking the bottles away. The night air has a dense feral odour, still radiating heat from the day. Mist hangs on the water in wisps that could be the ghosts of drowned fishermen.’
The crime Audie was sentenced for is revealed only well into the novel, and the reason for his escape even later, thus creating suspense, while breaking the rule that the reader must understand the protagonist’s desire early on. Robotham develops Audie’s character so well, however, that the reader knows he has a compelling reason for his escape, and that is enough.
If you have a look at my previous blog posts 10 ways to hook your reader from the very beginning and Nine ways to direct your reader from the very beginning, you can see how many of these ways Robotham has used to hook and direct the reader from the first chapter.
Character and plot
Never fear, I will not give the plot away! That is my cardinal rule when I review books and I won’t break it here.
Audie’s cellmate Moss, Audie’s former boss Urban Covic, the mysterious woman Belita who escaped South America for the US, FBI agent Desiree Furness, and Sheriff Ryan Valdez, one of the officers originally arresting Audie, are other major characters, some in the present, some also in Audie’s backstory that Robotham reveals slowly, in multiple strands and spiced with many twists and turns.
Similarly, Robotham gradually reveals each of the main characters, including protagonist Audie, by slowly peeling the onion layers of skin of each, and showing them in action, thought and speech as multidimensional people. None of them embody superficial stereotypes.
Robotham has always been a character-driven writer and told me in an interview included in Celebrating Australian Writing: Interviews with Australian Writers that that approach resulted from his former career as a ghost-writer, where he would have to get inside his subjects’ heads and inhabit them while writing their autobiography.
One of the main ‘rules’ about plot is that there must be conflict, which can arise from forces opposing the protagonist’s goal. Such forces can be internal, systemic or in the form of antagonists. Similarly, a protagonist will often have ‘helpers’ who seek to assist the protagonist achieving their goal.
Robotham provides a plethora of forces opposing protagonist Audie. Similarly, he gives Audie some helpers. Here Robotham’s genius lies in the fact that it is not always predictable or obvious as to who is an opponent and who is a helper.
Because Robotham’s plot is character-driven, i.e. driven by his characters’ actions, motivations and choices, the events form a perfectly sound chain of cause and effect.
The dialogue is mostly stripped down to essentials and either advances the plot, adds to characterisation or adds to the reader’s understanding of the relationships between the characters, as it should.
Here is one example. When Moss is asked about his name, he says, ‘‘Well, suh, my momma couldn’t spell Moses on my birth certificate.’
Structure and Scene
Like Georgia Blain’s novel Between a Wolf and a Dog, which I highlighted in my recent blog post on the advantages of Using Multiple Points of View for Structure, Robotham tells his story from the points of view of several of his characters, which deepens their characterisation. In addition to the multiple viewpoints, the story braids present and past, using the back stories of several characters as far as they are relevant to Audie’s back story to add to characterisation.
Life or Death is built with a series of scenes to show the characters in action or reflection and includes little exposition or telling. It begins with the inciting incident – Audie’s escape – and builds to crisis, climax and ends with resolution.
Robotham is an expert at moving between fast pace and slowing things down.
For fast-paced scenes he goes right into the action, uses short sentences and strong nouns and verbs, and in dialogue he goes right to the heart of the conflict.
In slower segments he gives the reader a character’s thoughts and reflections and adds more descriptive and detail about a character and about his Texas setting.
Creating a sense of place
Another of Robotham’s prime strengths as a writer is his skill in creating a strong sense of place. And so it is in Life or Death, which is set in Texas.
Robotham refers to people who live there, sights, smells and sounds, and he conveys the atmosphere of the place:
“It looks like he’s crossing a dead world that some ancient civilisation has left behind. The trees are huddled along the old watercourses like herded beasts, and heat shimmers off a flatland that is threaded with motorbike tracks and turkey trails.”
“Audie takes the South Freeway through the outskirts of Houston into Brazoria Country … A rusted pickup in front has a bumper sticker across the back window: Secede or Die: Texas Patriot. The driver tosses away a cigarette, which bounces and sparks across the blacktop. The fields are full of sunflowers, cotton and the broken stalks of harvested corn.”
Robert McKee in Story writes, ‘The writer shapes story around a perception of what’s worth living for, what’s worth dying for, what’s foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth – the essential values.”
This sentence encompasses what Life or Death is about. I would add, it is about how to be a human being with a moral compass, in a world filled with injustice and police corruption. It is also about friendship and all-encompassing love and suggests that life, and whether we live or die, is subject entirely to fate.
Like many of the best titles, including for instance Leah Kaminsky’s novel, The Waiting Room, Life or Death has a double meaning, the literal and a symbolic one, related to the novel’s themes.
The ending or resolution, for which Robotham uses a scene, is satisfying because it fits the protagonist and his story and is both believable and moving.
Overall, Life or Death is a truly inspiring read, for readers AND writers.
Have you read Life or Death? If so, did you find the novel inspired you as both reader and writer?
A photo of Michael and I at the 2015 Byron Bay Writers Festival:
Recommendations for books on the writing craft for aspiring novelists:
For those of you who wish to write a novel, I have learned a lot from the following books:
Robert McKee, Story: substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting
Robert McKee is a renowned teacher of screenwriting, but I found this book immensely useful to learn about how to structure a novel.
Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction: passion, purpose, and techniques to make your novel great and Writing 21st Century Fiction: high impact techniques for exceptional storytelling
Donald Maass heads a literary agency in New York and knows what works from the standpoint of someone who receives thousands of manuscripts annually. Both these books are extremely inspiring, especially with regard to creating characters that leap off the page.
Nancy Kress, Dynamic Characters: how to create personalities that keep readers captivated
Nancy Kress is a writer of award-winning novels, short stories and she teaches creative writing at universities. Her book is for both novelists and short story writers and provides yet another layer to building outstanding characters.
And finally, there are three books which focus on learning writing from reading:
Sue Woolfe and Kate Grenville, Making Stories: how ten Australian novels were written
This book was published in 1993, so the novels in question were published quite a while ago. They include interviews with the authors about the novels in question and extracts from early drafts and the equivalent published versions.
James Wood, How Fiction Works
James Wood is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a renowned literary critic. He includes brief extracts from classic novels by renowned writers from the US, the UK, France, Russia and elsewhere with subsequent commentary on style, language use, characterisation, and so on.
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them
Francine Prose is another distinguished novelist, critic and essayist from New York. Like James Wood, she includes extracts from novels by well-known authors, but she uses them to first explain and then illustrate great writing with regards to character, dialogue, narration, detail and so on. Perhaps because she also teaches writing, I found her book the most inspiring of the three.
Do you read books on the writing craft? If so, which ones have you found particularly useful?