Several months ago, I attended a writer’s conference where the draw included the founder of a major literary agency speaking on crafting the big scenes for a blockbuster novel—(and no, it wasn’t Donald Maass, who has written a well-known and fascinating book on writing the breakout novel). In preparation for the presentation, the speaker asked that the audience read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Undoubtedly a blockbuster by publishing standards, but it is, I’d argue, an odd choice to use as an example of what a blockbuster is or should be.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit, that I’ve never written a blockbuster novel, but I have written and edited novels, and even did a stint reading submissions for a publishing house. I like to think I have some understanding of what goes into one.
First rule of blockbusters: take a genre that is familiar and relatively popular with readers. Let’s say a dystopian setting with a lottery (do they still make kids read Shirley Jackson’s classic short story in middle school?) Then, put a fresh and unusual spin on it: two teenagers from each of this dystopian world’s 13 districts are sent to the capitol to participate in a televised series of games, from which only one will be permitted to emerge from the arena alive. Touch on themes from popular culture: before they compete, the teens are transformed, and personas are created for them, much like competitors on American idol. Add a romance, or even better, a love triangle: the heroine has a boyfriend back home, but she gradually falls in love with her teammate from her district. To survive and return to her family and first love, she may well have to kill her second. Throw in some terrific writing, and you have Suzanne Collin’s brilliant Hunger Games.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by contrast, is a mystery/thriller. A popular genre, but the book is set in Sweden. (A beautiful country but off the top of my head, I can’t think of a lot of Scandinavian characters or settings that make the collective heart beat faster.) The hero is a journalist who, as the story opens, has been convicted of slander and is on his way to jail. The heroine is an antisocial punk, a brilliant hacker, and a ward of the state, due a history of violent behavior. They become involved in a search for a missing girl which sets them on the path of a twisted serial killer. I’m not sure which, if any of these elements might be considered familiar, universal, or popular (except, perhaps the glimpse into the deeply taboo world of the serial killer, which really isn’t introduced until towards the end of the book—though there’s an equally twisted sexual sadist who is appointed the heroine’s guardian and occupies a portion of the beginning.)
There is a romantic element, but in the case of the hero and heroine, it’s far from classic, and given their sexual proclivities, it’s less of a love match or even a triangle. In fact, it’s more a like a sexual dodecahedron.
And before you let your imagination run away with you, the sex isn’t romantic, or erotic. In many cases, it’s deeply disturbing. (Of course, my perspective may also have been influenced by the decision of the famous agent, a wrinkled gentleman in his late 70s, to read aloud several rape and near-rape scenes. (Uncomfortable on more levels than I care to think about.)
So what did the famous agent say made this book a blockbuster?
Alas, he didn’t. (As you may have guessed, he was a terrible speaker.) And that is probably why the question continues to rattle around in my brain, like an unloosed bolt.
In part, I think the book’s popularity has to do with a steady word of mouth endorsement from booksellers, librarians, and readers. It’s a word of mouth that no doubt comes with the counsel to stick with this unusual book, because although it starts off slow, it becomes an emotional roller coaster that is well worth the ride.
Much of this is due to the wealth of complex characters Larsson introduces. Even the most minor is described in a level of detail that sometimes makes you feel as if you’re reading his or her resume. While this unquestionably slows the pacing of the story, it ultimately gives Larsson’s storytelling a rare depth. The events of the story are surprising—often shocking—like the scenes the agent read aloud. The characters’ reactions, particularly the heroine’s, are frequently even more shocking and surprising. But because the readers have come to know her and the rest of the cast so well, the actions are always totally believable.
This isn’t a mystery (or in Larsson’s case, a series of interlocking mysteries) that can be solved simply by eliminating the characters who turn out to be unimportant to the solution. Each one is fully-developed, each has a role to play, and every character’s action has an impact on the story. Like an intricate collection of jigsaw pieces, they fit together to create an amazingly complex puzzle that keeps the reader guessing until the very last page.
It’s not the premise, but the way Larsson measuredly and deeply engages the reader before springing his surprises that got people talking about this book, and that’s what makes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a rule-breaking, uncommon blockbuster.
Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.