Book Review : Benjamin Percy - Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction (2016)
Sometimes I get bored with reading fiction. It’s like with anything, do it enough times without encountering new and exciting challenges and it’ll eventually start losing its meaning. That’s why I spent a significant part of October reading nonfiction, comics and whatever could pull me out of my comfort zone. Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction was sitting on my unread shelves for sometime without me knowing exactly who he was and how it got there. And I bought that thing myself. Imagine that. So, it more than qualified to challenge my reading habits.
I normally have a policy of not reviewing nonfiction about writing on this site. But this is writing craft and it isn’t. Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction has little in common with seminal books like Robert McKee’s maniacally precise Story or John Truby’s iconic The Anatomy of Story. This isn’t get from point A to point B book. Benjamin Percy takes for granted that if you’re reading it, you know how to do that already. It’s more of a make the road from point A to point B as interesting as possible kind of book. It reminded me of Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction, but with a warmer and more casual approach.
So, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction dispenses writing advice, but it also deconstructs the difference between competent and standout fiction. That was extremely interesting to me, because Benjamin Percy goes into pinpoint details. In his essay Urgency, he addresses the idea of characters having secondary goals. To give them something to do: drive somewhere, cook a meal for upcoming guests, train for a dancing competition, anything to develop a sense of urgency that’s proper to a chapter and not to a novel. It’s also a powerful tool to organically work your way to situations of conflict.
On an essay-to-essay basis, there’s a lot to like about Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction. There Will Be Blood: Writing Violence addresses a point I find extremely important and that little to no people understand: violence is over better served in indirect ways. If a character inhabits a realm of violence (like in those brutal Asian martial arts thrillers I like but don’t love) , it’ll lose its potency. Essays like Don’t Look Back and Feckless Pondering also stood out by addressing common insecurity mistakes that undermine so many young writers’ efforts, which Benjamin Percy singles out in his own original, matter-of-fact way.
Not all of the essays in Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction has the same interest for me. Enjoying the process of revision is more of a basic advice you can find elsewhere and the essay Consider the Orange, while great, I thought discussed ideas only handled well by masters that could sink anybody else’s efforts. But overall Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction did what I hoped it would do: it rekindled my enjoyment of thinking critically about fiction. I don’t know how much and for how long, but it worked because Benjamin Percy allied passion, wit and a sharp critical eye in this accessible and highly enjoyable little tome. And who knows? I might pick up the keyboard to write something else than reviews again at some point.