I just finished reading THE DEVIL’S ONLY FRIEND by Dan Wells. For those of you who enjoy the TV show The Following or are fascinated by serial killers, I recommend reading this series by starting with I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. This story really stands out from others because the protagonist is 15 in the first book, which just adds a whole other level of creepiness to the story. Love it.
So let’s talk about the interesting things Wells does in this book. John Cleaver is a brilliant protagonist. While he is incapable of feeling empathy for those around him, he excels at figuring out how people think and using that against them. That’s how he thwarts the antagonists in the story. As such, John has to make many plans and then execute them flawlessly. All while trying not to give in to his dark nature.
With characters who are in this constant state of planning, there are a couple general methods writers use to make the execution of the plan interesting to the reader.
The first is to list out all the details of the plan for readers to see. This shows the character’s genius. But then, when it comes time to execute the plan, rather than bore readers by showing the plan that was just explained to them, something has to go horribly wrong. The plan has to change quickly, and that turn of events not only amps up the tension, but is great at making a book unputdownable.
The second method is to simply not tell the reader the plan. Then when everything goes according to plan, it is still interesting and exciting because readers didn’t know the plan in the first place.
Like every time this chick
outsmarts this guy.
The third method is a little different, but it basically involves telling the reader the plan, without telling them the intended outcome.
And Dan Wells uses all three of these. Then on top of it, he breaks the rules to achieve his own desired outcome.
In some of the first pages of the book, John lays out his plan. He and his team are going to take out a bad guy, very simply but effectively. The plan really only has about three steps to it. The steps are laid out, then they’re performed perfectly, and the outcome is achieved just as they wished it to. But rather than this being boring, it was actually perfect for what I assume Wells was trying to achieve. He’s showing readers how these characters work. They’re a new team, but they’re really good at what they do. They make a plan, and the plan works. (It also helps that the plan and execution of that plan were quick, maybe just a couple pages. As a reader, I didn’t have a chance to get bored, and it was great for character development. Having every scene do more than one thing is very beneficial!)
But then, when it comes time to take out the next antagonist, things go wrong. This team that’s proven to be so effective and thorough messes up, and bad things happen as a result. The element that makes the plan go wrong hits you harder. You’re angry by the wrongness of it. After all, you’d just learned how effective the team is. You were wowed by their awesomeness.
Because of the consequences of this plan going wrong, John doubts his team. He thinks he’d be more effective if he didn’t rely on others. So he starts to make plans on his own. John will tell you what he wants to achieve, and then you learn how he gets there as he does it. There’s a new killer in town. John wants to communicate with him, but he has to break away from the team to do it. He strikes out on his own, and you don’t know how he’s going to do it until he’s already doing it.
And then my favorite part of the story happens at the very end. John is backed into a corner, you don’t know what the best possible outcome is for him. Can he even survive it? He starts carrying out a plan, but where is the plan going? What the heck is he doing? The tension builds and builds as you painfully wait for the consequences of the plan. But then, when it happens…it’s beautiful. So satisfying and fulfilling.
This character’s methods never get boring. Because even if it’s the same brilliance, there’s a different way for Wells to manifest that brilliance to manipulate the reader’s reactions to it. And it’s awesome.
As writers, it’s a good idea to be aware of these methods of executing plans within our novels. Whether we’re following the rules or breaking them for specific reasons, it still pays to know what else is being done out there.