What Writers Can Learn from ‘THE THREE’ by Sarah Lotz

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THE THREE, a creepy globe-spanning thriller from Sarah Lotz, is an addictive book. It grabs you by the neck and doesn’t let go. I found it extremely hard to put down.

Four planes crash for unknown reasons on the same day, “Black Thursday,” in Japan, South Africa, Florida, and off the coast of Portugal. The only survivors are three children, all on different flights. And they seem a bit…different when they return home. A bit…not themselves.

A bit horrifying.

An epistolary “book within a book” called Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy makes up 99% of THE THREE, a collection of “real-world” documents and accounts (a la WORLD WAR Z) of the plane crashes, the survivors, and the far-right religious movement that believes the children are three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

If you have trouble keeping up with all four plane crashes and their survivors, here’s a cheat sheet (see also: this great tie-in site).

Sun Air Flight 678: crashed in Japan’s “Suicide Forest”
Survivor: Hiro Yanagida, son of renowned AI/robotics expert

Go!Go! Airlines Flight 270: crashed off the coast of Portugal
Survivor: Jessica Craddock, niece of actor Paul Craddock

Maiden Airlines Flight 364: crashed in the Florida Everglades
Survivor: Bobby Small, grandson of Lillian and Reuben Small

Dalu Air Flight 467: crashed in the Khayelitsha township of Cape Town, South Africa
Survivor: None. But rumors of a fourth survivor persist.

The central mystery of THE THREE–why the planes crashed, why these children survived, and why they seem not-quite-human afterwards–provides plenty of horror and suspense, and the high-concept premise is particularly topical in 2014 thanks to the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

And while the plot flirts with science fiction and paranormal fantasy, the book isn’t too concerned with clear answers to its speculative mysteries. Rather, it explores (quite deftly) the ripple effect that history-making incidents like 9/11 make on individual people, the media, religion, and politics during the age of 24-hour news networks and social media, where conjecture, conspiracy theories, and personality cults can spread like wildfire overnight.

Readers drawn to THE THREE by its genre trappings will not find clear answers. Even though I loved the book, I almost threw it across the room in frustration after reading the last page.

However, I once threw my all-time favorite book–THE MAGUS by John Fowles–across the room when I first read it in college.

Some novels require time to germinate in the mind. While my initial response was one of frustration, after thinking about THE THREE for a few days I came to appreciate Sarah Lotz’s decision to leave so many loose ends. After all, the book isn’t about the children. It’s about the impact they make. And if we learned anything from LOST, it’s that clear answers aren’t always a good thing.

Plus, I’m sure the sequel will clear a few things up.

In the meantime, here are a few things writers can learn from THE THREE. Also, check out a great post by Lotz over on John Scalzi’s blog.

Use More Than One Voice
Giving your readers multiple points of view breathes life into your prose. It distances them from you, the author, by another order of magnitude (see CLOUD ATLAS, THE HISTORIAN, and THE PRESTIGE).

In THE THREE, Sarah Lotz writes from the perspective of a Jewish grandmother in the United States, a narcissistic actor in London, two misanthropic teenagers in Japan, a charismatic Christian pastor in Texas, and at least a dozen other characters spread across the globe.

Each narrator speaks with a distinct cadence and vocabulary, like the Yiddish phrases of Lillian Small, the British slang of Paul Craddock, and the webspeak of Ryu and Chiyoko.

You don’t have to be as ambitious as Sarah Lotz, and you don’t have to use an epistolary structure, either. You don’t even have to use first-person point of view. My novel in progress, THE HIDDEN CITY, alternates between the perspective of two characters using close third-person. In addition to breathing life into your prose, the switching back and forth also creates suspense by frustrating your readers’ appetites for more of a particular character’s story.

Do Your Research
Since THE THREE involves four plane crashes, Sarah Lotz had to do a lot of research on air travel, aviation accidents, and emergency response.

And it shows.

In black box transcripts, newspaper articles, and eyewitness accounts from characters who are experts in their fields, Lotz’s research pays off by seamlessly immersing us in the world of her novel.

Whatever specialized world your novel takes place in, details matter. They create a sense of realism that is absent from too many stories and manuscripts that only brush the surface of a place, topic, or person.

The protagonist of THE HIDDEN CITY is an archer, so I signed up for archery lessons to get first-hand knowledge of the sport, to understand the perspective of an archer in a way that I could never glean from reading about it online.

Is your novel about a veterinarian? Call one and ask if you can shadow her for a day or two. Your readers will thank you.

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