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“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.”
So begins Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, the book that launched the most famous spy franchise of all time: James Bond. By putting us right in the middle of a high-stakes game of baccarat in France, Fleming illustrated in one sentence what spy novels give us. Fantasy. Moments of high tension. Exotic locations. The feel of a bead of sweat on the forehead.
But we’re all familiar with James Bond. What do today’s spy novelists do with the genre that makes them exciting again, and how can you learn from the best without copying them?
What Is a Spy Novel?
It’s simple: A spy novel is typically a thriller wherein one of the major characters works in espionage. Whether your name is James Bond, Jason Bourne, Alec Leamas, or Liz Carlyle, it typically means a razor-sharp protagonist going against Machiavellian villains with plots on world domination.
But after the James Bond series, we’re also a bit worn out with the familiar format. Good guy gets a mission, good guy travels to exotic location, good guy triumphs in the end.
Novels like Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity introduced wrinkles in its characters: What if James Bond didn’t remember who he was? John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy included a complex element of social commentary, including a reference to the real-life defection of Kim Philby.
One thing is clear: Audiences know what to expect from spy novels, and unless your name is Ian Fleming, the same old formula won’t do.
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How to Write a Spy Novel
At the outset, approach a spy novel as you would any other novel. You’ll need a three-act structure, a central conflict with high emotional stakes built in, and engaging characters.
Alright, we admit it. That’s a bit easier said than done. And truth be told, a spy novel is different from other novels, which means you need to be aware of the following.
If you’ve seen Austin Powers, the famous 1997 spoof of James Bond films, you’re already familiar with the typical spy novel tropes: exotic locations, wealthy villains bent on global domination, protagonists with questionably promiscuous social lives.
Readers have seen that before. If you want to create something original, consider doing a twist on the following tropes.
- Tux-and-gown: The typical spy novel puts us in glamorous circumstances, and Ian Fleming is famous for this. But consider the first sentence of Casino Royale: how nauseating a casino can smell at three in the morning. Revamp your settings by considering how a spy actually lives—and remember it’s not always all glamorous.
- Invented world: While many classic spy novels find their roots in the world of the Cold War, they often invent their own circumstances and villains. Ludlum’s “Treadstone” program in the CIA or Fleming’s “SPECTRE” organization are two examples. At some point, you’ll have to choose whether you want a gritty, real-world scenario to play out—or if you’re really writing something more akin to spy fantasy.
Good news: You can rely on a traditional thriller structure to build your spy novels. This may sound like a recipe for formulaic plots, but remember that structure isn’t always about predictable twists. It’s about assembling the ingredients that make for an engaging story.
This is where you can really liven things up. By giving your characters unique traits, you can completely resurrect old ideas and breathe new life into them. Sherlock Holmes in a medical setting became TV’s successful House; Sherlock Holmes with OCD and multiple phobias became TV’s Monk.
Before you can introduce a new twist on a time-tested classic, it helps to know the usual tropes so you’ll know when to avoid them:
- The alcohol-soaked protagonist: Spy novels are rich with protagonists who can handle all the booze they drink (James Bond, Roger Thornhill from North by Northwest) or can’t. But it’s not an either/or choice.
- Femme fatales: The spy world is full of “honeypots,” or female spies who employ their wiles on the macho world around them. But it’s the 21st century. Women can be anything—from protagonists to world-dominating antagonists to 007’s replacement. Mix up your gender roles to not only keep things fresh, but realistic.
- Mustache-twirling villains: Dr. No, the direct inspiration for Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil, sits in expensive conference rooms and strokes his pet as he plans world domination. But spy thrillers have gotten more sophisticated with their portrayal of villains. They no longer require mustaches to twirl. In Stella Rimington’s Illegal Action, a looming twist is that the villain may not be the evil oligarch, but one of the agents working alongside the protagonist. The better your villain, the better your novel.
- The omnipotent sidekick: We’ve all seen movies in which the protagonist speaks to his omnipresent sidekick, who just happens to be an expert in all the technology the hero requires. It can make for great comic relief, sure—especially when Q shows up to give 007 a tongue-lashing. But fresher spy novels give us sidekicks who seem like real people. In The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne meets Marie St. Jacques, and their relationship isn’t all that traditional. She makes mistakes. She falls in love. She has a past all her own. It adds to the human stakes present in the story, giving us all the more reason to root for them as they team up.
What Readers Expect Out of a Spy Novel
Creative writing is always a delicate balance. On one hand, readers open up spy novels because they want the escapism that made James Bond so famous. On the other hand, readers who are used to the same old stories will come to fresh novels hoping for new twists on old tropes.
If you’re self-publishing a spy novel, you should also consider the genre around you. What do readers buy? Where are their tastes shifting?
Great spy authors like Robert Ludlum, Ian Fleming, and Stella Rimington invigorate their spy novels with plenty of action, sure. But they also think about the stakes involved. For James Bond, it might be rescuing the planet from a madman with nuclear ambitions. For Jason Bourne, it’s piecing together a personal identity while the world’s other top spies are after him.
What will your readers expect? Play with the tropes while flavoring your own novels with your experiences. Stella Rimington, for example, was once the head of MI5, and that experience informed her writing.
You don’t have to be a former MI5 chief to bring your own personal quirks to a story. Just as writers turned Sherlock Holmes into an obsessive-compulsive Monk, there’s always a new way to tell a familiar story. As long as you’re willing to explore your own experiences, you’ll find plenty of gems along the way.
Making Your Spy Novel Work
A good spy novel is an adventure in escapism. There’s always going to be an element of suspension of disbelief.
We may not have the abilities of these famous protagonists, but we don’t mind coming along for the ride. Whether that’s a dark, realistic, gritty tale or an unrealistic romp through the south of France, it all depends on what you have to say about the genre when you publish your own spy novel.
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