Like Solving a Puzzle

Chris Pavone and Daphne Durham

In Conversation

Tautly wound and expertly crafted, Two Nights in Lisbon is a riveting thriller about a woman under pressure, and how far she will go when everything is on the line. Ariel Pryce wakes up in Lisbon, alone. Her husband is gone—no warning, no note, not answering his phone. Something is wrong. The clock is ticking. Ariel is increasingly frustrated and desperate, running out of time, and the one person in the world who can help is the one person she least wants to ask. With sparkling prose and razor-sharp insights, bestselling author Chris Pavone delivers a stunning and sophisticated international thriller that will linger long after the surprising final page. In this conversation, Chris Pavone speaks with his editor, Daphne Durham, about building plot, using point-of-view, and the role of the reader in his writing.

Daphne Durham: Two Nights in Lisbon is such a satisfying reading experience. It draws you in with a simple premise—a woman wakes up alone in a hotel room in Lisbon and realizes her husband is missing—and sets you on the path to finding answers, with this enigmatic guide at your side. We knew it was going to be tricky to talk about the plot of this novel, given that there is so much fun to be had in experiencing each reveal in real time, so let’s start with your approach. How did Two Nights in Lisbon come together for you?

Chris Pavone: At the start of working on each novel I set two overarching goals. First is to construct a strong core, an organizing idea to define the characters and dictate the plot. I write suspense fiction, but I want my thrillers to be about something genuine and meaningful and relatable—marriage, work, parenthood, ambition. In the way that Cameron Crowe’s movie Almost Famous is always about just that—all the characters are defined by their relationship to the pursuit of fame, and almost every scene is fundamentally about being almost famous.

My second goal is to create a huge paradigm shift, a point deep into the story when a reader sits up and realizes—Oh! That’s what’s going on. As in Gone Girl or Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I want the novel to start out looking like it’s about one thing, but turns out to about something else entirely, something that’s not unrelated but also not obvious. This to me is the ideal type of plot twist: one that makes complete sense after it’s revealed but is nearly impossible to predict, and forces the reader to look back at the entire story from a whole new angle. It’s not about solving a self-evident puzzle, but realizing that you’ve been working on a different type of puzzle altogether. You thought it was a jigsaw, but it’s actually a crossword.

I think that’s why it takes me so long to write my novels. Crafting the kind of satisfying, momentous, paradigm-shifting plot twist I want to read just isn’t something you can plunk down onto page 350; it starts on page one, and it’s there on every page between, sometimes in plain sight, and sometimes lurking between the lines.

DD: I remember in one of our first editorial conversations we talked about how to make sure that the secrets of the novel were tucked away, but there, for readers to discover firsthand, or on a reread. I asked you, rather sheepishly, I admit, feeling like I was asking a magician how he does a trick, how you managed to hide the twists in Two Nights in Lisbon, and you said it was like creating a puzzle. Can you say more about that?

CP: One thing I think is shared by all suspense novelists is a love of this puzzle-solving component. Reading suspense fiction is like solving a puzzle, and writing these books is a far more challenging puzzle, one that we work on for months or even years. I doubt that any of my colleagues awakens in the middle of the night with an urgent idea for sentence structure or adjective choice. It’s the puzzle that we obsess over.

My first full-time permanent office job, in 1990, was editorial assistant for Dell Puzzle Magazines. I loved crosswords, which I’ve been doing daily since college, though I quit for a few years. But I was scolded for it by my grandmother, then in her eighties, who claimed that doing the daily puzzle kept her mind sharp. She had a great point: it’s like going to the gym for the language centers of your brain. In my line of work, that seems like a good idea.

My favorite puzzle is the The New York Times’ Thursday, which has a special theme, creating two layers to the solving experience, which I find much more satisfying than either the twice-as-difficult Saturday puzzle or the twice-as-long Sunday. As with the counterpoint of a Bach fugue, it’s the complexity of overlapping themes that creates the elegance, the elegance that makes it so enjoyable to me.

Those are the sorts of novels I try to write, with a puzzle within a puzzle to create a surprising paradigm shift and a tremendously satisfying payoff. But unlike Thursday crossword puzzles, every reader will solve mine. One of the most important parts of making sure that a puzzle is well-constructed is by testing it: having a seasoned solver work on it and give feedback. The same is true for my novels: the beta readers’ and editorial notes—this reveal is too early, this hint is too obvious, this explanation isn’t clear enough—are when the plots are really fine-tuned. This is work that I 100% cannot do on my own; its very nature requires fresh, disparate points of view.

DD: I was sucked into this novel so swiftly and completely, in part because the tension and urgency is there from the first paragraph, but also because I was fascinated by Ariel Pryce. She is not your typical crime novel protagonist—she is confused and frustrated and has an edge but she’s not “unreliable” or impaired. How did you decide to make her the center of the novel?

CP: I wanted the protagonist of Lisbon to be a rich, complex, credible, and fully realized character, and I hoped to accomplish this by putting readers securely into Ariel’s head from the get-go. But I also wanted her to have an eventful and relevant back story that’s gradually revealed, a complex history that dictates her motivations and actions. These two imperatives are in direct opposition, and finding the fulcrum between them was the biggest challenge of writing this novel.

Point of view is a continuum, with close first-person at one end and distant third at the other. One of the most elemental choices a novelist makes is where on that continuum to position the protagonist, and for me this choice is dictated by the plot twists. With twists that are external to the protagonist, the POV can be much closer, much more honest, while still allowing the reader to feel that the ultimate reveals are credible and earned; this is the case with most traditional mysteries, police procedurals, all the types of stories where the protagonist is solving someone else’s crime. On the other hand, for plot twists that will turn out to be internal to the protagonist—twists that have been orchestrated or instigated by her, or that are the direct extension of —the extremely close POV of some psychological thrillers can feel to me cruelly unfair, rendering the twists not just cheap and unearned but infuriating. Many of those are the so-called “unreliable narrator” books I throw across the room. I’m sick of being bald-faced-lied to.

Each of my novels features major characters who withhold something or other from the reader. During the drafting, editing, and revising processes, this is the aspect of the novel with which I struggle the most, trying to find the right points on the continuum for every character, most especially for the protagonist.

The whole thing is exhausting, but to me it’s exhausting in the same way as a close, competitive athletic contest, always on the cusp of losing, sprinting for every ball, gasping for breath, even maybe thinking about vomiting, but pressing on, wanting the whole thing to end already, but at the same time not.

Come to think of it, a suspense novel is like a year in the life of a professional athlete. The championship trophy is the ultimate aim, the immensely satisfying payoff at the end of a gripping page-turner, everybody cheers. But that requires a lot more than just suiting up for the Super Bowl with a high-stakes climactic scene. That means working every day for 365 pages. Even on the rare off-day, you still go for a long walk, eat properly, hydrate, get a good night’s sleep. Recovery doesn’t mean doing nothing.

DD: I don’t know that I’ve ever heard writing described that way before. It sounds intense! How does the editing process fit into this analogy? Am I the trainer? Team doctor? Surgeon on a torn ACL? I’m going to cut myself off before this conversation gets completely derailed, but I would like to hear you elaborate on the experience of writing Two Nights in Lisbon. When the blurbs started coming in and writers like John Grisham and Lisa Scottoline used terms like “breakneck” and “unputdownable”—Lee Child even described the pace as accelerating like a “panicked heart”—I remember thinking, what must it be like to write a novel that accomplishes this. Can you say more about writing suspense?

CP: Suspense is an every-page endeavor. Even in the narrative valleys when there’s little or no action on the page, a suspense novel can still be building suspense. In fact it might be in these valleys when a thriller builds its most effective muscles, developing character and atmosphere and mood, while maintaining tension by generating questions on every page. Not just questions about the plot itself, but questions qua questions—give a character a scar, but don’t explain why; reference something that happened yesterday, last year, but don’t say what. These questions shouldn’t be irrelevant; they should be in service to character or plot or, preferably, both. That scar is the result of a trauma that’ll be explained in 100 pages that’ll motivate the character 100 pages further on.

The suspense novel’s mood is anxiety. For me anxiety cannot build at a constant pace throughout, and I believe that slow pacing can be just as effective as fast. But I also think the anxiety needs to be ever present, and one of the ways that’s generated is by an insistent drumbeat of unanswered questions. Some of those should be explicit and obvious ones about plot—what the hell happened? What will happen? But I also think many questions should be implicit too, ones that readers may not even recognize as questions, but just details that they absorb as incomplete information, wondering what else there is to it, wanting a little bit more, turning the page hoping to find it.

And by the way: you’re the manager, or the head coach—the person who manages most of the important decisions while also ensuring that everyone else is executing their own distinct responsibilities, and keeping the team’s spirits up, and solving any problems, and trying to keep the volatile and irrational players from shooting themselves in the feet. I was an acquiring editor for a long time, and this was definitely how I thought of myself: the manager of a dozen teams at once, of which only half will end up with winning records. Handling losses is also a big part of that job.

DD: Speaking of details, I imagine it must be hard to figure out where to stop when you’re writing a book that readers call “rocket-paced.” How do you decide what’s enough in terms of backstory and scene-setting and character development? How do you fill in gaps but keep things moving? When does detail become overkill?

CP: For me the operative question isn’t “Does the book need this,” but “Is this worth it?” And “it” here is the reader’s time—the four seconds it took to read the sentence, the four minutes for the page. Did that sentence accomplish something, and was that something worth the reader’s four seconds? Or did that four seconds squander the reader’s time? Is this worthless word going to be the one that convinces a reader to put down the novel permanently? Every word is either generating power that impels the story forward, or it’s a drag coefficient that’s slowing things down.

I’m not a naturally efficient writer. My mind wanders far and I’m also a fast typist, and the combination means that I can dump a lot of irrelevance down onto the page quickly. Sometimes I re-read old emails I’ve sent, and ask myself, what the hell is wrong with you? That should have been one sentence. Three hundred words? And it’s one thing to overexplain something to my mother. But it’s a different matter for strangers who have plunked down twenty-eight dollars.

Every novelist engages in self-editing—reading through the manuscript, striking this sentence, moving that paragraph, changing a tense, adding a new reference early in the book to something that will make sense later. I do plenty of that myself, until I can’t think of any way to make the book better.

Then I do this: I go through the manuscript with the sole goal of shortening every chapter by one page. I use a lot of short chapters—Lisbon has more than fifty, averaging eight manuscript pages apiece. I force it down to seven. Sometimes that’s as simple as deleting a few words in few paragraphs to lose the only two lines at the top of that eighth page. But sometimes one chapter takes hours of work, trying to shorten every single one of a hundred paragraphs. Sometimes it feels like torture.

This one-page-fewer goal is arbitrary, and obviously not scientific, and I know it doesn’t guarantee optimal efficiency. But it does force me to challenge every sentence, and it shortens every draft by an average of 10 percent of the word count. That’s not nothing, as anyone who’s ever tried to lose 10 percent of their body weight knows. This process takes a week or two per draft, repeated two or three times per book. I spend a month per book doing nothing but deleting. This makes me feel like I’ve sacrificed something on behalf of readers’ time. It’s an exercise that I never, ever regret—not the time it takes, not the difficulty of it, not any of the material that’s left on the cutting room floor. I still don’t enjoy killing my darlings, but I take tremendous solace in knowing that I won’t miss them.


Chris Pavone is the author of The Paris Diversion, The TravelersThe Accident, and The Expats. His novels have appeared on the bestseller lists of The New York TimesUSA Today, and The Wall Street Journal; have won both the Edgar and Anthony awards; are in development for film and television; and have been translated into two dozen languages. Chris grew up in Brooklyn, graduated from Cornell, and worked as a book editor for nearly two decades. He lives in New York City and on the North Fork of Long Island with his family.

Daphne Durham is a executive editor at MCD x FSG.