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Bad Sentences in Best-Selling Novels: Cross the Line by James Patterson

January 3, 2017
(image via wikimedia)

(image via wikimedia)

James Patterson writes a lot of books.  It’s tough to gripe about it too much because almost every book he writes becomes a best-seller.  Despite his success, I’ve thought that an author who puts out as many books a year as he does might not be worried about quality.

To demonstrate this point, I chose an excerpt from Patterson’s latest Alex Cross thriller, Cross the Line.

Chapter Two of this book has one of the least dramatic, least emotional death scenes I have ever read.  To keep this blog post short, I’ve added my comments in parenthesis. At the beginning of this scene, the two victims Edita and McGrath are leaving a Whole Foods store after a couple pages of banter:

*****

They turned to head south, Edita a step or two ahead of him.

A second later, McGrath caught red fire flashing in his peripheral vision, heard the boom-boom-boom (Lazy sound effect?) of rapid pistol fire, and felt bullets hit him (Wouldn’t the bullets hit him before he heard the sound?), one of them in his chest.  It (More than one bullet hit him, so the pronoun should be “they” unless it was only the bullet that hit him in the chest that brought him down.) drove him to the ground (That’s it?  He didn’t feel anything right away?).

Edita started to scream but caught the next two bullets (where?) and fell beside McGrath, the organic groceries tumbling across the bloody (already?) sidewalk.

For McGrath, everything became far away and slow motion (what does that even mean?).  He fought for breath (cliché).  It felt like he’d been bashed in the ribs with sledgehammers (poorly written cliché).  He went on autopilot, fumbled (he’s fumbling while he’s on autopilot?) for his cell phone in his gym-shorts (gym shorts seems like an irrelevant detail at this point; maybe the gym shorts should have been established earlier in the scene) pocket.

He punched in 911, watched dumbly as the unbroken bottle of Clifton Dry rolled away from him down the sidewalk.

A dispatcher said, “District 911, how may I help you?” (That’s a very polite dispatcher.  Dispatchers in my area start with “Is this an emergency?”)

“Officer down,” McGrath croaked.  “Thirty-two hundred block of Wisconsin Avenue.  I repeat, officer…”

He felt himself swoon (“swoon” implies falling down and he’s already on the ground) and start to fade.  He let go of (weak verb, maybe use “dropped” instead) the phone and struggled to look at Edita.  She wasn’t moving (weak verb phrase), and her face looked blank (cliché) and empty (cliché)

McGrath whispered to her before dying (this action is out of sequence).

“Sorry, ED,” he said (“whispered” has already been established).  “For all of it.”

*****

James Patterson is doing something right as an author.  After all, he’s sold more books than every other author who has ever lived combined (slight exaggeration).  Even so, this scene left me feeling nothing for the murdered victims.

I’ve never been shot, and I’ve never died before, so I’m no expert on how people react to these situations.  Still, I imagine that the human mind goes through a lot.  That final moment when a character realizes he/she is going to perish should reveal something about that character.

What would I think about in that situation?  Did I leave the stove on?  Will my wife remember to pay all the bills on time?  Crap, I’ll never see my kids grow up or know who won the Super Bowl this year.  A writer should be able to come up with some details, anything, to make a death scene emotional.

Maybe I’m being too nit-prickety.  Maybe I am biased against James Patterson and don’t recognize his story-telling skills.  Maybe I should take his masterclass to learn why everything I’ve written about that scene is wrong.

But in the meantime, here’s my own ebook about a story I wrote that got me in trouble at school.

Nobody has asked me to teach a masterclass.

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8 Comments
  1. Ha ! I had such a fun time reading this. I only had one series from James Patterson when I was a teenager so I didn’t hold such a standards to him back then, but damn, what a break down of one of the best selling authors.

  2. You and James Patterson crack me up. There is a reason I read so few books that make it to Best Seller status and you’ve nailed that reason with this post. There must be something to this style of cranking out novels, but I sure don’t get it. I want the words themselves to take me so deeply into the story that I forget about criticizing and just go along with for the ride.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. I love that he feels the need to mention the irrelevant fact that the groceries are organic as they tumble into the blood – these two may have been murdered, but at least they’ve caused fewer pesticides to be released into the world!
    At best this can be described as bald storytelling. There’s not a drop of tension or feeling in the words – it’s all telling not showing. Even if these are subsidiary characters, there must be a reason we’ve seen them die, but with this tedious description he may as well have had the deaths happen ‘off page’ for all the impact they make on the reader.
    You’re right, Patterson must have something – this example does not show us what that ‘something’ is.

    • “I love that he feels the need to mention the irrelevant fact that the groceries are organic as they tumble into the blood”-

      And that’s after he’s already established that they were shopping at Whole Foods; of course the groceries were organic… and maybe even gluten-free!

  4. You’re right in that it’s a super lazy scene with no research. Whether or not James Patterson has ever been shot, people who have been have written about it. Doesn’t take much to get a real idea of how it feels, what you hear, and what goes through your head from say 6-10 people and make that your basis for a scene with actual tension.

  5. You’re so funny. You made me laugh. I guess if you’re already James Patterson you are allowed to write whatever you want and it will become a bestseller. I put it to literary license.

  6. You crack me up! I wholeheartedly agree with your assessments. Newer writers…ones that haven’t been published, are held to a much, much higher standard than well-known, successful writers. We need to achieve the unreachable…and thus are never published. I could NEVER get away with what Patterson did. But yet, he, and the others like him, take up rows and rows in book store as if you won’t be able to find their name in the slew of novels. Well, like you said, he is doing something right, and obviously we aren’t. So, let me go work on my novels…I have some lowering my standards to do!

  7. You’re right, this is pretty bad writing, but all the more entertaining as long as you’re not forced to read the whole book. Is James P the one who farms his ideas out to a panel of back writers, like a production line, or is that some other writer? Even if so, you’d think he’d edit the end result. The only thing I’m still trying to get my head round is your point about the bullets. One of ‘they’ hit him? Surely even if there were 100 bullets, if one of them hits him it is singular?

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