Realism in the Chris Wren books

Mike GristMarketing, Writing Leave a Comment

Anyone who reads this blog knows I take on board reader feedback and use it to improve my writing. I have no qualms about changing books that have already been published, and have written about this plenty before – I changed the Wren series in many ways both small and large: taking out political elements, removing swearing, reducing the graphic horror, removing the time spent in the heads of creepy people, speeding up slow sections and adding more descriptive parts at times.

I’ve done all that. The Wren books started to sell because I did it – but for a long time there’s been one comment that I just couldn’t grasp – one that recurs constantly: the books are not realistic.


Well, on occasion someone would point out something specific – like Wren couldn’t be shot in the thigh and walk at all, or Wren couldn’t survive a ‘hail of bullets’ without a scratch – so I would change those, without really being able to expand the lesson outward to the broader point.

Now, maybe, I get it.

When people say the books are unrealistic, I always thought, ‘well, everything in the books is possible. It could happen. So how is that unrealistic?’

Now I’m thinking that what they mean when they say unrealistic is not that its impossible, but that it’s improbable. And that I can work with.

Are the Wren books improbable? Massively so, on multiple occasions. They are big action movie-style stories. But that begs the question, does big action-movie style spectacle work in a novel? Maybe it doesn’t, at least not in quite the same way. In the John Wick movies, there are long sections of balletic fighting. Would that work in print the same waty? Probably not.

I’m happy to adapt. If it strengthens the story, I want to.

So recently I’ve been reviewing all the Wren books with a new barometer – plausibility. I still want some big set pieces. I still want the big action – but perhaps I can reduce those big moments, and build up to them more, and thereby earn more suspension of disbelief from my readers due to a greater sense of realism throughout.

In particular, this lesson came home to me when watching the new Luther movie, The Fallen Sun. Luther was always an inspiration for Wren – it takes Black Mirror style tech issues and clashes them with a murder mystery/detective angle, in much the same way Wren does for 24-style terrorist attacks.

In Luther: The Fallen Sun, there’s multiple things that really stretch belief to breaking point, with two in particular:

  • Luther, played by the big strong actor Idris Elba, finds himself getting his butt kicked multiole times by the loser old guy played by dimunitive actor Andy Serkis. It just does not compute. It looks silly and utterly implausible.
  • Luther engineers a prison break for himself by first orchestrating a prison riot. This requires the cooperation of both prisoners and guards, all of whom are risking their lives and livelihoods just to break him out, just so he can chase Andy Serkis. There is no explanation offered for why anyone would go to these extreme lengths for such a modest reason. They wouldn’t.

Seeing these factors really made me think. It is, of course, possible that Elba could be beaten by Serkis, and that he ciould orchestrate a prison break in this way, but it’s wildly implausible and improbable. Watching that happen really took me out of the story, because it was silly.

I really don’t want Wren to seem silly like that. I don’t want to lose people for the same reason, because I believe the core of the books is really strong. So, I am working to make the whole series more realistic. There will still be plenty of wild action, but I’ll build to it.

Could this transform the performance of the books, just like previous changes has done? I believe it will. It’ll be fascinating to find out if it does. Wish me luck! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *