It’s often said that people, especially kids, don’t like to read history because it’s “dry” and boring. In Killing Lincoln, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have managed to make history thrilling by showing true historical facts but writing the book like a modern thriller novel. As a result, their book is on the best-seller list and it’s awakening people’s interest in history. So what are some of the thriller-writing techniques they employed? Here are ten:
1. High Stakes. Besides the personal pathos of the murder of a good man and one of our best presidents, the subtitle says this was “a shocking assassination that changed America forever.” Those are high stakes that have relevance for us all.
2. Tight Time Frame. Rather than waxing on about an overview of the Civil War as a whole, the book covers a highly-charged, dramatic few days–from the end of the Civil War at Appomattox (March 4, 1865) to the rounding up of Lincoln’s murderers a few months later (July 7, 1865). Each chapter begins with a tight time frame, as in: “Chapter Forty-One: Friday, April 14, 1865, Washington, D.C., 10:15 P.M.” Readers breathlessly follow the mounting suspense moment by moment.
3. Larger-than-life Characters. The great Abraham Lincoln, his depressive wife Mary, the charismatic actor and hater, John Wilkes Booth–these are extraordinary people who do extraordinary things.
4. The Dramatic Question. There are lots of details, but the spine of the book is really quite simple: How and why was Booth able to pull off his horrendous crime, and what were the ramifications?
5. High Concept. Built on hair-raising suspense, the plot contains dramatic situations, bizarre and surprising actions.
6. Multiple Points of View. We get into the heads of Lincoln, Mary, Booth, and the other main characters, hearing their thoughts (as recorded in their writings). They become real people, flawed and so very human.
7. Present tense. The scenes are written in present tense, giving a sense that the reader is right there on the scene: “On the walk back to the White House, Lincoln composes a note in his head. It is to Mary, a simple invitation to go for a carriage ride on Friday afternoon. Their eldest son, Robert, is due home from the war any day. Surely, the cloud of melancholy that has hovered over them is about to lift.”
8. Chapters ending in cliff-hangers. These keep readers turning pages long into the night: “Thank God I have lived to see this,” Lincoln cries. “It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone.” But it’s not really gone. President Lincoln has just twelve days to live.
9. Emotional involvement. We feel for these people. Abraham Lincoln suffered under his responsibilities during the Civil War: “Very often he cannot sleep at all. Lincoln collapsed from exhaustion just a month ago. He is pale, thirty-five pounds underweight, and walks with the hunched, painful gait of a man whose shoes are filled with pebbles. At fifty-six years old, Abraham Lincoln is spent.”
10. Vivid details. “The third act is under way. Soon the play will be over, and Lincoln can get back to the White House. Meanwhile, the unheated state box has gotten chilly. It is seven minutes after ten. At the exact same moment, John Wilkes Booth strolls through the front door of Ford’s Theater–heart racing, whiskey on his breath, skin clammy to the touch.”
Now that’s the way to write history! Nobody can say it’s dry or boring, and people will long remember the tragic story they have read in this book.