Bagley on writing action fiction

Desmond Bagley on Writing action fiction - The Writer- May 1973

In May 1973 an edition of The Writer featured an article by Desmond Bagley titled ‘Writing Action Fiction’. In this article Bagley describes, using examples from Running Blind, how he applied the three-part (three-act) structure when writing his novels.

Bagley talks about the need to grab the readers attention on the first page with a hook, the importance of characterisation over plot and the difference between plot and theme in a novel. Bagley, who says in this article ‘The only time I wrote the synopsis of a book before attacking the typewriter was the time the book never got written’ describes the three-act structure thus:

Act I displays to us the characters and the situation in which they find themselves, tells us who they are, their relationship to each other, what they are doing and where they are doing it. Act II develops and complicates the opening situation in various interesting ways. The author of the drama seems to be painting himself into a corner, and our attention is held by figuring how he intends to get himself out. Act III is the denouement; all the complications and problems inherent in the opening situation, and magnified in the development, are solved. [1]

He remarks that because a novel is primarily about people it stands or falls by its characterisation. Characterisation was particularly important to Bagley when preparing to write Running Blind, he says:

I choose a background that is interesting to me personally and, if possible, I do my research on location as I did when I went to Iceland to research my novel Running Blind. I treat the background as a character in its own right. This, to me, is most important. The plot that was worked out in Running Blind came directly from the terrain and the peculiar social institutions of Iceland, and I do not think that specific plot could have been set in any other country. This tends to give the story a free-flowing spontaneity that is hard to achieve otherwise. [1]

In 1979 Bagley wrote a short introduction to his novels, later republished as a postscript  in the Harper Collins 2009 2 in 1 edition of The Golden Keel and The Vivero Letter. Of Running Blind he says:

Later, Running Blind was the first book I researched on the ground and the improvement in authenticity of background was immediately apparent. All subsequent books have been so researched leaving my seat in the library to others. It was my first espionage book and was written just after the death of Ian Fleming whose James Bondery had hitherto made the writing of a serious spy story impossible. Set in Iceland it was my attempt to illustrate the utter absurdity of the international espionage scene and I think that, in part, I succeeded, although it is most difficult to satirise the antics of the CIA – one cannot satirise the already ludicrous. Again I had apparently done something right – the novel was adapted as a three-part serial by the BBC.
While the task of writing novels is as lonely a job as being a lighthouse keeper there are associated compensations, the biggest of which is the opportunity to travel once one is away from the typewriter keyboard. This is a real bonus. When I wrote Running Blind I was bitten by the travel bug; I have visited Greenland, crossed the Sahara, been to the South Pole by courtesy of the US State Department and the US Navy, and travelled in every continent except Asia. [2]

Bagley later remarked in an interview with Jane Bakerman, published in The Mystery Fancier [3], that ‘The environment acts as another character’. It was in this interview that Bagley again mentioned writing Running Blind as an attempt to satirise espionage:

I mean, I had a spy master running both sides of the operation, and how much more satiric can you get than that? But, you see, it is impossible to satirise the CIA or the British Intelligence or the KGB because what they are doing in practice is as unbelievable as fiction! I mean, if you have as happened to a man in London: he was poked in his leg with an umbrella, which injected a poison pellet, and he died… That happened! [3]

In The Mystery Fancier interview, published in March 1983, Bagley had been referring to the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov who had been assassinated in London on 7th September 1978 whilst waiting at a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge. The assassins weapon being an umbrella ‘gun’ firing or injecting a 1.70mm 90% platinum, 10% iridium pellet containing ricin poison.
The article in The Writer gives a more contemporary account of the theme of Running Blind:

So I have a group of interesting people set in an interesting landscape. I have no plot. This is not to say that I do not have a theme, which must not be confused with plot, although it often is. The theme of Running Blind was the sheer damned stupidity of international espionage. [1]

Bagley would have been following the plethora of media reports relating to Secret Intelligence Service & KGB ‘Spies’, ‘Double Agents’ and ‘Defectors’ giving plenty of inspiration to write Running Blind and The Freedom Trap. On 25th May 1951 both Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected to the Soviet Union and in 1955 H.A.R. ‘Kim’ Philby was named as the ‘third man’ in the media, Philby held a press conference to declare his innocence. On 7th January 1961 Special Branch officers arrested members of the Portland Spy Ring including Gordon Lonsdale (Konon Molody), Peter and Helen Kroger (Morris and Leontine ‘Lona’ Cohen), Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee. George Blake fell under suspicion in 1961, arrested and convicted for offences under the Official Secrets Act he was sentenced to 42 years imprisonment. On 23rd January 1963 Philby defected to the Soviet Union and on 22nd October 1966 George Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs Prison with the assistance of three men whom he had met in jail: Sean Bourke and two anti-nuclear campaigners, Michael Randle and Pat Pottle.
An extract from Running Blind reads:

Maclean, I said. Burgess, Kim Philby. Blake, the Krogers, Lonsdale – all good men and true. What’s wrong with adding Slade? [4]

Quotes relating to George Blake and Lonsdale appear in The Freedom Trap, which is no doubt inspired by the escape of George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs Prison. And so it was that Bagley travelled to Iceland in the summer of 1969 with a theme in mind for Running Blind.
Bagley’s article on writing action fiction is a fascinating glimpse into the way he constructed his novels and the article may be read in full by clicking the image of the magazine. I am indebted to Madavor Media, LLC / The Writer Inc. for allowing me to reproduce the article, which can be downloaded here: the-writer-may-1973-vol86-no5

NEXT: Explore the Running Blind archive and discover more about Bagley’s espionage novel set in Iceland


Image and text © and courtesy of Madavor Media, LLC / The Writer Inc.

1. Bagley, D. (1973). ‘Writing action fiction’ – The Writer – May 1973. (Volume 86, Number 5), pp. 11-13.

2. Bagley, D. (1979). Introduction to The Golden Keel /The Vivero Letter 2009 Ed © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd.

3. Bakerman, J.S. (1983). An interview with Desmond Bagley – The Mystery Fancier – March-April 1983. (Volume 7, Number 2), pp. 13–18, 26.

4. © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd.