Conclave by Robert Harris — a study of thriller structure

As I was reading Harris’ Conclave, and enjoying it as much as I did all his other novels, it occurred to me that this particular one lends itself perfectly to the study of thriller structure and pacing. This may be because the book’s composition is so beautifully simple, almost Aristotelian it the way it adheres to the classical rules of drama: the unity of place — Vatican; the unity of time — seventy-two hours; and the unity of action — one plot revolving around the election of the pope.

Below, a couple of my observations from the read (spoiler alert):

  • The main protagonist: at first it seems that he will be just a spectator witnessing the battle for the papal throne. But in chapter three things happen that require cardinal Lomeli to make decisions and take action (the inciting incident) at which point he becomes the mover of the story and therefore its main protagonist.

  • Throughout the novel, there are several mysteries introduced and then resolved at different points. The first and seemingly primary mystery is the one concerning cardinal Tremblay. When Harris adds the mystery of cardinal Adeyemi, almost halfway through the book, the plot thickens. The Adeyemi mystery is resolved fairly quickly, the Tremblay one requires the protagonist to take very decisive and controversial action. But the biggest mystery, the one that peaks in the final twist of the novel, is being slowly peppered throughout the story, ostensibly not a big deal at all.

  • Towards the end of the book an external enemy is introduced, adding more drama but also anchoring the story within a broader context, increasing gravity.

  • Personal arc of the main character, cardinal Lomeli: he begins a spectator, a mere manager of the Conclave —> takes action and becomes the mover of the story —> for a while he entertains the idea of becoming a pope himself —> in the end, he accepts the choice of another cardinal for the papacy.

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