Posts Tagged Thomas Harris
Here’s one of the timeless problems with novels. The reader knows the author can do anything they like. And one of the things I see in manuscripts is that the author has the story firmly by the ears and is steering it. Enough to make me wince.
Being killed or falling in love
In real life, love can just happen, right? A glance across a crowded room might be enough. And, at the less optimistic end of the spectrum, people do just die.
But in stories they can’t if it’s convenient for the plot. You have to work harder to earn that development. There may have been a time when you could erase a villain by striking him down on the golf course, but very few readers will swallow that now.
Finding the murderer
In some manuscripts, detectives find their suspects far too easily. If the murderer is Chinese, all they have to do is go to the Oriental supermarket and chat. Hey presto, a vital clue.
When characters get information they badly want, it needs to be hard won. It’s a way for the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, bravery, doggedness. Or maybe gullibility, if that’s what you want.
In fact, it’s better if they chase the wrong lead for a while. Suppose the person he talked to was protecting the real villain. Remember, stories aren’t a linear escalator to a success, they need slips and reversals. In Silence of the Lambs, a SWAT team stakes out a house – and it turns out to be the wrong one. This blunder dramatically raises the stakes for the heroine who is about to confront the killer on her own. In The Day of the Jackal, the police seem to have discovered the assassin’s true identity but at the end he’s revealed as the wrong guy – a neat twist in the coda that preserves the mystery. (If you didn’t know that, um sorry…)
Many writers mistake where the real drama is in a fight scene. They think it’s the trading of blows, or perhaps the natter that goes on (rather unrealistically) between them. But readers know that the writer can keep all that going as long as needed. The police won’t burst in until the right moment. The roof won’t collapse, no matter how much it’s wobbling.
What makes a satisfying end to a fight? It has to be a surprise. Perhaps it’s storytelling sleight of hand. In the film of Georges Simenon’s Red Lights, a whisky bottle bought earlier by the protagonist is smashed and turned into an impromptu weapon.
Perhaps the reader is convinced the hero can’t win. In the climax of Goldfinger the story has established that James Bond can’t beat Oddjob in a straight fight – so when he outsmarts him and electrocutes him with an electric cable, we’re so surprised that we feel the win is deserved. (Moreover, Oddjob had sliced the electric cable with his hat – a neat comeuppance.)
Another satisfying way for a protagonist to win a fight is if they complete an arc – perhaps defeating the monster inside themselves. Or – like in Blade Runner when Roy Batty saves Deckard instead of killing him – a complex victory for both.
A story is not just what happens, but how and why. And one of your jobs as a writer is to make failure possible and triumph surprising. The more an event or discovery matters, the more your characters have to earn it.
Thanks for the lightning pic, Opacity
Do you have favourite examples of earned victories or discoveries? Share in the comments!
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I’ve been chatting with Jonathan Moore about plots and he asked this very good question: Do you think the idea of worsening failures needs to be applied comprehensively for a plot to be compelling? What happens if you give the MC a break now and then?
Most plots feature struggles – things go from bad to worse. The hero tries to do something (or stops something happening), and that kicks off a series of events that escalate. But Jonathan has identified an important point here.
Before the MC finally gets what they want (or doesn’t), you have to give them a break.
There are two reasons.
A plot can seem too predictable if all we see is failure after failure. The reader can get bored, not to mention punch-drunk. And for a story to have momentum, the reader needs the feeling that things are changing – a story of novel length needs to, as I said a few weeks ago, move the goalposts. So unless you specifically intend to bludgeon the reader with misfortune (which I find Thomas Hardy’s novels do), the MC needs some rewards before the end.
But variety isn’t the only reason to cut the MC some slack.
2 Giving rewards makes a story more compelling
Often, giving the MC rewards can kick off an even better story. He wants something, he seems to get it. He gets more embroiled and that leads him into deeper do-do.
In Andrea Newman’s An Evil Streak, a lonely single man has a creepy, obsessive relationship with his niece. When she was a child she was his angel. She bursts into puberty and starts dating, and he’s abandoned and jealous – the first blow. But then she falls in love and needs a place to sleep with her boyfriend. Kind, creepy uncle offers her his flat – a triumph as she is in his power like never before. Even better, he puts up a two-way mirror and watches. The rest of the story is a seesaw of successes that ensnare him more and scrapes that make the failures worse.
A perhaps less amoral example is The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. The Unit features a futuristic world where childless single people are given at age 50 to medical science. They live in the lap of luxury while undergoing medical experiments, and will eventually make the ultimate sacrifice as organ donors. The story follows a woman who goes into such a clinic… and falls in love. Suddenly she has found what she has missed all her life – but is it too late? She is given hope, has those hopes dashed, is given more hope again… and the reader is right with her on the rollercoaster, heart leaping and stomach lurching.
This early success – where the character seems to get what they want, makes what unfolds so much more powerful. By involving us in the successes, the failures become more devastating.
Who else might you give a break to?
Giving a character a break is used to very interesting effect in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, which became the first Hannibal Lecter film. For much of the novel we have watched the murderer Francis Dolarhide as an appalling monster. Then, unexpectedly, he strikes up a relationship of genuine tenderness with a blind girl. This goes to the very root of what he needs in life and lets us see a human side to him (while also making us afraid for the poor girlfriend as we’re sure she’s going to trigger his vicious instincts at any moment). Just as we wonder if this will redeem him, he sees her talk to a colleague and gets jealous – and then we know that as far as he is concerned, the universe has betrayed him and nothing will stop him. And that makes him even more formidable.
Rollercoasters need ups as well as downs. So when you’re making things worse for your characters, don’t have them fail all the time. Explore what happens if you give them what they want – and snatch it away. Maybe do it several times. Thanks, Jonathan, for a provocative question as always!
Share your favourite examples of characters being rewarded!