Below, I list a collection of thought-provoking tips on writing the thriller genre. It’s not that easy to pinpoint what a thriller is, because a lot of descriptions focus on the tone. But this doesn’t help writers much. From a writing point of view, the thriller must contain certain things, otherwise it’s not a thriller.
Thriller is a hybrid genre of mystery and horror with crime and action elements. Each thriller story will have its own balance of these things. This explains why we can still be surprised by a thriller, even though the genre conventions are so strict.
The thriller is difficult to write. You’re writing characters who don’t tend to act as people do in real life, yet the audience has to believe they could behave like that, given the same outlandish circumstances. So when writing a thriller you have to come with all the reasons why the hero doesn’t just call the authorities.
Raison d’être of a Thriller
So what are thrillers for? Thrillers are first and foremost entertaining. Thrillers heighten the audience’s moods, producing anticipation/ultra-heightened expectation, surprise, anxiety and terror. Thrillers tend to be adrenaline raising, gritty and fast paced.
Thrillers are simultaneously terrifying and reassuring because the villain almost always gets killed or arrested. Thrillers uphold surprisingly conservative values, but only if you watch them right until the end. The thriller is basically a Cautionary Tale For Adults.
Thriller and Genre
Thrillers are typically the most emotional of the suspense genres. Thrillers focus on the fear, doubt and dread of the main character as they face some form of what Dean Koontz has deemed “terrible trouble.”
The thriller shares a literary lineage with the epic and myth. Monsters, terror and peril prevail. Thrillers emphasise the dangerous world we live in, the vulnerability of the average person, and the inherent threat of the unknown.
Thrillers have an atmosphere of menace, violence, crime and murder.
Primary THRILLER Sub-genres
Different people divide thrillers differently. Here’s how Shawn Coyne divvies them up. The nice thing about Shawn Coyne’s taxonomy is that any thriller can be made to fit into at least one of his categories:
LEGAL THRILLER — About lawyers doing their jobs (A lot of John Grisham novels)
MEDICAL THRILLER — About doctors doing their jobs
MILITARY THRILLER — About army personnel doing their jobs
POLITICAL THRILLER — About politicians doing their jobs (The Killing is an interesting blend of political and serial killer thriller). Political thrillers are not as popular with audiences.
JOURNALISM/CONSPIRACY THRILLER — About journalists doing their jobs
PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER — These emphasise the unstable psychological and emotional states of their main characters. There are similarities to Gothic and detective fiction:
A dissolving sense of reality.
The setting is usually domesticated.
The main characters are usually obsessed, tortured or sociopathic.
Unreliable narratives are common. e.g. Psycho, Homeland, pretty much everything by Stephen King, Henry James, Patricia Highsmith.
FINANCIAL THRILLER — about investors doing their jobs
ESPIONAGE THRILLER — About spies doing their jobs (The Americans)
WOMAN IN JEOPARDY THRILLER — From the point of view of a vulnerable woman who must find her way out of a life and death situation
CHILD IN JEOPARDY THRILLER — From the point of view of a vulnerable parent (usually a woman) who must risk her life to save her child
HITCHCOCK THRILLER — If you’re using many of the same techniques used by Hitchcock, you’re probably writing a Hitchcock thriller. Techniques include: the Macguffin as inciting incident, the sense that you’re a voyeur into someone’s private life, the sense of psychological unease running throughout, and the false ending (or ‘climactic plot twist’).
Woven through all and any of these, there might be a romantic hook. (Despite using the term, I have a problem with the concept of subplot.) Often, in any of the suspense genres, there’s a romance between a couple which gets ‘suspended’ (amping up the romantic suspense along with the life and death suspense) due to more pressing issues relating to the action, adventure or crime situation of the film, e.g. Speed.
CHECKLIST FOR THRILLERS
Are you writing a thriller or a mystery?
The mystery genre is very wide and encompasses many other genres. In a thriller, the nature of the mystery is quite specific: In creating thrillers, writers do not have to outsmart the reader (as they do in a straight, Agatha Christie style mystery story). In a thriller mystery, the characters have to outsmart each other.
Are you writing thriller or detective genre?
As in the detective genre, thriller involves detection, but in a thriller there are typically far fewer suspects. Just one really terrible villain, usually.
ARE YOU WRITING THRILLER OR HORROR?
In a thriller, the worst that could happen to your main character is death. In horror, the worst that could happen is ‘a fate worse than death‘. The horror genre is heavily based on Christian symbolism, and often, the ‘worse than death’ consequence is damnation, or a version thereof.
In horror, the opponent is way more powerful than the hero. The hero really stands no chance. The opponent is not just a monstrous ‘villain’ — it’s an actual monster, or supernatural. (They might have the body of a human, but they’re not human.)
In horror, the opponent commits an escalating series of crimes whereas in a thriller there might be just one big crime. In horror, the opponent is on a path of destruction and devastation, whereas the villain in a thriller has a logical (if not empathetic) human reason for wanting the hero dead.
Compared to other genres, the audience doesn’t mind the storyteller being really obvious about their ‘manipulation’ of emotion in the audience:
It’s not often a thriller keeps me wound up as well as ‘Headhunters’ did. I knew I was being manipulated and didn’t care. It was a pleasure to see how well it was being done.
For comparison, Roger Ebert thinks quite differently about horror viewers:
Horror fans are a particular breed. They analyze films with such detail and expertise that I am reminded of the Canadian literary critic Northrup Frye, who approached literature with similar archetypal analysis.
In movie marketing, the term ‘thriller’ is applied where marketers see fit, rather than as an objective description of a story based on measurable parameters. Instead we might draw any distinction between ‘thriller’ and ‘horror’ based on the typical audience response rather than on the story itself.
STORYWORLD OF A THRILLER
Whether as small as a cottage in the woods or as large as the planet, the arena the hero seeks to protect represents everything she values. The stakes are ultimate.
The setting is an outworking of your hero. Detective stories, crime stories, and thrillers often set up a close connection between the hero’s shortcoming — when it exists — and the “mean streets,” or world of slavery in which the hero operates.
Thrillers show society as dark, corrupt and dangerous.
The setting is atmospheric — the writer gives plenty of detail. Writers also use tricks to make the setting feel like it’s ‘alive’. If you want to know more about those tricks, see: How Can Setting Be A Character?
This devastating crime is about to be committed, or has been committed with the threat of an even worse one to come. (This is why serial killer thrillers are so popular — we know there will be another one.)
A thriller has a villain-driven plot. The villain presents obstacles that the hero must overcome.
The hero has to solve the puzzle of overcoming the villain, getting one step ahead.
Basically, the main character is saving their own life and probably others’ lives by escaping from a person who wants to kill them.
Make use of a common storytelling technique known as The Shadow In The Hero.
Shadows are villains in the story. They exist to create threat and conflict, and to give the hero something to struggle against. Like many of the other archetypes, shadows do not have to be characters specifically – the dark side of the force is just as much a shadow for Luke as Darth Vader is.
The shadow is especially effective if it mirrors the hero in some way. It shows the audience the twisted person the hero could become if they head down the wrong path, and highlights the hero’s internal struggle. This, in turn, makes the hero’s success more meaningful. The reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, right after Luke had ignored Yoda’s advice, makes the dark side feel more threatening.
The ‘main character’ will be your typical hero, or ‘the character the audience roots for’. Using terminology proposed by Northrop Frye, they may at first appear to be low mimetic, but then they rise to an incredible challenge and prove themselves high mimetic, or even almost superhero. This allows an audience the wish fulfilment fantasy as we imagine that we, too, might rise to any challenge to save lives.
The difference between a hero and a villain: heroes wants to save themselves, others and the world, but villains are motivated by power.
In the simple thriller form the opponent is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community. More often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun. In a more politically correct age, the physical flaw (clearly an outer manifestation of inner damage) has been scaled down to a level society finds acceptable. If the antagonist is internal, the same principles apply: the enemy within works in opposition to the host’s better nature — it cripples them. It stands in opposition to everything they might be.
John Yorke, Into The Woods
Tears for Fears wrote a song about your typical desire of a villain. https://youtu.be/U4zA0xnBEJU
A Difference Between ‘Internal’ and ‘External’ Thrillers
This is really weird when it’s first pointed out (by the Narrative Breakdown podcast, for me), but there’s a type of thriller which maps exactly onto the structure of comedy.
Both thrillers and comedy relies on the ‘mask’. I have written an entire post about Masks in Storytelling.
Matt Bird calls this the Transgression, Noir, or Wrong-Man Thriller. Hitchcock was a fan of these. Its structure looks like this:
Discontent — someone is unhappy about something
Transgression with a mask — peculiar to comedy and thrillers
Transgression without a mask — midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off
Dealing with consequences
Spiritual Crisis — happens in almost every story
Growth Without a Mask
As you’ll have noticed, this is an ‘internal’ subgenre because it starts with the psychological shortcoming of the hero — the hero’s ‘discontent’. The standout Transgression Thriller is Double Indemnity, from the 1940s.
Externally Motivated Thrillers
This type of thriller is often called the Conspiracy Thriller. (In The Narrative Breakdown podcast this starts at 17.50.)
Injustice (externally motivated)
Overconfident Investigation Begins
Overconfident Investigative Crusade
A Series of Betrayals (again, these are external to the hero’s psychology)
Revelation — the conspiracy is exposed or the mystery is solved.
The standout conspiracy thriller is The Maltese Falcon (also from the 1940s). Other examples include: L.A. Confidential, Crimson Tide, All the President’s Men, China Town.
Other Writing Techniques Typically Employed In Thrillers
A MacGuffin often begins the plot (The MacGuffin must be plausible and valuable object of desire that will push the characters to obtain and fight for it. the quest for the MacGuffin must create conflict, tension, and emotion. —Shawn Coyne.) Hitchcock invented the word. If you’ve started with a McGuffin, you may be writing a Hitchcock Thriller.
The writer will make use of techniques like reveals.
Narrative drive — Characters and setting serve the pace of the narrative rather than the other way round. You still need to texture the pace. Even fast-paced stories need down moments.
Deferment. The reader wants to know what happens next but don’t tell them right away. Withhold information for as long as possible without it seeming contrived.
In thriller novels, balance on the page tends to be: lots of dialogue plus the occasional two-inch paragraph of narration. For more on that distinction, see Parts of Prose.
Ticking Clock technique is most common in action genres (Speed), thrillers (Outbreak), caper stories (where the characters pull off some kind of heist, as in Ocean’s Eleven), and suicide mission stories (The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen). There are many variations on the ticking clock. Panic Room invents a variation in which the daughter’s watch is a number showing her blood sugar levels. The specifics are meaningless unless you’re familiar with Type 1 diabetes, but any audience gets the idea. The watch is shown in close up when the daughter rolls over to settle down to sleep.
Thrillers Written From The Villain’s Point Of View
Most thrillers are told from the hero’s point of view, but some are told from the point of view of the villain.
The whole Ripley series by Patricia Highsmith is an example of this kind of thriller. Tom Ripley is our main character who both solves murders and murders his own people.
There’s an Agatha Christie book which does this. (She tried it, but didn’t stick with it.)
Dexter — the TV show diverged a lot from the books. He only kills criminals who have gotten away with things. It’s an interesting reverse because we know who’s committed the crime. It’s the process of him working backwards from that and planning the kill.
A lot of [thrillers] have the classic “male cop investigating murdered woman” plot. […] When the women aren’t being “brutally murdered” and raped, they sometimes get to be the main characters. […]
We need to start describing characters and blurbing books better. Seriously. In 100% of books with male and female cops/detectives as co-protagonists,the woman occurs second in the description as such: “Man, with Woman by his side”, or “Man, teamed with Woman”. Karin Slaughter’s Triptych features this gem: “Male veteran cop and Female beautiful vice cop.” In Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, two men set out on a mission but when “they are joined by Sara Howard, a brave and determined woman who works as a secretary in the police department,” their team becomes “unlikely.” Sue Crafton’s M is for Malice, written by a woman and featuring women doesn’t even have GR description.
Let’s talk more about these female protagonists, which either accidentally stumble upon the murder/crime or are unlikely suspects in the plot; they are rarely formally established and celebrated cops or detectives. Sample this description I Let You Go, with a female protagonist: “Desperate to escape, Jenna moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, but she is haunted by her fears, her grief and her memories of a cruel November night that changed her life forever. Slowly, Jenna begins to glimpse the potential for happiness in her future. But her past is about to catch up with her, and the consequences will be devastating.” It is tough to read this, keeping in mind that this is opposed to their male counterparts, who get to be “brilliant geniuses” and “brave” and “veteran”, while women remain “lonely”, “desperate”, or at most “the first in their fields”.
Where were you when you first watched The Silence Of The Lambs? I was about fifteen, mid-nineties. The film had made it to midday TV. It was a rainy, wintry day outside and my mother sat knitting in the recliner chair. I was on the floor making flashcards for high school Japanese, but as relaxing as I found this task, the film won out that day. The cosiness of my environs juxtaposed against the content of the film stands out in my memory.
Some years later, on a fine Monday morning, I was walking to work and saw a man struggling to put a sofa into a van. He didn’t accept my help as it happens, but I remember thinking to myself, “Don’t actually get inside the van.” Sometimes films do that to you. I can’t see a glass of water wobbling without thinking of Jurassic Park. I can’t see a man loading furniture into a van without thinking of Buffalo Bill.
The Silence of the Lambs mostly holds up to multiple viewings, and maybe even requires it. It took me a while to work out exactly how Clarice got to the right house before her colleagues did, and I’m still not sure I’m meant to know exactly what went wrong there. Here’s the thing about rewatching in 2017, though: It’s clear this film has not helped dominant attitudes towards gender non-conforming people. In 1991 the film-going public didn’t really know the difference between transvestite, transgender, gay and transsexuality. We certainly didn’t give that community a second thought.
The Silence of the Lambs demonizes and delegitimizes transgender individuals by portraying the serial killer as a psychotic transgender person. (Hitchcock’s Psycho was bad in a similar way.)
Transgender women are often represented as psychotic killers as a lazy method of responding to mainstream society’s fear of gender nonconforming people.
This trope promotes fear by reinforcing the idea that being transgender is unnatural and perverted, and pathologizes gender fluidity.
In reality, transgender people (especially women) are far more likely to be killed than to be killers.
In addition to crazed killers, Silence of the Lambs portrays transgender women as imposters. Any story with an emphasis on the transition — the close ups of her putting on lipstick and so on, is pretty much guaranteed to be emphasising an ‘imposter’ view of transsexuality. This is specifically transmisogynist, as trans men are not picked on in quite the same way.
The writers try to lampshade the transmisogyny by explaining that Buffalo Bill isn’t a real ‘transsexual’ and that real transsexuals are generally gentle people. (I’ve seen this referred to as Jonathan Demme’s fig leaf.) Clarice says to Hannibal, “Clarice explicitly states that, “there is no correlation between transsexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive,” expressing one of the sexist requirements to access a diagnosis. Rather than proving the killer here is not transgender, this highlights the reality that transwomen have to conform to feminine stereotypes in order to be granted gender reassignment surgery. Transgender people have also been denied surgery because they have been abused. Many have been abused because they are gender non-conforming, as has Buffalo Bill. This remains the reality for transgender people seeking reassignment surgery today.
Hannibal replies to Clarice, “Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual, but his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” This quote enforces the idea that other people can determine a person’s gender identity. If Jame Gumb identified as a woman, she was a woman. If a person thinks they are transgender, they are. Hannibal Lecter’s use of the word “more” before “savage” and “terrifying” implies that there are savage and terrifying elements to actual transgender people.
Though the term isn’t mentioned it’s clear Buffalo Bill is meant to be what’s known in some circles as an ‘autogynephile’. This pathologises transgender women, and describes a ‘disorder’ in which a man is sexually aroused by dressing up as a woman. (The gender inverse here is called autoandrophilia’.) Many people would like to see Transvestic Disorder taken right out of the DSM, but unfortunately that would lead to even less funding for gender reassignments, so other groups oppose its removal at this point in history.
If we consider this character as a man who inhabits a woman’s body after killing her, this is the ultimate, most heinous form of rape. This character is an extreme representation of ‘male’ violence. That is perhaps the intention, but not the way the character is read.
Buffalo Bill is supposed to be scary not only because she murders and skins her victims, but because she is male-bodied in women’s clothing. The “cross-dressing” is portrayed as especially sinister and perverted, but to stand or dance in front a mirror with one’s penis tucked between her legs is an exercise many transgender women actually perform. This scene is often touted as the film’s most disturbing moment. In short, a man dressing and posing as a woman is more terrifying for an audience than actual scenes of murder, torture and dead bodies.
The Silence of the Lambs idealizes normative gender expression. Conformity to gender roles is seen as innocent, an antithesis to gender variance.
This film is often hailed as a feminist film because of the strength of Clarice Starling, but trans women are women, and need feminism even more than cisgender women.
HISTORY OF THE STORY
The Silence of the Lambs is a novel by Thomas Harris, originally published in 1988. It is the sequel to Harris’ 1981 novel “Red Dragon” and the second book by Harris featuring the cannibalistic serial killer and brilliant psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The film follows the book quite closely, but one aspect missing from the film is Buffalo Bill’s infatuation with his mother. Despite the fact that his mother abandoned him, Jame Gumb feels an attachment to her. The novel depicts scenes of Jame Gumb watching a video of his mother participating in a beauty pageant. He ritualistically watches the video, rewinding and re-watching certain parts again and again. We see Jame Gumb dancing in front of the TV but we don’t know exactly what he’s watching.
By the early 1990s, audiences had seen a lot of slashers and remakes. They were totally ready for something new and the adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs came along at the exact right moment. Compared to similar films, this story has little in the way of gore and violence. We don’t see Buffalo Bill actually killing anyone. When Clarice is shown what Dr Lecter did to someone, she sees the photo but we only see the look on her face. There’s a post-mortem scene, but we don’t get the same level of gory detail that is often indulged in today. The camera is mostly on Clarice, not the dead body. We do still see the head in the jar. We still see the dead women. But this is not slasher material.
OVER-MOTIVATION OF CHARACTERS
Another big difference between book and film: In the book Clarice Starling is fired from her task. She goes to Ohio on her own dime to catch the killer, sure of where he is. She’s right.
This is Hollywood ‘over-motivating’ its characters. What does that even mean? Writers don’t let the characters of thrillers become intrinsically motivated over the course of a story. Even in the third act they’ll be forcing their heroes to do something even when in the real world of the story, the hero would be doing these things anyway. The screenwriter of The Silence of the Lambs was advised to remove this bit of over-motivation, and he did. The film is better for it. More modern stories such as Homeland and The Killing are still over-motivating their detectives by getting them fired from their jobs.
Be mindful that if you are writing a crime story and you get your detective fired, you’re using an overdone trope. Ask: Is my character already sufficiently motivated to solve this mystery even if they don’t get fired?
AN AWARD WINNING HORROR FILM
The Silence of the Lambs is said to be the only horror film to win the Best Picture Oscar. And it won a lot more than that: it’s only the third film in Oscar history to take home wins in the Big Five categories, a.k.a. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (Adapted Screenplay, in Silence’s case), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), and Best Actress (Jodie Foster.)
It’s a bit of a stretch to call this a horror, though. The Silence Of The Lambs is a subcategory of thriller with crime and drama thrown into the genre mix. Award seasons still don’t think much of horror, though this might change. Come 2017, horror looks set to save cinemas from bankruptcy.
INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS
Buffalo Bill was based on an amalgamation of a number of high profile killers.
One was Ted Bundy. Theodore Robert Bundy was an American serial killer, kidnapper, rapist, burglar and necrophile who assaulted and murdered numerous young women and girls during the 1970s, and possibly earlier.
Another was Ed Gein — a man who stole corpses from cemeteries, skinned them and cured the skin in order to wear it. Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are also inspired by this person.
WHYDUNNITS REPLACING WHODUNNITS
A whodunit (whodunnit) is a type of mystery best described as a ‘mind-riddle’. The reader is encouraged to put pieces together themselves.
A whydunit (whydunnit) is a type of mystery where the audience knows who did it from the outset. Emphasis has now shifted onto how the situation got this bad. In this type of mystery we’ll generally be introduced to the criminal at the outset.
Although it’s easy to dismiss The Silence of the Lambs as a run-of-the-mill whydunnit, it was the first of its kind, breaking new ground in the crime thriller genre in the late 1980s. Until The Silence of the Lambs, readers were used to whodunnits, but not whydunnits. In this new kind of story, the audience knows from (near) the beginning who is committing the crimes — instead, the intrigue comes from why s/he is committing the crimes. There are more whydunnits around now and some have been hugely original and successful e.g. Fargo by the Coen brothers.
FAIRYTALE AND LEGEND AS UR-STORY
The Silence of the Lambs functions as a myth or fairy tale. We have a small society set against the deep, dark woods (which functions the same as a forest). Clarice is the good princess. Beautiful and capable, she has no real moral shortcoming — she only wants to do good. She has a psychological shortcoming — her vulnerability — but apart from that she’s almost a blank slate.
What specific stories were the most influential on The Silence Of The Lambs?
Stories in which good characters make deals with evil characters are preceded by Faust, the main character of a classic German legend. According to this legend, Faust is a scholar who is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life. This leads him to make a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. “Faust” and the adjective “Faustian” now refer to a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success.
In The Silence Of The Lambs, the danger is that Hannibal Lecter will get into Clarice’s head. While there’s nothing supernatural about this, it might as well be — Hannibal has the power to destroy someone’s career at the outset if she does not have sufficient mettle.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
Silence of the Lambs is an example of a paranoid thriller. This genre was especially popular in the 1970s, due to living in the aftermath of Watergate. In America there was general disillusion with the government. The stories which emerged were about conspiracies taking place in the shadows. One of the most famous paranoid thrillers is The Conversation (1974).
The paranoid thriller has the same basic structure as a conspiracy thriller.
In a conspiracy thriller, the main character will be a lone person, sometimes part of a very small group, who notices something dodgy, putting them on the trail. Our hero might be a reporter/small time cop/private investigator. They have no clue at first what they’re getting themselves into but they get more and more intrigued. When they do realise the extent of the conspiracy they toughen their resolve, double down and risk life and limb to expose the secrets of the government/corporation. There will be a ticking clock element, as this person races to expose the truth before getting found. These heroes aren’t always successful.
Silence Of The Lambs is the daughter of this movement, written in the 1980s. Clarice Starling is not exactly amateur but she is naive because of her freshness and youth and because she is still a graduate student. These stories are conservative in their message (like all thrillers): Bad people cause bad events. Good people identify and defeat them.
Broken down into steps, the story structure of a conspiracy thriller goes like this:
Starts with an injustice which is externally motivated rather than internally — Clarice receives a call to action. She is being sent on a mission by a man she must obey, though she doesn’t know exactly what the mission is at first. The mission is to stop serial killers, and one in particular. The injustice is clear: women are being tortured then murdered.
Overconfident investigation — Clarice has shades of overconfidence. She is a proud graduate of UVa, so she tells Hannibal’s slimy doctor, but this is tempered by the fact she is being objectified because she is a young woman and the man deserves what he gets. I put it to you that female characters can’t be written to be as cocky as male characters without losing likability.
Midpoint disaster — Hannibal murders two guards, the ambulance staff, a tourist and makes a clean escape.
Overconfident Investigative Crusade — The FBI are confident they have cracked Hannibal’s code and blunder overconfidently towards the killer. Clarice’s boss even calls her to tell her everything has been solved, counting his chickens before they’ve quite hatched.
Disaster — The FBI goes to the wrong house which almost leads to Clarice Starling’s death.
(External) Betrayals, in which the hero learns who their real friends and foes are — Hannibal reveals convincingly that he won’t come after Clarice. Clarice knows that he respects her too much. This foe is just as much friend as he is foe, which is an interesting and novel take on the basic friend/foe dichotomy.
Revelation — Hannibal Lecter has left the country and is not only starting a new life for himself but is back to his evil, cannibalistic ways.
Other Storytelling Techniques
Clarice Starling has a clear ‘ghost‘. The death of her father and the subsequent experience of being unable to save the lambs.
The desire lines of both Clarice and Hannibal are equally strong. These goals are articulated clearly. Hannibal tells us Clarice wants ‘advancement’. He is correct, though as Clarice doubles down she also wants to do good. Hannibal wants to escape Dr Chilton who makes his life a misery. He also wants a window, but his unstated desire is to play psychological games with people. What Hannibal says he wants is only his most surface level desire. Clarice’s supervisor points out what he really wants by explaining Hannibal’s psychological profile.
As soon as the audience knows exactly what each wants, it’s only then that the film switches point of view and we’re taken to the scene of Buffalo Bill’s latest crime, where he lures the woman into the van.
There is a strong character web around Clarice, who faces multiple opponents of different kinds. There’s the slimy Dr Chilton, Hannibal himself, who is in some ways more like a fake opponent ally. Then there’s the untamed monster out there in the wild, Buffalo Bill.
The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test — Clarice is shown to have a close female friend (whose name I can’t easily find), though they’re only ever shown talking about a man — Hannibal. Which is fine. The main function of the female best friend is to fulfil the part of the story where a mentor/friend character asks the main character if what they’re doing is really such a good idea. This is the part where an ally becomes the conscience of the hero. The BFF asks Clarice, “How do you know he won’t come after you?” She’s actually lampshading the conscience of the audience. This is what we are wondering. Clarice then has the opportunity to reassure us that he won’t.
The big audience revelation comes pretty early, which is what marks out a whydunnit from a whodunnit. We see Buffalo Bill. So what keeps us watching for the second two thirds of the film? What revelation are we rewarded with? We learn before Clarice the true power of Hannibal Lecter when he escapes from that high security facility. We also know a few moments before Clarice does that she has made it into the monster’s lair and is in great danger.
Sure enough, the writers take Clarice right to the edge of death. She literally has a gun pointed and cocked at her back. She saves herself only by her quick reactions. (“If you’re gonna shoot, shoot!” This is a well-worn trope in film, where someone can easily shoot someone but hesitates for unclear reasons and then ends up being shot themselves.)
When Clarice receives kind words from her supervisor we know she has made it as an FBI agent now. She has what it takes. She knows it, too.
THE CHARACTER OF CLARICE STARLING
Clarice Starling has had an undeniable influence on female heroes in pop culture in general. She is said to be a feminist character. But Clarice is not a ‘feminine’ character. She is the same male hero we’ve seen many times before, only in a female body. Clarice in fact follows the mythological hero’s journey in fairly traditional ways, though it is a woman here descending into hell – Bill’s basement – to rescue the damsel in distress. This story is the classic Hero’s Journey. It is not an example of a Female Myth. We are only just getting those kinds of stories now.
Main Character Description: “This is CLARICE STARLING – mid-20’s, trim, very pretty.”
This video by Now You See It talks about the opening scene of The Silence Of The Lambs. We see Clarice Starling emerge up the middle of the screen from the bottom. This is Clarice pulling herself out of a rut. We see from the outset that this character is trying to overcome a personal hurdle on her own. Notice the rope beside her. Not everybody has made it as far as she has. Once at the top of the incline she pauses to hear birds fly and to watch them. Birds flying symbolise freedom our hero has achieved by making it to the top.
Clarice has a symbol attached to her character: Lambs. Lambs are a symbol of innocence. Starling’s inability to save them and her subsequent nightmares are manifestations of her guilt. The film’s title is a reference to the end of Starling’s nightmares, when the screaming lambs become silent, ideally through her solving the Buffalo Bill case and saving his living victim, Catherine Martin.
The problem for writers when creating a paranoid/conspiracy thriller is that the main character is often too passive. Everything happens to them. It’s a very tricky genre to write for this reason. These heroesare the most alien to human nature of all the story types. e.g. Someone wants to kill me; I’m going to kill him instead. In real life that doesn’t happen. You’re going to call the cops. So you have to spend a lot of time coming up with reasons why they can’t call the cops. However! This hero does not suffer from that problem. Monster movies do not suffer from this problem either, and Hannibal Lecter is a monster by any definition. Everything Clarice Starling does feels like a natural consequence of the position she finds herself in. Clarice is intrinsically motivated to solve the mystery of Buffalo Bill’s identity. Her backstory of the screaming lambs is improbable as a motivation that lasts a lifetime, but works well enough for story purposes. (I’ve heard a flock of chickens being murdered by a fox, but this hasn’t provoked me to want to join the police force and hunt down serial killers.)
In his book The Secrets of Story, Matt Bird advises writers to give main characters a false statement of philosophy at the beginning of a story (if any is given at all). This is so we can see how much they change between the beginning and end.
Silence of the Lambs is an example of a character who doesn’t have a false statement of philosophy but accepts a false piece of advice. Clarice’s boss, Crawford, gives her one cardinal rule for dealing with Hannibal Lecter: “Don’t let him get into your head.” In the end, she will realize this is precisely what she needs to do.
THE CHARACTER OF HANNIBAL LECTER
Hannibal is Clarice Starling’s ‘reflection character‘. This is David Hauge’s term for ‘the character who is most closely aligned with your hero –- the best friend, partner, mentor or spouse whose primary function is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation and to urge the hero toward transformation.’ The reflection character, by this definition, is an ally.
A typical role for a reflection character is that of mentor to the hero – a teacher, trainer, coach or therapist whose job is to give the hero the skills necessary to achieve her goal. Hannibal is very clearly a mentor to Clarice, even more than her designated supervisor at the academy.
Reflection characters who are teachers are usually introduced after the beginning of the story – often around the first key turning point: the 10% opportunity. This allows the reader and audience to become acquainted with the reflection as the hero does, rather than having to fill in the blanks of an existing relationship, as with a “best friend” reflection who has been aligned with the hero for some time. The writers followed this guideline when introducing Clarice first, then Hannibal later. We meet him when Clarice meets him.
The reflection character’s primary goal is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation. But does Hannibal really want Buffalo Bill to get caught? I believe he does. If Hannibal himself has to spend years in prison, why shouldn’t Buffalo Bill? Also, I’m sure Hannibal wants to see this hunt to its conclusion as much as we and Clarice do — if only for his own amusement. In this respect, the audience is more like Hannibal than like Clarice. We are here for amusement purposes. We are actively enjoying Hannibal Lecter’s immorality, just as he enjoys the crimes of Buffalo Bill.
Hannibal is an excellent reflection character because here is another hard and fast rule for reflection characters: There must be lots of conflict between the hero and this character. The reflection character pushes the hero beyond their limits. At some point in the story, the hero must reject the reflection character completely. Despite rejection, the reflection character must remain loyal to the hero. Clarice Starling (a character herself) understands and relies upon this rule of characterisation in storytelling. When she says Hannibal respects her too much to come after her we know that she is right, because we’re subconsciously primed to expect this from a reflection character in stories. As you can see, Hannibal fits this character pattern perfectly.
When the mentor is a male and the mentee is female, this is often a take on the Pygmalion story. A man creates a woman into the perfect image and falls in love with her, not because she’s a person in her own right but because he is proud of his creation. We rarely see the gender flipped in a Pygmalion story.
HANNIBAL AS TRICKSTER
Audiences love tricksters. Hannibal is a classic trickster, laying down little puzzles and offering anagrams. He is also a deadly trickster, somehow doing magic with the key to his handcuffs in a Houdini-like act. Despite his immorality, it is satisfying to see Hannibal get out of that prison. It is equally satisfying to see Clarice solve his puzzles, and we see how clever she is. She therefore deserves to succeed.
We know right from the start that Hannibal eats people in Silence of the Lambs. It’s why he’s been locked up for eight years. Clarice Starling is more than prepared to deal with a monstrous cannibal killer, because this aspect of Hannibal isn’t a secret. He eats people. That’s not the scary part. That’s not what instills a sense of dread in us.
A lot of modern horror relies on the jump scare, the unknown, the mystery. Hannibal, in all his iterations, has never been this way. We know exactly what Hannibal is capable of, and that heightens the horror in a different way for us. There’s fear of the unknown, and then there’s fear of knowing exactly what to expect, and when it’s something as gruesome as having your face eaten off, the distinction is minimal.
Beyond the fear of the known and the dread of a cannibal killer mastermind, the strongest aspect of horror Hannibal’s character holds for us is how much he is needed throughout The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice goes to him to learn more about Buffalo Bill, enlisting his help. The idea of us needing the monster is nothing new, but when that monster is a man who would cook and eat your delicious organs if given the chance, having to trust him to deliver valuable information does give one pause. What are we doing if we are relying on the kindness of monsters? Trusting the information of supposed pure evil? What does that make us?
The symbolism in The Silence Of The Lambs is all extremely obvious. From the way Clarice squeezes into that storage facility, lifting the door herself with no help from the men standing nearby, going in ‘from the bottom (ranks)’, giving herself a minor wound in the process, to the heavily symbolic names (Starling = bird = flight = freedom).
Obviousness in itself is not a bad thing. Opaqueness is in fact overrated in storytelling.
However, in this particular story, symbolism is used not only to convey character motivation but also as a bandaid to cover what is otherwise a problematic trope. Moths. Men acting as women. The symbolism has its limits. The moth is not trying to become ‘something it’s not’ when it matures. It is becoming what it was always destined to be. The message about this man dressing as a woman, however, is very much the inverse — Buffalo Bill was never meant to be a woman, so we are told.
The book especially, but also several parts of the movie, expose that Jame Gumb hates him/herself and desires change, which inspires his obsession with moths. S/he breeds Death’s-head Hawkmoths in the basement, frequently observing them. S/he then inserts a moth chrysalis into the throat of each of the victims.
Dr. Lecter explains to the audience what this obsession is meant to represent: “The significance of the moth is change. Caterpillar into chrysalis or pupa. From thence into beauty. Our Billy wants to change too.” Lecter spends the majority of the movie subtly expressing Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill’s intense self-loathing and desire for complete metamorphosis.”
As you can see, there’s nothing deep and obscure about this symbolism. It’s right there on the page and screen. The audience does not need to remember anything from high school English before understanding the connection between the moth and the man transforming into the body of a woman. Here’s what director Jonathan Demme said about criticism of his film from the LGBTQ community, many years later:
So, Gumb is not gay, but there is a reference to a homosexual experience he had which is attributed to this quest. We were all banking a little too much on the metaphor of the Death’s-head moth—that Gumb is trying to achieve a metamorphosis through making his human suit. We didn’t fortify and clarify that enough.
I disagree with Demme on this point. It’s not that he didn’t clarify the metaphor enough. All this ‘change symbolism’ could not have been more obvious. The problem is with the entire trope of Buffalo Bill, as outlined above.
By the way, it wasn’t just the moth which symbolised transformation. Buffalo Bill’s tattoo is another attempt at reinforcing the symbolism of dichotomy: the tattoo is Jesus’s side pierced by the Spear of Destiny, where blood and water supposedly flowed out of him separately.
Symbolism, even in its most obvious form, won’t get you out of a hole if your story serves to reinforce problematic tropes which marginalise entire groups of people.
MONOLOGUE AS COMPLETE STORY
The trick to writing a good monologue? The monologue itself has to be a complete story in its own right.
Take Hannibal’s monologue in which he delivers his first string of insults to Clarice.
Afraid of being disrespected. “You think you can dissect me with this blunt little tool?”
To play a game with Clarice for his own amusement, unsettling her like this to see if she’s up to the challenge of finding Buffalo Bill.
Clarice is a fake-opponent.
He plans to really upset her to see if she’ll stick around for the long haul.
He’s dishing out nothing but insults the entire speech.
It’s Clarice who has the anagnorisis — she realises who she’s dealing with.
7. New situation
Clarice can now start to interact with Hannibal knowing more about the way he operates.
PACING AND SUSPENSE IN SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
This film is held up as an excellent example of suspense. But is that what really makes this film so enjoyable, or is it something else altogether?
There’s an argument to be made that The Silence of the Lambs is not all that suspenseful:
The Silence of the Lambs is that it is almost totally lacking in suspense.
Suspense was deliberately sacrificed on the altar of momentum. “Again and again,” according to the film’s writer Ted Tally, “both during our script work and later, during editing, [Demme] emphasized the supreme value of narrative momentum. ‘Better,’ he said, ‘to risk confusing the audience for three minutes than to let them get ahead of us for one second.’”
The Silence of the Lambstells its story at two speeds, fast and faster, and when it gets faster, it’s usually trying to paper over a hole in the plot by misdirecting the audience. Such tactics, while diverting on the first bounce, just seem protracted and uninspired in a repeat viewing, and they drastically harsh the film’s overall tempo.
The scenes cross-cutting the FBI raid into an empty house with Clarice’s entry into the lair of Buffalo Bill is held up as an excellent example of cross-cutting. But is it really all that masterful? Would Hitchcock have done it better?
The swift becomes sluggish: Once you know you’re watching people on a wild goose chase as they climb down an elevator shaft or surround the wrong house, those cutaways seem tedious. But you can’t ask an audience to believe that one lone FBI agent can find the killer’s house in Ohio, walk up to it, and knock on the door by herself, after everyone’s been knocking their brains out searching for him. It would come off as the last-reel cheat that it is, without the distraction of intercutting the FBI’s erroneous raid on a house in Illinois.
Even worse is the way Hannibal Lecter escapes from incarceration – the film’s shakiest example of velocity over intelligence. Lecter has (off-camera) killed his guard, switched clothes with the dead man, peeled off his face, and deposited the corpse atop an elevator. He is found lying on the floor, assumed to be the wounded guard, and removed in an ambulance while the police hunt the elevator shaft for the corpse in Lecter’s prison uniform. The audience doesn’t know what has actually been going on until Lecter, inside the ambulance, removes his face mask and leans in to eliminate the EMS attendant.
Refrigerator moments are not actually a problem. They don’t stop an audience from enjoying a thriller in the moment. This is a Hitchcockian term which refers to when someone from the audience grabs a drink from the fridge after the film has ended and realises that one of the plot points doesn’t add up.
How long would it take an EMS attendant to realize that the patient isn’t hurt? Eight seconds? 12? So the film dodges the issue by accelerating the tempo and intercutting the red-herring search.
But again, would Hitchcock have done the ambulance sequence better?
Alfred Hitchcock always insisted, “You can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information.” The first thing Hitchcock would have done would have been to let the audience know that it’s Lecter, not a wounded guard, lying on the floor. Then Lecter’s journey from the floor to the ambulance could be mined for two levels of suspense: the killer’s jeopardy at being discovered, and the cops’ and the EMS attendant’s jeopardy at being so close to this homicidal maniac. […] If intercut with this new scene of Lecter on the floor, all that [police raid] footage could contribute its own suspense: How soon before these cops realize the corpse is the guard and Lecter is still in the building?
In The Middle Of The Night is a young adult horror novel by American author Robert Cormier. Written in the mid 1990s, this was one of his later works.
PARATEXT OF “IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT”
The cover reads like the poster for a horror film and gives us a horror tagline: “The sin of the father will be visited upon the son.”
Although Goodreads reminds me I read (and reviewed!) this book back in 2013, I have zero recollection of ever picking it up. This probably says more about my memory than about the book, though I do have strong memories of some of Cormier’s other work, particularly Fade, which I read as a teenager and which left a strong impression.
I’m reading In The Middle Of The Night again making read-along notes as I go, hoping to learn what I can about horror and suspense from a master of the form.
This time as a learning exercise I am reading a thriller/horror taking notes as I read. I want to see how a master storyteller controls his reveals and reversals. You’ll see I was wrong about a few things, and had trouble working out what was going on in the beginning. This is the book’s biggest shortcoming. Another look at Goodreads reviews tells me other readers had the same trouble. Why did I have trouble? For some reason, Cormier used the name Dennis twice, for two separate, unconnected people. The first was a minor character, Dennis Denehan, brother of Lulu’s best childhood friend. Later I was confused by the name Denny, the name of our main character. Why did Cormier do this? I guess it makes sense that within the world of the story, Jean Paul might have named his own son after one of the boys he felt responsible for killing, but it really did affect my ability to work out what was going on.
The other factor for contemporary readers picking up this book from the mid nineties, both the ‘contemporary’ world and the ‘past’ world of the story feel a bit retro now, so the usual markers that stand out as markers of time don’t work quite as well — I had no idea really about screening eras of I Love Lucy.
Beginner writers are often told not to write prologues, which stands in direct opposition to the fact that a lot of popular books open with prologues. (There are problems with prologues and other people have explained all the reasons why. Bear in mind, it’s #NotAllPrologues.) Cormier, too, opens this story with a prologue. He ticks a few things off in this prologue:
Some of the novel is written in first person, and ideally, with a first-personhomodiegetic narrator, the reader gets a reason why all of this is being written down. “I am writing all this down. I have never kept a diary or a journal or anything like that. My thoughts and memories were enough, but now that she has begun to assert herself. I find that it’s necessary to keep a record. Why? For my own good, my own testimony, in case anything happens.” Likewise, readers are given a reason why Greg Heffley writes his Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and why two girls are writing The Popularity Papers (by Amy Ignatow). I am constantly amazed how authors come up with original reasons for why their storytellers are writing things down. (You’d think there would only be a couple of reasons, right?)
The middle grade examples I gave are comedies, but Cormier has given us a creepier reason for writing something down: We immediately feel the character might die. And that is another function of this prologue — to introduce the creepy tone. Cormier even lampshades the story problem he has just created for himself — the problem EVERY writer creates for themselves when they want to do two incongruous things, making us wonder if the character will die but also having that person still alive to write the story — he writes “Stop pretending, she says. You know what’s going to happen.”
Cormier also introduces a slightly creepy brother/sister relationship. Anyone who has previously read Fade by the same author might be wondering if this is going to be a story of incest.
Aunt Mary is introduced. Cormier contrives a situation where adults won’t be a problem; first of all these kids are orphans. Second, their spinster aunt is well-meaning but busy, with a childlike naivety. So she’s not going to stand in anyone’s way.
We get some idea of the time. This is a time when kids are play-acting I Love Lucy. As a non-American reader I’m a bit confused about the setting — this is a show from the 1960s, but perhaps kids of the 90s watch re-runs? Mention of the ‘phonograph’ makes this a bit clearer. Yes, this boy is writing as an adult.
Lulu is established as an unreliable character. She likes to make up stories to cheer her brother up.
The narrator is established as Lulu’s mirror character. Whereas Lulu is loud and lively and makes friends easily, the narrator is bookish and quiet.
We’re introduced to Dennis — the brother of Lulu’s best friend and neighbour, Eileen.
We have basic details about the geographical setting: A town called Wickburg with its own local traditions. They live on the second floor (of low income housing?) below a big family of kids.
Foreshadowing: The magician likes to make people disappear. Who else is going to disappear?
Clues about the horror genre of this story: The parents who died apparently went to see a horror film at the drive-in. That’s a good clue that this story, too, is a horror.
Sure enough, by the end of the prologue, Lulu is dead.
Why was this written as a prologue and not Chapter One? Because the rest of the novel has its own structure, with four parts. Chapter One switches to third person narration.
We don’t know this is about Denny (briefly mentioned in the prologue) until a page and a half in, but Denny is now 16 and his family gets a phone call in the middle of the night every year, starting a few weeks before the anniversary (of Lulu’s death).
I remain confused about the name Denny for a while. Is the older Denny the younger Denny’s uncle? Why has this name been recycled? Or is it the same guy?
The Power Of Not Naming A Character
We’re back to first person. Interestingly, we don’t know this guy’s name. Who is he? At first I haven’t picked up the switch in generations. Am I the only one with this particular problem, or would the story have benefitted from something like ‘Twenty five years later’ under the chapter heading, to show this guy is no longer a kid?
At this point we only know the first person narrator by the nickname Lulu bestowed upon him: “Baby” , or “Baby-Boy”. This in itself seems weird. Is he really messed up? Lives alone as a serial killer? An possibly incestuous background, obviously full of the trauma of death?
Is This A Ghost Or Is This A Nutter?
It’s clear pretty immediately that Lulu is a ghost, which explains Cormier’s decision to avoid conventional dialogue punctuation in favour of italics for Ghost Lulu. (Ghosts can’t talk in the conventional way, or so we would assume.) Alternatively, this could be a setting in which ghosts aren’t actually a thing — perhaps our main character simply thinks they’re a thing — and Baby-Boy is having some kind of hallucination, and will act on what he imagines to be Lulu’s behalf. His reliability is not yet established. (I mean, he hasn’t even told us his name.) “A sigh escaped me, like a ghost abandoning my body” encourages that interpretation. Lulu tells Baby-Boy that it’s time to stop calling and time to do something by way of retribution. Baby-Boy tries to persuade her not to.
Revenge Theme Established
In stories (as in real life) vengeful characters suffer the consequences of their actions. This is obviously going to be a story about revenge. What will Cormier have to say about revenge?
Now that we’re back to Denny’s third person narration it’s clear this book is going to take the form of alternating points of view by chapter.
Denny’s eating tasteless shredded wheat, which is a sign of the era. (Eras can be marked pretty clearly according to what characters eat for breakfast.) This is the 1990s. With the mother standing watching the coffee rather than cooking the breakfast and being all cheerful, I detect some nostalgia on the writer’s part about what a morning should really look like (and it is dependent upon the mother’s emotional and domestic labour.) In close third person point of view, the son gives us a critique of how old his mother looks. (I assume the mother, ideally, should look pretty and young, to boot.)
Cormier gives us something similar to a ‘looking in a mirror’ thumbnail sketch of Denny: “Himself: what did his mtoher and father see when they looked at him? The obvious: dutiful son, good student — not brilliant, not a genius (definitely not a genius), but a regular kid. Did not give them cause for alarm. Polite. Oh, sarcastic sometimes, when things piled up and no one spoke or said anything. Unco-ordinated, awkward at sports, quiet. Spent a lot of time in his room. Reading, mostly jink but some good junk too — the 87th Precinct novels he was racing through./That’s what someone would see, peeking through the window: a regular family.” In short, Denny is the boy equivalent of Bella Swan — very useful as the main character of a horror/supernatural story because this boy can function as The Every Kid. He has zero distinguishing features, at least according to him.
A horror story Every Kid is especially terrifying — This could happen to you, too, young readers. It also means Denny doesn’t have much in the way of distinguishing Shortcoming or Need. Instead, we are given surface details about him. Denny is portrayed as quite different from his own father — whereas the father is small and neat, Denny seems to attract grime and creases. Will this prove metaphorical? Just as likely: Readers are being reminded that Denny is not his father, and sons should not be punished for their fathers’ wrongdoing.
This hasn’t always been the case. It’s a modern, Western idea that children are separate from their families. Throughout history, and in other parts of the modern world, people are very regularly punished for something a family member has done. This is more likely in less individualistic societies, where family members are considered different facets of the same ‘person’.
By mentioning the imaginary audience looking in through the window I am put in mind of a horror film camera technique whereby the camera sort of follows a character as they go about their ordinary business. The scene thereby seems to almost be taking place underwater, with the camera as some kind of shark, floating without sound towards its target, waiting to surprise. An opening scene of Broadchurch uses this technique, and you’ll see it in Panic Room and various other horror suspense films. The ocean has two distinct parts to it: the ocean surface, which you can see, and the ocean deep, which you can’t.
The mother suggests they take the phone out. “Especially this year.” Unfortunately I’ve already read spoilers on the back cover and so I know this year is significant because Denny is sixteen — the same age Dennis was when he did something which lead to the death of Lulu. This says something interesting about back cover copy. When Cormier wrote this book did he mean for the publisher to give so much away on the back? (While the inside of a book is created by the author, the cover illustration and copy belong entirely to the publisher.) Did the publisher forfeit suspense in favour of selling more copies, or was theirs a literary decision? Did they think Cormier wasn’t giving enough away, early enough, so helped readers along?
The horror genre is furthered in the reader’s mind when we see Denny has assigned horror monster names to the kids at the bus stop. This is similar to ‘genre parody’, except there’s no comedy element here. Instead it becomes simply metafictive: The character in a story immerses himself in the genre of the story he himself is in. This is done for comic effect in a completely different kind of story — Jane The Virgin. In that story, Jane immerses herself in telenovelas. The story Jane The Virgin itself is a spoof of a telenovela, using conventions from that genre such as a high number of coincidences, melodrama and a character web who become more and more entangled with each other.
At the bus stop Denny is cast as a sympathetic underdog — he’s the eldest by far (and therefore alone), and also humiliated somewhat, as his father won’t let him get a car until he’s seventeen. Nor will he get a licence. Humiliation is one of those top-tier emotions readers can easily identify with: when a reader feels humiliated for something out of their control we are on their side. The younger kid knows Denny is old enough to have a licence. As well as reinforcing his humiliation, we as readers now know Denny’s exact age without having to be told directly. Is this story going to espouse the dominant ideology of underdog stories?
We also see from the bus stop scene that Denny is passive. He lets a younger girl step in to break up a fight (a kiddie fight which nevertheless foreshadows a high-stakes big struggle to come). “See?” Denny tells her when she confronts him, in unsympathetic, bossy-boots fashion. “It’s like a war. You win one big struggle and the war still goes on.” This sounds like it might be a theme in a nutshell. We are also reminded that Denny has been running from something his whole life and has basically given up the fight. I predict a Call To Adventure which he won’t be able to turn down, because the safety of his family will be at stake. Later in the story he will double down on this and fight to ‘the death’ (spiritual death, coming out a different person).
The girl — a bluestocking, Hermione Granger type — sits next to Denny on the bus. I’m disappointed in this dynamic, or rather, sick of seeing it. Why do men write attractive fictional who seem sexually interested in boys who have just proven themselves to be hopeless?
The narrator briefly alludes to a character called Chloe. Who is Chloe? A girlfriend he had at a former place, before the family were forced to move?
School Buildings As Haunted Mansion
Norman Preparatory Academy, introduced in chapter four, is the perfect example of ‘school as haunted mansion’:
It was the nickname for Norman Preparatory Academy, named for Samuel J. Norman, a deceased Barstow millionaire, whose former home, a three-story mansion, now served as the academy’s administration building. It was so damn normal, which is exactly what Denny liked about it. And hated about it. Both at the same time.
The school looked almost too normal: two class-room buildings, located at right angles to the mansion, bright red brick with clinging climbing ivy, two storeys in height. The lawn between the buildings was mowed to such perfection that it resembled artificial turf, although no one would dare play football on its surface or even walk across it. An iron gate guarded the entrance to the academy.
We knew as soon as we heard ‘Normal’ Prep that this was going to be no ordinary school. Like Denny’s house, the school, too, is introduced as a possible snail under the leaf setting.
(By the way, my expectation that this novel was going to alternate points-of-view by chapter has been foiled. I’m pretty glad actually, because every time the narrator change it pulls us out of the story.)
Rich and Poor Together
I have assumed — naturally — that Denny comes from a rich family if he’s being sent to this fancy school, but Cormier correctly predicts my erroneous assumption and tells us that his father has to work overtime at the factory in order to send him there. This could introduce another interesting dynamic: Denny is now a working-class boy attending a school full of rich boys. Whenever writers put rich and poor together they get instant conflict — interesting kinds of conflicts, because the values are very often different.
A Geographical Setting That Gets More Specific As The Story Progresses
We’re told Denny’s family used to live ‘down near the Connecticut border’, which gives us a more precise location within the American continent. (Perhaps American readers have already worked out exactly where this story takes place?) On the other hand, this ‘zooming in’ slowly on the physical setting turns the reader into a kind of ghost in our own right — like the ghost of Lulu, if we get a little more information about this family, we too will be able to follow them around and haunt them.
(Though there are places in America called ‘Barstow’, is this particular Barstow supposed to be a real place?)
Cormier uses a ghost metaphor to describe the way Denny moves through his day — at school in body, but not in spirit. Nobody ‘sees’ him. This aligns him with the actual ghost who presumably plots to kill him. The reader can see this — the characters themselves cannot. Revenge related message: The person you hate the most is more like you than you think.
Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriends
We’re given the backstory of Chloe. She was his first sort-of girlfriend — Denny is so passive that he lets girls make all the moves. Like the girl at the bus stop, Chloe was also full of action.
On the steps, Denny is ‘stopped by’ a guy called Jimmy Burke. At first I expect Jimmy to be your classic school bully (also, bullying incidents often take place on stairs). But no, this is a different sort of Opponent. Jimmy is well-intentioned — presumably inviting Denny onto the student council for the specific purpose of including an outsider, helping him to make friends. That said, an opponent in fiction doesn’t have to be ill-intentioned. Jimmy is an opponent because he stands in opposition to what Denny wants from school: To blend in, unnoticed. Parents in young adult fiction are also quite often well-intentioned opponents, standing in the way of the young adult with the intention of keeping them safe or whatever.
Chapter 4 ends with Denny on the bus wondering if he’s up for a big struggle. This is in reference to joining the school council, standing against some bad stuff going down under the surface of the snail under the leaf setting of school, but speaks to the bigger big struggle to come. There is nothing subtle about this story structure (and ‘not subtle’ is not a bad thing).
Denny is back in his apartment now. The phone is ringing.
Symbolic Character Quirk
The mother has ‘a strange approach to labelling’. She writes ‘coffee’ on the cookie jar. This little character quirk has a deeper meaning: Denny’s mother is constantly hiding. Her homelife is literally ‘not what it says on the tin’.
When Denny finally answers the call and it’s a mysterious girl. She says something mysterious about them not being friends ‘yet’. Cormier describes the voice in ambiguous terms — Denny can’t be sure whether the voice comes from a girl or a woman or what. (This could therefore still be the deluded alive brother acting on Lulu’s behalf.)
Flashback scene. Angry father in kitchen telling Denny to never, ever answer the phone.
Another flashback scene to when Denny was seven years old. Shifts in settings are easy in horror: This scene is introduced with the sentence fragments, “Seven years old. Third grade. Home from school.” Mom is sick in the bathroom — she says it’s a 24 hour bug. Denny answers the phone for the first time, presumably.
We learn the father’s name: John Paul Colbert.
Mother comes up behind Denny and scolds him for answering the phone, momentarily at least turning the mother into her own sort of monster. With both parents lying to him or hiding things from him Denny is totally alone in the world. We are even told in this scene that he’s never even had a babysitter. Denny realises ‘he’s never been really alone’, which is the opposite of reality — Denny is nothing if not perpetually alone in the world.
Double carriage return, back to the present. ‘Answering the telephone’ are the two incidents that link this scene to the flashback scenes.
Desire Is Solidified
“Suddenly he was eager for the telephone to ring.” This marks a change in Denny. He desires something. Until now he has been completely passive. He has been hankering for some kind of big struggle, and this person on the other end of the line is going to provide him with one. Ironically, as soon as he wants the phone call it doesn’t come in the middle of the night.
“But something had awakened him.” Turns out to be his father. This is almost mandatory in a horror story: Once the main character starts to be scared they are on edge (as the audience is). Something will happen but it turns out to be benign. In the Australian crocodile horror movie Black Water, something nudges ominously against the tin boat, but it turns out to be a petrol can. Minutes later the entire boat is overturned by an evil croc. Audiences know this trick as used in horror stories, but it works anyway. It may even be mandatory, though I’ve yet to explore that sufficiently.
Cormier does not shy away from stating symbolism which may be obvious to an experienced reader but not to many younger ones, and this is perhaps what makes this a young adult novel. Of Denny’s father:
Sitting there, forlorn, in the middle of the night. But he and his father and mother were living in a kind of middle of the night even when the sun was shining.
Thus, the double meaning of the title is explained, and I learn that writers shouldn’t necessarily shy away from that.
The story switches back to Baby-Boy. We know this not because it’s sign-posted at the top but because of the presence of Lulu and the first-person point of view.
Wait, what? In a flashback to the scene of the accident in the theatre, we get a surreal, white scene in which we learn Lulu never died at all. She made a ‘miraculous’ recovery. “I’m not Lazarus,” she tells her brother. I don’t know anything about Lazarus, apart from the idiom ‘back from the dead’. Bible readers will know the Raising of Lazarus story from the Bible. Jesus restored him to life four days after he died and he became a saint. The subtext of Lulu’s words: She is no saint. It is implied at this point that she died, then came back as a kind of vengeful machine, perhaps sent instead from the Devil. She has come back with one mission: To get even with whoever caused the balcony accident.
The horror genre is full of Biblical references and, honestly, most of what I know about the Bible I’ve learned from looking something up after watching a horror.
The end of this chapter, and of part one, provides the Evil Monster (Lulu, back from the dead) a clear motivation for wrong-doing, and makes us wonder how she’s going to exact revenge upon young Denny and his family.
Writers are advised to set up the rules of the setting early on. It’s interesting that I’m still not sure about the rules of the supernatural in this particular story. I had thought Lulu was a ghost but now she is a different kind of ghost — more like a vengeful zombie. It’s probably enough that I know this story contains supernatural elements, and it’s okay if I am slightly wrong about these, amending my vision of the world as I progress.
Finally we get some questions answered.
This is what Denny’s father, John Paul Colbert, thought about in the middle of the night: how his life changed for ever at the age of sixteen when he became assistant manager/head usher at the Globe Theatre in downtown Wickburg, Massachussetts.
Naturally, we’re expected to have worked this out for ourselves by now. Cormier was a fan of making readers work a bit. Eventually we’re told whether we’re on the right track or not. The reader should have had this question: How is thread A of the novel related to thread B? It’s a safe question to assume readers have asked. Readers always want to know how two different stories are related.
This is still third person point of view, but the ‘camera’ has homed in on Denny’s father.
This chapter takes us to the part where the balcony has just collapsed.
Mostly an action chapter, concluding with John Paul waking up after six days in hospital. His parents show him a newspaper article and we learn that John Paul is to be questioned.
The reader now has a question: What could the 16 year old usher possibly have done to be thought responsible for the collapse of a balcony? My experience of real life news makes me think of a tragedy in my own country, in which a group of tertiary students were standing on a balcony in a National Park. The platform had not been made for that many people. New Zealanders know it as the Cave Creek disaster. That happened in April 1995, coincidentally the same year this book was published. Given the lag in publishing, Cormier no doubt wrote this story before the Cave Creek disaster.
Could the character of John Paul be guilty of allowing too many people onto the balcony? Did it collapse from overweight? I’m keen to find out, and also wondering from a writers’ perspective what kind of theories other readers might have regarding John Paul’s culpability.
The details of the disaster continues to be conveyed via John Paul reading newspaper reports. This is a writing technique that no longer works — now it would be the Internet, with far more theories and much more information for someone to sift through before getting to any semblance of ‘truth’. A young audience today reading about John Paul on the Internet wouldn’t necessarily believe the Internet news in the way that we and John Paul are obviously meant to believe the journalists.
In this chapter we also have the emergence of another ‘ghost’ like character in the form of a woman who points at John Paul with a long, bony finger. “You killed my Joey!” she screamed (whether she’s real or hallucinated.) What is it about the gendering of these accusing apparitions? Notice that in stories, characters are less often tortured by a male character pointing an accusing finger. Paranormal creatures who kill us are more likely to be gendered male. I believe this narrative gendering comes back to that old truism: Men are terrified women will laugh at them (disapprove of them); women are terrified men will kill them. This woman is terrifying because she disapproves.
It becomes clearer later in the chapter that this ghostly woman is not a ghost at all, but a real woman. (Other people can see her and they talk about her.) This is the second time Cormier has played this trick on us, making us wonder if a female character is an apparition, then telling us she’s actually real.
My theory about a balcony collapse has more to it — there’s a fire. We are left at the end of this chapter knowing John Paul had something to do with a fire. The fire weakened the structure. How did John Paul start a fire? Was this pyromania or entirely accidental?
As John Paul leaves the hospital we can see he’s a crucified young man. People are holding pickets up in protest of whatever it is he did.
Notice Cormier has given John Paul the revelation before he’s given it to the reader. John Paul knows exactly what he’s done wrong, but we readers will have to keep reading to find out. If Cormier does this well, readers will have our own kind of revelation, applying John Paul’s mistake to our own lives.
John Paul is going through a depressed phase of his life. Cormier does not shy away from a bit of pathetic fallacy:
The coldness of November greeted him as he stepped out of the house, and he raised the collar of his jacket. The sky, dark and low, pressed down upon him. Tree branches, stark and leafless, were like spiderwebs climbing against the greyness of the sky.
Cormier has used the symbolism of the seasons to match up with John Paul’s inner state. He was happy in summer, with his plum summer job and the pretty girl, but now his life is terrible and sure enough it’s also winter. It’s rare to find a happy main character in winter. A writer can still subvert this convention by contrasting a downcast character against the happiness of a blue sky and people going about their summertime activities.
The scene with the librarian and the microfiche took me right back to the nineties. Ah, microfiche. University students no longer need to be inducted to the joys of research with the microfiche machines as I was in 1996.
We learn that John Paul has been ‘cleared of responsibility’ for the tragedy. But John Paul was still ‘a part of it’. Because this is a character with a conscience, being legally in the clear doesn’t count for much. This aspect of a character endears them to a (non-sociopathic) reading audience.
The nice letter from the girl — Nina Citrone — shows just how much this male character puts stock on what girls/women think of him. This seems to be a theme running through Cormier’s work (at least, those novels that I have read so far); Cormier’s teenage boys are very, very concerned about what women and girls think of them. A glance from the right girl can make or break his year. (When girl characters are written this way, readers tend to think the girls ‘pathetic’ and the books are thrown into the romance category, even when the romance is a subplot.) This is why the phrase ‘strong female character’ has become problematic in recent years — it comes from an acknowledged double standard that female characters have to be strong. Strong does not equal real.
When there are no big headlines about John Paul being cleared of wrongdoing, Cormier is saying something about the nature of the media. The media loves a witch hunt, but stories fizzle out and the protagonists of those real life stories are left to deal with consequences and clearances on their own. Also, plotwise, if John Paul was never publicly cleared of wrong-doing, this explains why there are people who can never move on.
We are told that John Paul has a difficult relationship with newspapers. This takes us back to the first time the reader met John Paul — ‘hiding behind’ a newspaper in the kitchen but not really reading it, from Denny’s point of view. The newspaper in this story is serving as a character motif. What does it symbolise? When John Paul ‘hides behind’ the newspaper, it stands for his public reputation as contrasted with his private self.
John Paul goes back to school. No one is paying attention to him. Remember the logline for this book: “The sin of the father will be visited upon the son.” A large portion of Part One was dedicated to showing the reader how invisible his son is — actively invisible. (That’s actually a useful concept — even the most passive characters in a good story are ‘actively passive’ — they go out of their way to do nothing.)
John Paul meets Nina — like the son, John Paul attracts actively romantic girls. He now has a sort of girlfriend.
Question: Is this Denny’s mother? (In real life, unlikely. In stories, however, teenage romances are more likely to last.)
Notice how Cormier ends this chapter. He’s sent John Paul on an emotional, heart-soaring high, but an anonymous quip calling him a ‘killer’ brings him plummeting back down to earth.
Question: Who sent that to John Paul. (We kind of know, don’t we? Baby-Boy or his sister.)
We’re back to Denny’s point of view. Cormier makes sure we know this by starting the first sentence with ‘Denny Colbert’. He’s waiting for the telephone to ring. Whereas his father is symbolically connected to newspapers, Cormier is going out of his way to connect Denny to phones.
After yet another mention I’m moved to look up ’87th Precinct novels’. I learn that ‘the 87th Precinct is a series of police procedural novels and stories written by Ed McBain (pseudonym of Evan Hunter).’ They were published from the mid 1950s to the mid 2000s. Perhaps this series was important to Robert Cormier, and because they continued to be published, perhaps American readers are familiar with this series. I’d never heard of them. Now that Cormier has started talking about a mystery/detective series, I’m guessing this novel is going to metafictively switch tracks — I am now expecting Cormier to make use of some conventions from the detective genre.
We get a bit of backstory about when Denny first began his job at the theatre — an insight into the relationship between Denny and his own father. This is a story about the connections between fathers and sons.
The point of view switches back to Denny. Denny is teased about his ‘girlfriend’ on the bus. Cormier provides us (and Denny) with the girl’s name after a few pages. Dawn is an unsympathetic character to this ‘girl’ reader — the classic guy’s gal, who thinks girls are too bitchy and boys easier to get along with. (Does this endear her to boys, though? Does this make her the perfect Cool Girl?)
Cormier really rams home how passive Denny is: He fails to get the number of the girl he has fallen instantly in love with. He walks past a fight where he could have stepped in. He avoids giving an answer to the guy who wants him to join council and make a difference. The difference is, now he’s starting to get angry with himself.
He finally does something active by applying for a part-time job. The man at the convenience store is looking for someone older, though. The wish to be slightly older is probably pretty common when it comes to sixteen year olds (though I never felt that way personally). Most YA readers can probably relate.
Something exciting has to happen in this chapter after all that passivity and disappointment. Trouble comes with a knock at the door. A smarmy reporter wanting the ‘human side’ of John Paul’s story, through the son. We know that he’s untrustworthy because Cormier has him hand over a grimy business card.
On the way to church Denny has a conversation with his mother about his father and how nice he is, visiting the dead kids’ cemeteries as his own version of church. The chapter ends quietly.
Another quiet chapter. Why does this chapter exist?
The council guy is still keen for Denny to run. This guy’s enthusiasm contrasts with Denny’s reluctance to do anything much at all. Though Denny does want something. He wants money and a learners’ permit. (Freedom.) Denny’s desire is entirely selfish — he hasn’t yet learned to look outside himself.
The chapter about Denny having trouble even getting a part-time job contrasts with his father’s getting a plum job at the theatre at the same age. This is Denny assuming his father is going to be against him getting a job at all (because his own experience turned out so tragically) but being pleasantly surprised to learn that John Paul is a reasonable man.
So this chapter was about reinforcing contrasts. I feel neutral about Denny as a person — he hasn’t inspired empathy yet. Is he going to turn out a hero or is his passivity going to lead to his downfall?
Okayyy, so Denny is actually a stalker. I had a feeling this might happen. Cormier definitely has voyeuristic interests, at least in his work.
One afternoon, [Denny] stood outside Barstow High School in another attempt to find Dawn. He had discovered that Normal Prep’s school day ended aa half-hour earlier than Barstow High and that he could, with luck and perfect timing, reach dawn’s school a minute or two before hundreds of students burst out of the place as classes ended for the day.
He had stationed himself in front of the school near the nine orange buses whose engines throbbed while waiting for their passengers. Denny figured Dawn would be getting on one of the buses.
Have you noticed that Denny is not the only stalker in this story? But, so far, Denny’s stalking is presented as ‘the normal thing to do if you’ve missed out on getting a girl’s number’, whereas the stalking done by the female character — the vengeful ghost chick — is crazy. This is a common dynamic employed by Hollywood screenwriters. While stalking behaviour in male characters is rewarded, women are killed. Will Cormier subvert this trope? Please don’t let Denny ‘get the girl’. I do see what Cormier is doing — I have already established that Lulu and Denny are mirror characters, so they must both also do their own version of stalking.
He doesn’t find Dawn (this time) and goes home alone.
Finally, with no good reason, Denny picks up the phone. The smokey voice on the other end of the line has a lot to tell him — specifically him, not his father. Denny hangs up, at first thrilled but suddenly terrified.
Point of view switch to Baby-Boy, describing his sister, the crazy stalker woman, Lulu. As Lulu and Baby-Boy talk about how it’s not the father’s fault, it is clear that Lulu is a horror machine — she won’t be stopped, not by reason, not by anything. She has a ‘cruel slash of a mouth’ and her face is ‘taut’. The old Lulu is gone. This is the archetypal horror genre monster. Cormier has linked her to the Christian church by talking about Heaven/Hell/Limbo — horror tropes come straight from the church.
Part Three ends with Lulu doubling down on whatever horrible thing it is she plans to do.
Halloween is approaching — a great time for horror happenings in suburbia, especially in children’s stories. It kind of makes me wish we had Halloween here in Australia — it would be nice to feel a frisson of fear. Note that Cormier has specified ‘no rain yet’. (No tears yet — no catharsis of emotion, but just you wait…) The wind blows the leaves in swirls — another kind of pathetic fallacy indicating change to come.
Denny is sullen and pessimistic about Halloween, disapproving of all the pumpkins. Denny is anti-childhood, and will be until he is confident he himself has left childhood behind. At the moment he’s stuck in his own kind of limbo — along with his mirror character, Lulu — between adulthood and childhood. He doesn’t like the painted faces on other peoples’ pumpkins but he still wants his father to carve him his own.
Denny finds something nauseating when he gets home. He has to clean it up. Cormier withholds from the reader what he has found. I’m thinking maybe a dead animal, small enough to flush down a toilet. No, it is human poo.
Now Cormier reveals that Denny and Lulu have had a number of conversations that the narrator hadn’t told us about. It seems Denny is falling in love with her a little. Cormier made sure to show us that Denny is the sort of boy who falls in love in an instant, so this makes sense.
Lulu is using her sexuality — basically a version of literary phone sex — to control Denny. This is where Cormier really makes the most of the season symbolism already introduced — Lulu categorises women according to season — summer is a voluptuous woman, Halloween is a witch. It’s clear Denny is responding to her only because of her sex appeal because the middle-aged male reporter tried to get Denny talking, to no avail. So here’s another gender trope: Women use their sexuality to get what they want from men.
Back to the present — Denny waiting for Lulu to call him on the phone, but she does not.
The horrible twelve-year-old boy at the bus stop tells Denny that Dawn works in a certain shop at the mall, and comments lasciviously on the size of her breasts. Denny is apparently disgusted by this phrase, but probably only because another boy is saying it — he has objectified her similarly himself.
Denny has undergone an overnight character change and for once in his life he’s proactive. He goes straight to the counter where Dawn works. Dawn is delighted to see him. Turns out she even called him a few times, though Denny didn’t answer.
Okay, so now our alarm bells are supposed to be going off, right? How did she get his number? Normally I’d assume from the phone book, but the Colberts have an unlisted number. This has been established. Is Dawn Lulu? Somehow? A tool of Lulu? Possessed by Lulu? Significantly, Dawn works at the perfume counter — a symbol of bewitching femininity. In stories perfume can work almost like a poison, or a magic spell — always women casting spells upon men. (Well, I’ve yet to read a story about a women bewitched by Lynx, though the marketers of Lynx inverted the trope to comic effect in their The Lynx Effect series of commercials — which nonetheless still manage to sexualise women.)
Anyhow, by now we are supposed to be suspicious of Dawn. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be, but now I am.
Lulu asks Denny, “Would you like to know what I look like?” This is masterful on Cormier’s part because he now knows I want to know if Dawn is Lulu, somehow. A few pages later the narrator tells us “But Dawn Chelmsford was not the voice on the telephone,” thereby answering the question I had at the exact right time. If Denny himself had not started to wonder, I would have considered him stupid and irritating as a character. Denny says the voices are different, but I’m thinking of all the horror films I’ve seen and I know that when someone is possessed, the demon changes their voice.
Denny rushes home from school for his afternoon session of weird ghostly phone sex but is momentarily delayed by the reporter, who this time tries to garner his sympathy by saying he has a wife and kids and mouths to feed. Denny still does not talk to him.
A creepy conversation between Lulu and Baby-Boy. Baby-Boy is the conscience, telling Lulu off for enjoying playing with the emotions of a teenage boy. In a faux-feminist way, Lulu asks him if it’s wrong to enjoy what she’s doing. She’s never had a sexual relationship with anyone. I have suspected she is grotesque after her injuries from the accident — now I’m more sure. The exact nature of her injuries will probably be revealed later… In stories a deformity equals malice. I previously normal-looking character who subsequently becomes deformed becomes malicious. Let’s see.
The previous creepy scene juxtaposes with this scene: Denny bored to tears in history class.
Between classes, Denny runs into the guy who didn’t fight back. Denny asks why he didn’t fight back. The guy tells Denny to think about it, thereby forcing the reader to also think about it. Why don’t people fight back? Also, why is Lulu so intent on fighting back? That afternoon we get a theme of the book imparted via this guy’s dialogue:
“Know what? I didn’t figure I was the victim that day. They were. Those guys avoid me now, they look ashamed like they did something dirty. And you look at me almost the same way…”
There’s a small reveal: Everyone at Normal knows Denny’s secret. Denny had assumed he was anonymous, but he’s been exposed the entire time. I sense this small revelation is prelude to a larger but related one.
Cormier is using Halloween as a bit of a ticking clock device now, telling us that Halloween is in just three days and the reporter’s deadline is tomorrow, after which he risks massive exposure again.
This chapter is divided into two parts. In the second part Denny and Jean Paul are up at the same time in the middle of the night. They have a rare heart-to-heart and I realise why Cormier has made the father an immigrant — to put a mild communication barrier between them. (Though it’s unrealistic that the father wouldn’t speak native-level American English, having immigrated so young.)
Denny has a anagnorisis:
“Sixteen, Dad. You were sixteen when it happened! You were my age.” The knowledge overwhelmed him. He didn’t know how he would have handled such a thing. All those children dead an all those accusations. But his father had handled it. Had endured, had survived.
In short, Denny realises he’s not so old after all, and that things aren’t always as bad as you fear and that people can endure a lot before breaking. Denny realises that not fighting is one way of ‘dealing with’ things. (This goes back to what I earlier noticed about how Denny is actively passive himself.)
Cormier puts Denny’s anagnorisis into action by sending him to a telephone box to tell the reporter (in that passively-active way) “No comment”. So there’s a writing tip: if the anagnorisis happens during a conversation, have the character do something — however small — to put that new awareness into action. This scene also marks the end of the reporter subthread. We won’t be left wondering what happened to Les Albert.
I’ve started to really wonder if Dave in the store is Baby-Boy. I’m confident Cormier wants me to think this. Dave has flu the same day Lulu does not call, and as we know, these two are always together.
Lulu calls the following day and sure enough, Halloween is D-Day. They arrange to meet on Halloween night at the corner of Denny’s street. No, Denny! Don’t do it! Remember the shit stain!
Next we have Les Albert’s article, where the reader is told exactly how the blaze started (well, sort of? I don’t see why the match was lit? As a torch?) There is a moment of tenderness between father and son. The mother pops in to suggest they go away for the weekend and avoid the attention but father and son are united: they’re staying right where they are. This story began with a huge emotional wedge between father and son but the relationship itself has undergone a character arc and now they are close.
The big reveal! Dave is at the wheel. (I guess ‘roof’ is an American word for ‘toupe’?)
This is the big struggle chapter. Dave turns out to have a conscience, and sacrifices his sister to save Denny. A reveal at the end of the chapter tells us he took his own life, too.
I suspect Cormier struggled a bit to come up with sufficient motivation for Lulu. The idea that Lulu was terrified by the nothingness of ‘death’ is at odds with my own thoughts on how it works. I’ve read Elisabeth Kubler Ross, who said that two types of people tend to have the least problem with death: the very religious and the confidently atheist. It’s that murky middle part you want to avoid. I do remember Christopher Hitchens saying, right up to the last, that he was comforted by the idea that there would be nothing.
But this is fiction, after all.
I appreciate that Cormier did not give Lulu a deformity. She was grotesque because she was old, though she didn’t have use of her legs due to the accident, not because she was old.
The chapter concludes with another anagnorisis — maybe home is the place you go to because there’s nowhere else to go. However bleak that sounds, having a home at all is a fortunate thing.
Since the big struggle scene is over all that’s left is for us to get a sense of the new situation. Oh no, hang on, we need to know if Dawn is connected to any of this business.
The chapter opens with the jostling at the bus stop juxtaposing with the sorry scene with two deaths. But this return to normality has an interesting change: there’s a creepy new kid there, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. This boy immediately feels like a symbol — a new ‘cancer’ in Denny’s life.
We’re told the phone keeps ringing. At first it could be that the evil didn’t die with Lulu. But then I learn that this is reporters.
As the book ends we’re told — as if it’s important to us, like it is to Denny — that Dave’s name is Dave O’Hearn. Plotwise, Cormier is making sure we’ve connected the dots, I guess. Baby-Boy is to be replaced with a more ordinary, human-sounding name. Also, knowing the guy’s full time achieves a kind of verisimilitude, and a sense of real closure. When you know someone’s full name there is the illusion that you really know them.
The scene with Denny in church, knowing about the blankness while his mother prays shows that Denny is now even more separated from his mother than he was before, and now he has several secrets he’ll keep from his parents, on his way to becoming a man.
Cormier pulls together the ghost theme, alerting me to some symbolism that hadn’t even crossed my mind: “He had loved nothing, loved nobody, because the Lulu who spoke those words to him had not been real, hadn’t even been a ghost or a phantom, only a fantasy.”
The story has to end with Dawn and Denny sitting silently, side-by-side on the bus. Because if he had ‘got the girl’, this would have been one of those stories where the crazy stalker woman gets killed, but the crazy stalkerish boy who has nothing to really offer a girl gets rewarded. I was pretty worried Cormier was going to let me down for a moment there, but I am breathing a sigh of relief that this is not one of those stories.
Reversals and reveals are vital for creating momentum and suspense in a story. Certain genres are required to be more page-turny than others, and all children’s literature must be page-turny. So you’ll find reversals and reveals everywhere in children’s literature.
‘Oh darling, [story is] just two or three little surprises followed every now and again by a bigger surprise.
Peggy Ramsay, agent
A revelation is basically a surprise.
Revelation is seen by the audience as motion, even if nothing has changed but knowledge or insight.
WHAT ARE ‘REVERSALS’?
‘Reversals’ are ‘big reveals’. The audience’s understanding of everything in the story is turned on its head. They suddenly see every element of the plot in a new light. All reality changes in an instant. ‘Reversal’ is a term writers use. Audiences tend to just say ‘plot twist’, but that often just means a sequence they weren’t able to easily predict. For example, when Andy escapes in Shawshank Redemption, that’s not a reversal. It might qualify as a twist because we generally expect life-prisoners to stay where they are.
The Sixth Sense, however, includes a genuine reversal because the famous revelation requires us to regard the entire story until that point in a completely different light. The big reversal reveal comes right at the end of the story. This has the advantage of sending the audience out of the theater with a knockout punch. It’s the biggest reason this movie was a hit. (M. Night Shyalaman didn’t come up with the idea of the psychologist being dead until well after his first draft. Though he managed to make it feel very new, Shyalaman was borrowing from a long tradition of Dead All Along characters.)
An example of a reversal is when the audience finds out who A.D. is on Pretty Little Liars. A mistake the writers of that show made was waiting seven seasons to give that information to the audience. Desperate Housewives, the writer’s mentor series, wrapped up mysteries at the end of each season, not at the end of the entire series. This is called a ‘reveal’ but is also a reversal because we realise A.D. was in front of us the whole time. We are asked to think back on everything we’ve seen so far and consider in a new light.
The Greeks called this ‘peripeteia’. A classic example is Oedipus Rex — it’s the bit where he finds out about his parents. Fast forward a few years we have Luke Skywalker finding out who his father is.
A story can have more than one reversal. While minor reversals can occur in every scene, bigger ones tend to divide the work into specific acts.
A reversal reveal is most common in detective stories and thrillers.
A subversion is not a modern invention but peripeteia itself. it is the tool that catapults the hero into the opposite of their present state — from thesis to antithesis, from home to a world unknown.
That’s what inciting incidents are too — they are ‘explosions of opposition’, structural tools freighted with all the characteristics the characters lack; embodiments, indeed, of everything they need. Cliffhangers, inciting incidents and crisis points are essentially the same thing: a turning point at the end of an act; the unexpected entry point for the protagonists into the new world; bombs built from the very qualities they lack which explode their existing universe, hurtling them into an alien space of which they must then make sense.
The best reversal is the kind that creates the biggest surprise without ruining the established logic.
Create suspense by providing the audience with a certain amount of information, then leave the rest to their own imagination.
Give the audience just enough to see it coming but not enough to expect it. How to test if the plot twist works or not: The story is rewatchable/re-readable. It should be just as fun if not more fun to go back and see where the writers hint at that twist. This explains why studies show that spoiling a book before a subject reads it makes the reading more enjoyable. The path towards the reversal is more exciting, even though the reader has lost the enjoyment of the surprise. Perhaps this is why lots of stories spoil the ending at the very beginning.
Gone Girl has a big reversal when we realise the victim is bad.
Victimised women who are actually evil in their own right may be a trend started by Gillian Flynn. In the b-grade horror/thriller movie Pet (2016) a stalker captures a woman he’s interested in and keeps her in a cage in ‘the tunnels’ of a dog shelter where he works. Halfway through the movie the young woman is discovered by the security guard. The reversal is that instead of wanting to be saved, the captured woman encourages her captor to murder him brutally. The big reveal is that she is a psychopath and the reason the stalker creep has captured her is because by stalking her he has realised this about her.
Safe Haven is a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is fun to watch if you enjoy predicting romantic cliches. The minor conflict, the handsome widower, the woman who kids fall in love with. The downpour of rain, the first kiss… Eventually, however, just when there is nothing left (because they’ve fallen into bed), Sparks gives us the first major revelation: He tells the audience why his main character is being followed. All this time we weren’t sure if she’s a baddie, but now we know she’s the victim, abused and stalked by her cop ex-husband. But another supernatural revelation occurs right at the end, when we realize the woman who has befriended our main character has been a ghost all along. This is a reversal, because it causes us to see the entire progression of the relationship in a new light — this coupling hasn’t happened organically at all; it’s been ‘ordained’ by a higher power.
REVERSALS AND REVEALS DONE BADLY
The Rug Jerk
Any gratuitous plot or character twist tossed in solely to jerk the rug out from under the reader for the sake of surprise or shock, without sufficient foundation, foreshadowing or justification (retroactive or otherwise). Essentially any story twist that violates Chekhov’s principles: “If you fire a gun in Act III, it must be seen on the wall in Act I; and if you show a gun on the wall in Act I, it must be fired in Act III.” The Rug Jerk fires the gun without showing it first or explaining where it came from afterwards.
The Reset Switch, aka The Reboot
Any device that allows a writer to completely erase any already-occurred events of a story and bring the characters back to a predefined starting point, with little or no changes to them or their universe. Time travel (“It never happened”), parallel universes (“It never happened *here*”), unconscious duplicates (“We’re all just clones/simulations/androids of the REAL characters!”) and dream-sequences (“It was all a dream!”) have all been used this way. To be avoided unless the existence of such a phenomenon is, itself, the story’s or series’ central plot point (as in *The Man Who Folded Himself* or *The Left Hand of Darkness*).
A misperception I run into a lot: if a reader is not SHOCKED by your big twist, it’s a failure. This isn’t true! Here’s why…
First, guessing a surprise twist beforehand (as long as it isn’t insulting obvious) can make readers feel smart and vindicated to see they guessed right.
Second, when you use a trope where a certain plot twist/reveal is expected, knowing that reveal is coming ADDS to the tension, it doesn’t detract from it. We’re looking forward to him discovering *gasp* his gf is actually the empress! The anticipation is part of the experience.
So: a plot twist can have value not only in being surprising, but also in being anticipated. How to set up plot twists so they’ll delightfully surprise readers OR add to our breathless anticipation when we guess them early: foreshadow adequately, but don’t make it blindingly obvious (unless you don’t mean for it to be a reveal to us, only to another character).
Try to ensure that your reveal will escalate the stakes and/or evolve at least one conflict (the main external one, an internal conflict, or a conflict between characters) in a new way. If it doesn’t change things in some relevant way, it won’t impact readers.
Types of Reveals
A few main types of plot twists/reveals:
1. those that surprise us but not the character (this type is used often for unreliable narrators; can be super fun, but can also make a reader feel lied to, so use carefully).
2. The type of plot twist that surprises a POV character but not us. Often used in dual POV stories where one character has a secret that we’re in on, but the other POV character isn’t. Great for driving up tension and anticipation as you build toward the reveal.
And finally, 3. The type of plot twist that surprises (or is meant to surprise; refer to earlier tweet about readers guessing it early not necessarily being a bad thing) both readers and the POV characters. Often happens at midpoint &/or climax.
Planning and Editing A Reveals Plot
Further questions to ask:
Are these revealed secrets worth knowing? There must be a direct impact on the immediate situation.
Does the audience have enough context for this revelation to be meaningful?
Is the secret simple? If it needs heaps of explaining it won’t have any punch when revealed. (“Luke, I am your father.” Not, “Luke, I am your cousin thrice removed.”)
Have you foreshadowed but not telegraphed?
Like endings, reversals should feel both inevitable and surprising at once.
Is this so-called revelation simply one of two possible alternatives considered from the beginning? If so, the answer won’t be much of a ‘revelation’ — more like when you’re expecting a baby it’s probably going to be a boy or a girl. The surprise is pretty minimal in that regard. If you’re stuck with this problem, consider audience misdirection or hint at something different but related.