Blueberries For Sal (1948) is a picture book written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey, also well-known for Make Way For Ducklings. Both stories are thrillers for the preschool set, especially this one. In fact, I’m about to try and convince you that Blueberries For Sal is the inspiration behind Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, with blueberries swapped out for drug money.
McCloskey makes use of a number of established thriller genre techniques in this story, and creates an exciting yet cosy tale. How does he accomplish that? Let’s take a look.
Sometimes horror movies are even more terrifying when read metaphorically. In Dead Calm, the story of a husband and wife at sea with a murderous intruder is bad enough, but what if the murderer doesn’t exist?
Dead Calm is a well-executed but outdated psychological horror, adapted in 1989 for film from a 1963 novel by the same name by America Charles K. Williams (1909 – 1975).
What makes a horror or thriller story ‘psychological’? Aren’t the entire suspense genre psychological, to some degree? I set out to investigate.
A label to say: This Is More Than Just Gore!
With a few notable exceptions, the label “psychological horror” is most often used to describe what something doesn’t have rather than what it does. A lack of exploding eyeballs or sloshing eviscerations must mean that the scare is psychological, right? Saying that a story is “psychological horror” seems like it should mean it gives the reader a true creeping sense of fear, but all too often it just means the [story] doesn’t feature violent organ failure.
So, story makers will slap that label on if they want to signal hidden depths to their story. With that established, let’s get a bit deeper. How deep can we get?
Raison d’être of a Psychological Thriller
Psychological suspense stories encourage us to ask questions about our own lives.
Can you really trust your husband? (Gone Girl)
Can your partner’s good points outweigh their terrible points? (Big Little Lies)
Can you really trust your nanny? (Girl On The Train)
How far would you go to achieve your dream? (You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott)
We think we know people, but how much do we really know? (Most of them)
What is a perfect life? Does a life that looks perfect from the inside feel perfect from the inside? (The Couple Next Door, Big Little Lies)
A Brief History Of A Psychological Suspense Story
The origins of the modern psychological thriller stretch all the way back to 1938, when Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier was published and became popular. But the genre goes back further than that and can be found in fairytale — Rebecca happens to be based on the Bluebeard story.
A common early trope of popular psychological suspense involved what is now called ‘the woman in peril’.
I write psychological thrillers. In this genre, the female experience has so often been portrayed as damaged—obsessive, delusional—that I fear readers have come to expect emotionally unstable women. In the psychological thriller genre, men are often antagonists, but rarely are they shown to be emotionally vulnerable. Given that I know as many men who can be ruled by their emotions as women, it’s curious that we don’t see more of them on the page. Surely it’s not doing either gender any favours to ignore the emotions of one and exaggerate the emotions of another?
The ‘woman in peril’ has been replaced by something just as insidious: Film, book and tv shows rotate around darker and darker crimes committed against women. Sexy mad women fill our consciousness and stalk our air waves. The idea of the ‘crazy woman’ who either did it or deserved it has taken hold.’
We have yet to enter the age of suspense stories in which men are allowed the full range of emotions, and in which the emotional expression of women becomes part of their strength.
Common Features Of A Psychological Suspense Story
The threat is still diabolical but more contained, even intimate—usually targeting the protagonist and/or his family. The hero is often a relatively “ordinary” man, woman or child.
Character is more important than pacing, but pacing can’t be neglected.
The pacing is a bit more deliberate than in non-suspense genres, to reflect the ordinary person’s difficulty understanding the exact nature of the threat—and the enemy—and then struggling to respond. The third act, however, moves briskly.
Twists are key, with chapters routinely ending in one disturbing revelation after another.
Emphasis is on the eerie over the sensational.
The psychological subgenre of thriller demands an ability to reveal dread and panic without explosions or car chases. The psychological subgenre of horror demands an ability to reveal dread and panic without gore.
In fact, see my post on Thrillers. The psychological thriller is of course a subset of Thriller, so everything in that post applies. See also my post on Horror.
Alternating points of view are popular. Gone Girl and Girl On The Train both employ this technique.
In young adult fiction, Robert Cormier used alternating points of view a number of times, for example In The Middle Of The Night, After The First Death.
Everything You Want Me To Be by Mindy Mejia is another example.
Hattie Hoffman has spent her entire life up to this point playing different parts — the straight-A student, the dutiful daughter, the civically-minded teenager. So when she’s found stabbed to death on the opening night of her high school play, her small town is torn apart by the tragedy, as well as the idea that Hattie’s killer might be hidden in their midst. But things aren’t always as they seem, and as the local sheriff seeks out the murderer, he finds out that Hattie had some dark secrets, unseeable from the surface. Told from alternating perspectives — Hattie’s, the sheriff’s, and a high school english teacher who has secrets of his own — Everything You Want To Be is a chilling and mesmerizing look at the final year of a young woman’s life.
An unreliable narrator — or a potential unreliable narrator — is almost compulsory. Part of the reader’s fun work is picking out bullshit when we hear it. This is of course the same reason why multiple points of view are so popular. Of the storytellers presented to us, whose do we trust?
More Common Tropes In Psychological Suspense
Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson — After a car crash, Chrissie develops a form of amnesia in which her short-term memory is wiped every morning upon waking. She’s unable to form new memories. And so, every morning, she must relearn who the man sleeping next to her is — her husband, Ben. One day, she finds a notebook that she’d been hiding. Within, she finds a foreboding message: “Do not trust Ben.” And it’s written in her own handwriting.
The Girl On The Train — the protagonist has memory black outs because of her heavy drinking.
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch — “Are you happy with your life?” Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before being knocked unconscious by his unknown abductor — and wakes up to a new life as someone else. His wife has been swapped out for another woman, and he doesn’t have a son anymore. In this new version of existence, he’s not just a college physics professor, but a genius who has achieved a truly remarkable, game-changing feat. But which version of Jason Dessen’s life is real, and which one is the dream? That question is at the heart of this suspenseful thriller, which also asks how far we’ll go to get what we want — and what we are willing to sacrifice to get it.
The Girl Before by Rena Olsen — Claire Lawson’s life with her husband and daughters is running along smoothly — until one day, a squad of armed men break into her house and tear her away from her family. The last thing she hears is her husband commanding her to say nothing. From there, the book spirals back to Claire’s past: a tumultuous youth, escaping her family, falling in love with the son of her adoptive parents. But Claire’s history is full of dark secrets, some of which she doesn’t even remember herself. The more she finds out about herself, the more it becomes possible that the past could ruin her life as she knows it.
Related to periods of memory loss are periods spent away, convalescing, while the rest of the world moves on without you. I have heard former inmates say in interviews that coming out of prison feels like this. Technology in particular moves far more quickly than anyone can anticipate.
After The First Death by Robert Cormier
Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer — Bella’s vampiric pregnancy
The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer — As Alex, or Casey, or Juliana, or whatever her name is at the moment, can tell you, it’s not easy to be on the lam. A while ago, this secret agent learned a bit too much about her employers, and now they’re hell-bent on killing her. She lives in a state of paranoia, running from location to location and name to name. Soon, she gets a call from her boss, calling her in for one last mission. She’s not sure who to believe, but still, she goes along with the kidnapping of a schoolteacher, Daniel Beach, who’s supposedly involved with the design of a virus intended to wipe out the human race. Only problem with Mr. Beach? He’s irresistibly attractive, and doesn’t seem to be much of a villain at all.
MONSTERS IN OUR MIDST
Complicated and terrible (but passionate) marriages have made a big comeback since Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is similar to the hired-nanny stories — the person we should be most afraid of in the whole world is also the person we’ve let into our homes (and hearts).
The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison — A picture of a relationship through alternating accounts from a husband and wife. Similar to Gone Girl.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Goff — As with Gone Girl, the marriage at the heart of Fates and Furies is a multi-faceted beast. The first half of the novel tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s whirlwind romance and ensuing 20 years of marriage from the perspective of the exuberant, positive, and naive Lotto. Then, halfway through, Mathilde’s voice is heard — and what she has to say will shock you.
Neighbours can also be dangerous.
The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena — Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all: the gorgeous home, the loving relationship, the beautiful baby girl. But one night, while they’re at a dinner party next door, a horrifying crime is committed. Investigators pounce on the case, but the more they delve into the details of the Conti’s lives, the clearer it becomes that the couple has a trove of skeletons in the closet, and secrets that they’ve been keeping — from the world, and from one another.
Rosemary’s Baby is the classic film version of this trope — neighbours take a young pregnant woman under their wing with the aim of turning her unborn baby into the devil.
In the spoof Thriller Concept Generator below, cartoonist Tom Gauld captures the centrality of the chase sequence in the thriller genre.
THE ENDURING APPEAL OF CHASE SEQUENCES IN STORY
Among the earliest forms of human selfawareness was the awareness of being meat.
David Quammen, science writer
Pretty much every modern storytelling technique can be found in the Bible. As for chases, there are plenty. Moses fleeing Egypt springs to mind.
There are the chase scenes in fairytales, which often have a dream-like quality, ignoring the physics of real time and space:
The children saw her coming from afar and the maiden threw a brush behind her. The brush changed into a huge mountain of bristles with thousands and thousands of thorns. The nixie had great difficulty in climbing over them. When the children saw her, the boy threw a comb behind him that changed into a huge mountain with thousands and thousands of spikes, but the nixie was able to grab hold of them and climb over the mountain. Now the maiden threw a mirror behind her that formed a glass mountain that was so very, very slippery that the nixie couldn’t climb over it. So she thought: “I’d better go home and fetch my axe and split the mountain in two.” However, by the time she had returned and had smashed the glass, the children had long since made their escape, and the water nixie had to return to tread water in her well.
“The Water Nixie”, from the first Grimm collection
I suspect the chase nightmare precedes humanity. When my dog sleeps he twitches his feet as if running. I’ll never know for sure, but when he emits those half-hearted barks in his sleep, I bet you he’s being pursued. Or perhaps he’s running after me, thinking I’ve abandoned him.
In horror films such as Cujo, Jaws and King Kong, a human character runs from a cannibalistic monster. The fear that we might be something else’s meaty prey is a deep, ancient fear, provoking an atavistic response.
WHY THE CHASE WORKS SO WELL IN STORY
A story isn’t a story until the main character wants something, and chase is a certain kind of Desire — one character wants something from another. And that desire is externalised. It is also high in suspense. A chase scene will be fast-paced. It is therefore almost mandatory in certain genres, like thriller and action.
FURTHER STORYTELLING TERMS
In Secrets of Story, Matt Bird talks about the ‘double-chase’. This is when the main character is both hunter and hunted. This is often what sets off the ticking clock.
Bird also points out that when the double-chase begins, this often forces a decision. The example he offers is when David offers marriage in An Education.
The double-chase is often a feature of what TV Tropes calls the Stern Chase:
The protagonist is being pursued and must stay in motion, usually moving to a different Adventure Town each episode. There will be ploys to delay the pursuit. Some will work, some won’t. Frequently the protagonist must complete a hunt of their own, to bring the pursuit to an end.
The term “stern chase” comes from the navy cliche, “a stern chase is a long chase”, which comes from the old days of sailing ships.
In Writing for Emotional Impact, Karl Iglesias advises juxtaposing scenes — positive charge followed by a negative charge and so on. Positive charge means things are going well for the character.
Chase-and-escape, chase-and-capture also describe scenes, specifically how they end. Iglesias is using the term ‘chase’ more broadly than a literal running-race type pursuit.
Because a scene usually involves a character wanting something from another (the chase), there are only two ways it can end: The character gets what they want, either outright or in a compromise (capture), or they don’t (escape).
Note alo, crime stories appeal disproportionately to women — for whatever reason, this is a female genre. Beatrix Potter was the perfect candidate to create such a work.
Also, if you want to see what sort of sociopathic, philosophising white man Peter Rabbit turned into, go no further than Mr. Tod — the unexpectedly dark sequel to The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Potter wrote this mindfully and opens with direct address:
I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod.
Actually, Potter did not use the word ‘nice’. What she wrote was this:
I am quite tired of masking goody goody books about nice people.
The publishers made her change it.
I wonder if, by 1912, Potter had become weary of people’s assessment of her work. Even today, I feel Beatrix Potter is mischaracterised as a spinster who wrote cosy tales about bunnies dressed in coats. But you’d only believe that if you hadn’t actually read any of her stories. More recent made-for-TV bowdlerisations don’t help. Is the opening to Mr. Tod a note to the people who underestimate her darkness?
Nobody could call Mr. Tod “nice.” The rabbits could not bear him; they could smell him half a mile off. He was of a wandering habit and he had foxey whiskers; they never knew where he would be next.
If Potter were alive today, I can guess what she’d say to people who insist people — women in particular — write likeable characters as role models for children. I think she’d tell them where to stick their opinions.
LANGUAGE IN MR. TOD
coppice — an area of woodland in which the trees or shrubs are periodically cut back to ground level to stimulate growth and provide firewood or timber. This suggests humans are living nearby, though the animals in Beatrix Potter stories are referred to as ‘people’, so it could’ve been maintained by the animals themselves.
to cut a caper — to make a playful skipping movement (it does not mean to slice a pickle, of the sort I’ve only ever encountered at Subway sandwich restaurants)
spud — I thought it referred to potatoes, but now I realise it’s a small spade, and potatoes probably came to be called spuds after the spade used to dig them up. (Looks like no one really knows if that’s the connection — before it was a little spade it was a Nordic dagger. I imagine these were used to cut tubers up. Vikings didn’t have potatoes, however. I’m stumped!)
pig nuts — One of the more palatable wild foods. The tuber can be eaten raw and is very tasty. In flavour and consistency pignuts are something like celery heart crossed with raw hazelnut or sweet chestnut and sometimes have a spicy aftertaste of the sort you get from radishes or watercress.
flags — in this contest it means flagstone, used as flooring.
coal scuttle — a bucket-like container for holding a small, intermediate supply of coal convenient to an indoor coal-fired stove or heater.
counterpane — an old-fashioned word for a bedspread
bedstead — the framework of a bed on which the mattress and bedclothes are placed
warming-pan — A bed warmer was a common household item in countries with cold winters, especially in Europe. It consisted of a metal container, usually fitted with a handle and shaped somewhat like a modern frying pan, with a solid or finely perforated lid.
persian powder — Persian powder is a green pesticide that has been used for centuries for the biological pest extermination of household insects.
kitchen fender — Here’s a picture of one. It’s made of steel but what is it for? Looks like a guard for the stovetop.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Tommy Brock — a vile badger who sleeps all day and is therefore considered lazy (the curse of shift workers everywhere)
Mr. Tod — a fox who likes to eat rabbits, rats etc. Sly.
Mr. Benjamin Bouncer — terrorised by Mr. Tod, old, too old for proper babysitting but there we have it. Because he is old he is the designated dolt — easily tricked by a badger carrying a bag full of his grandbabies. I mean, Brock even stops to have a chat with him.
Benjamin Bunny — Benjamin Bouncer’s son
Flopsy — married to Benjamin. She cleans when she’s had a gutsful.
The bunnies — they spend the entire story in a sack, pretty much. They’re more goods than characters.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TALE OF MR TOD
Potter intends two main characters: Tommy Brock and Mr Tod. These guys are nemeses. The rabbits end up functioning as viewpoint characters as well as victims (mostly viewpoint characters). But they have their parallel plot, more reminiscent of a sprawling contemporary crime TV series than of a picture book.
Fairytale elements, such as from Hansel and Gretel are utilised in this story, as well as the classic character archetypes typical of Aesop (especially the sly fox). Then there’s the Goldilocks reference, with someone breaking in to some fierce creature’s house and accidentally falling asleep in their bed. But the forest and the trickery would be at home in almost any European fairytale.
Mr Tod’s shortcoming is also his strength, as explained above:
Nobody could call Mr. Tod “nice.” The rabbits could not bear him; they could smell him half a mile off. He was of a wandering habit and he had foxey whiskers; they never knew where he would be next.
(He has ‘foxey’ whiskers because he is an actual fox, which is an interesting way of telling us that.)
I love the thumbnail character description of Tommy Brock:
Tommy Brock was a short bristly fat waddling person with a grin; he grinned all over his face. He was not nice in his habits. He ate wasp nests and frogs and worms; and he waddled about by moonlight, digging things up.
Only from the illustrations do we know for sure that Tommy Brock is a badger, though brock is a British name for a badger, so if you know that you didn’t need the illustration.
Does the badger really mean to kidnap those tasty little bunnies? I don’t think he meant to until he saw the opportunity. Remember he’s high on something potent — whatever ‘cabbage leaf’ cigar stands for. Ditto ‘seed cake’. I mean, he goes to the fox’s house, probably thinking it’s his own home. He sleeps and doesn’t move even when a fox comes into his house, probably thinking it an hallucination. He doesn’t give a shit, does he. He’s put the bunnies in the oven but forgot to turn it on. He’s off his face.
That fox isn’t off his face though. He comes home after a bad night of hunting and he’s wanting some breakfast. When he finds the badger in his bed, he only means to wake him up with a cold water surprise.
Potter was familiar with the dietary requirements of a badger:
They can eat several hundred worms each night. But being omnivorous, they will eat almost anything, from flesh and fruit to bulbs and bird eggs. … They will eat nuts, seeds and acorns along with crops like wheat and sweetcorn. Badgers are known to eat small mammals mice, rats, rabbits, frogs, toads and hedgehogs.
When Potter’s narrator tells us that badgers only occasionally eat rabbit pie and only when there’s nothing else around she is setting up a hierarchy of opposition, with the fox as the most dangerous of all.
But even the rabbits have their own conflict. It strikes me what an absolute asshat Peter Rabbit has turned into — the returned and bereft Benjamin Bunny is worried sick — as you would be — that his babies are about to be consumed, the entire lot of them. But what does Peter do? Constant deflection and circumlocution. He’s in no hurry whatsoever. In fact, Peter Rabbit almost gives one the impression that he’d like the bunnies to be eaten. That experience in Mr. McGregor’s garden ruined him for empathy.
Look at how deliberately unhurried he is. Who cares how many? Who cares how hard caterpillars kick? I mean, under the circumstances!
“Whatever is the matter, Cousin Benjamin? Is it a cat? or John Stoat Ferret?”
“No, no, no! He’s bagged my family—Tommy Brock—in a sack—have you seen him?”
“Tommy Brock? how many, Cousin Benjamin?”
“Seven, Cousin Peter, and all of them twins! Did he come this way? Please tell me quick!”
“Yes, yes; not ten minutes since … he said they were caterpillars; I did think they were kicking rather hard, for caterpillars.“
“Which way? which way has he gone, Cousin Peter?”
“He had a sack with something ‘live in it; I watched him set a mole trap. Let me use my mind, Cousin Benjamin; tell me from the beginning.” Benjamin did so.
“My Uncle Bouncer has displayed a lamentable want of discretion for his years;” said Peter reflectively, “but there are two hopeful circumstances. Your family is alive and kicking; and Tommy Brock has had refreshment. He will probably go to sleep, and keep them for breakfast.”
Ben’s plan is to chase the dude with the sack full of bunnies. This is a classic thriller chase, with near misses, hazards on the way (Mr. Tod’s house), snags (the sack has gotten caught on twigs, leaving bits of thread).
The second half of this story mainly comprises the elaborate scheme the fox gets up to — a prank, basically, designed to rouse the badger, who has accidentally fallen asleep in his bed. The fox is scared of the badger’s teeth, so doesn’t want to do anything violent at close range.
The badger is onto him and replaces himself with the fox’s rolled up dressing gown, safely escaping a wet fate. But he’s not going to get out before enjoying the look on fox’s face when his prank fails.
(The badger is a proxy for the baby rabbits. The baby rabbits never genuinely come near death. It was always the badger who was for the chopping block.)
Peter and Benjamin have spent the night digging a tunnel under the house, hoping to rescue Ben’s children that way. This plan is interrupted when the fox returns home after a night hunting.
Notice how Potter depicts Benjamin and Peter on both sides of the window — once from their point of view, once from the point of view of the bunnies in the oven.
When they came near the wood at the top of Bull Banks, they went cautiously. The trees grew amongst heaped up rocks; and there, beneath a crag—Mr. Tod had made one of his homes. It was at the top of a steep bank; the rocks and bushes overhung it. The rabbits crept up carefully, listening and peeping.
This change in pace, the emphasis on detail at the life-and-death moment, that is typical of a thriller.
The fox’s house itself is the set of a horror or a thriller:
This house was something between a cave, a prison, and a tumbledown pig-stye. There was a strong door, which was shut and locked.
The setting sun made the window panes glow like red flame; but the kitchen fire was not alight. It was neatly laid with dry sticks, as the rabbits could see, when they peeped through the window.
But this is still a children’s book, after all. Potter does lighten the tone in several ways.
First, it happens Peter Rabbit is right. (I don’t think this absolves him of his sociopathy) and the young reader will sympathise with Peter Rabbit from having read Potter’s initial story starring him. So we are meant to believe him when he says don’t worry, the bunnies will be fine, just fine.
Second, the comical snoring. The description of Mr. Tod’s snoring seems designed to provide comic relief, though I’m not sure it works much.
If I didn’t know this video had been dubbed over with a woman’s snoring I would’ve assumed the snoring was a part of the original foley.
The Battle scene includes a tantrum, as children’s stories often do — the fox seems to want to control his temper. He takes a moment to go outside and have a bit of a meltdown. He decides a coal-scuttle and walking stick won’t do for weapons. The badger has quite fearsome teeth. (This reminds me of Little Red Riding Hood.)
Peter and Benjamin come near death when the fox trips over their shallow burrow.
While the fox and badger are having an actual fight, the bunnies escape.
Now everything is cosy again. Well, sort of. Things will never be the same now that Mr. Bouncer has proven himself a totally irresponsible grandfather, letting in a monster, getting high together, basically handing over his own grandbabies.
But when the men arrive home with the rescued babies, Flopsy forgives her father-in-law and he is rewarded with a pipe, even though the misdemeanour of negligence hasn’t changed. (I wouldn’t hire him again, would you?)
A Quiet Place is a suspenseful 2018 film directed by John Krasinski, also starring John Krasinski. John Kransinski shares a writing credit with two other guys.
A Quiet Place is one of those films where if you see the trailer, you’ve seen the whole film. So don’t watch the trailer if you intend to see the film. Don’t read this blog post, either.
But here’s a teaser which does a good job of conveying the soundscape.
Stephen King thinks it’s pretty ace. He thinks the soundscape is especially ace, and so did the people dishing out Academy Awards.
I agree — I was waiting for the film-makers to scare me with a loud sound, as a cheap trick after lulling me into a false sense of security with the silence, but I am happy to report they did not do that at all.
A QUIET PLACE log line
In a post-apocalyptic world, a family is forced to live in silence while hiding from monsters with ultra-sensitive hearing.
Beautiful alliteration. It’s almost like they started with the tag line and built a movie around that…
I chuckled at what Owen Glieberman had to say about the premise:
A Quiet Place is a tautly original genre-bending exercise, technically sleek and accomplished, with some vivid, scary moments, though it’s a little too in love with the stoned logic of its own premise.
WHY DON’T THEY JUST…?
This is definitely one of those films which requires its audience to sit back uncritically and enjoy the tone. As soon as credits started rolling, my husband said, “Humans are pretty damn good at making noise.” When drawn on his point, he explained how it’s hugely unlikely that a few farm-dwelling types would be left alone to deal with this issue without authorities — surely any but the most incompetent of authorities have the means to create massive amounts of industrial noise, pairing that with explosives to attract the monsters (who behave like moths to a flame) and kill them all at once. Doesn’t America spend a lot of money on its military for this exact scenario?
I personally don’t possess the ability to turn it off. My fridge logic started much earlier, when each member of the family is shown walking home along the railway line, each isolated rather than huddled in a group.
The youngest is plucked off, of course. In a setting like this, wouldn’t they huddle together? This weird spacing between family members was cinematic but unrealistic. The situation is lampshaded later when the wife regrets not carrying the son, especially since her hands were free. Regret doesn’t explain why they were walking home with that weird spacing between them. That small thing was actually my biggest issue, if we don’t count the ridiculous speed at which the basement filled with water. If you’ve ever filled a pool you’ll know it takes a lot longer than that. Or perhaps we’re meant to fudge the timing of events, in the same way we’re meant to fudge the timing of events in Thelma & Louise.
There’s also this, with meme made by College Humour:
You never want the audience to go, “Why don’t they just…”
I didn’t think they should live next to the water fall — the family needs to grow its own food. The family needs to live on a farm, now more than ever. But I did wonder why they didn’t more time there, just talking. It’s only a walk away.
“But there are supernatural monsters!” you might say (correctly), and if you can believe monsters instantly appear at the slightest noise to gobble people up, can’t you suspend your disbelief for the rest of it, too?
Unfortunately that’s not how suspension of disbelief tends to work. Quite the reverse — the more unbelievable the premise, the more believable everything else must be, to compensate. I call it the One Big Lie of Storytelling — that an audience will believe the really ridiculous fictions (lies) of storytelling, but will expect verisimilitude in every other respect, to keep that Big Lie solid. I’m sure it’s related to one of the cognitive biases, as we’re contradictory people in our mundane lives, also.
This brings me to a feminist point, because in a story with One Big Lie, storytellers rely on The Every Man to carry the narrative.
THE EVERY MAN MAIN CHARACTER
I love how the White Guy presidential campaign strategy is to play up being a “regular guy.” An Everyman.
Meanwhile, every single female candidate has to prove she’s cured cancer but also to not take any credit for it.
I read a lot of tweets — only a few stick in my memory. A Black woman I follow once posted a tweet which said “I’m sick of seeing faces like this whenever I watch anything on the screen” and she attached a picture of John Krasinski as he appeared in The Office. The guy who looked conspiratorially at the camera just had to be a white man, right? We all get white men.
It’s true, Krasinski has the perfect ‘Every Man’ look, along with Steve Carell, Tom Hanks and [insert white male actor who isn’t too good looking but still really good looking if he was your neighbour].
And as well as using those quote marks around ‘every man’, it’s about time I clarified what I mean by the term, because there is nothing Every Man about the White Man. Even in overwhelmingly white USA, white men comprise only 31% of the population.
In contrast to the Alpha Man (Brad Pitt, Cary Grant et al) the Every Man has a specific function in story. This is the ‘uninflected’ character, with whom anyone of any gender is expected to identify. He is a lower mimetic hero than the Alpha Man (to use the terminology of Northrop Frye). The hope is that we can put ourselves in his position very easily, men and women. In children’s literature we have the ‘Every Boy’, who functions in exactly the same way. Hence, that old chestnut: Girls will read stories about boys but boys won’t read stories about girls. (Not true but also quite true, because of social conditioning.)
This Every Man archetypes works in storytelling (and in favour of white men) because we live in a world with white and male as default. (The cognitive bias affecting storytellers here is The Default Effect.)
This is not an argument in favour of the status quo. Until we see many more stories about non white, non men, the Every Man archetype will never die. No one else will be allowed to inhabit that wonderful spot known as ‘normal’ and ‘familiar’. But the Every Man John Krasinskis are the only ones achieving significant funding to make films starring themselves, and that right there is the problem.
I love how the White Guy presidential campaign strategy is to play up being a “regular guy.” An Everyman. Meanwhile, every single female candidate has to prove she’s cured cancer but also to not take any credit for it.
THE EVERY WOMAN
In some ways, A Quiet Place is an ensemble movie. Emily Blunt is the Every Woman. She’s white, in a heterosexual relationship, has children, wants children, cares for children, does the domestic work for her family. The Every Woman, I emphasise, is ‘Every’ only in relation to her husband, and because she doesn’t challenge the rules of patriarchy.
A note on the ending. After the Every Man husband is killed off, only then is the Every Woman wife permitted to bear arms and step in to save her family, in the masculine coded activity of bearing arms and shooting to kill. The character arc of the wife mirrors the character arc of a child in a coming-of-age story. Only by getting rid of the adults (her husband, in this case), is the vulnerable woman permitted to step up. With her husband there, and made vulnerable due to being (quite literally) barefoot and pregnant, she remains in the role of the protected. In one scene she makes her husband promise that he will protect them all.
For storytellers, parts of A Quiet Place feel ridiculously on the nose. I acknowledge this won’t be a typical response, but every time I look closely at a story on this blog I look at the storytelling concept of character shortcoming. So when the main character in A Quiet Place to writes ‘WEAKNESS’ on a piece of paper, sticks it to the wall look at looks at this word as a reminder of mission — to find and exploit the shortcoming in the enemy — this is exasperating, head shaking stuff.
But is that just because I’ve done so much analytical thinking on this point? I’m reminded that by studying story we do ruin story for ourselves, in some ways. (And enjoy it better in other ways.)
John Krasinski has a writing credit on this film, though the spec script was written by two other guys. I suspect as Nice Guy Every Man, Krasinski had far too much trouble giving himself (okay, his character) some way in which the main character treats others badly. Characters with a moral shortcoming are far more interesting than those with only a psychological shortcoming.
The father has ostensibly treated his deaf daughter badly. She blames herself for the death of her youngest brother, and this is because of something the father has done, or not done. This is an underdeveloped part of the story. We never really get a sense of why she’d be so angry with her father. Instead, I believe the audience is left to rely on the trope of the stroppy teenaged girl, whose father can’t do anything right, even if he is trying his hardest. (Which he is — he’s trying very hard to make her a hearing aid which works.)
A moral shortcoming is at odds with the Nice Guy Everyman Trope. An actor such as Leonardo Di Caprio can pull off moral shortcomings brilliantly. Di Caprio started out as an Alpha Man, but moved quite smoothly into the role of the Every Man, as we see him in films such as Revolutionary Road. He wrinkles his face into pained, vengeful contortions and is not afraid to play characters at their worst. Di Caprio therefore belongs to a different category of white guy actors, in the same league as Bryan Cranston (who played Walter White) and James Gandolfini (who played Tony Soprano), equally unafraid to explore the moral shortcoming of the characters they inhabit.
THRILLER OR HORROR? OR MYSTERY??
Why did Owen Glieberman call this movie ‘genre bending’? What exactly is this?
Last month I looked into the writerly definition of thriller, and how a thriller differs from a horror. I clarified for myself that many stories marketed as thrillers are in fact horrors. A Quiet Place is one of those horrors which has been described as a thriller. Interestingly, IMDb lists A Quiet Place as a drama, horror, mystery.
First, is A Quiet Place structurally a thriller or is it a horror?
Like a thriller, A Quiet Place focuses on the fear, doubt and dread of the main character. However, the main character is more ‘main family’, turning it into an ensemble cast drama — we see the dynamic between members of the family.
Like a thriller, monsters, terror and peril prevail. We know this is a really dangerous world.
The romantic subplot in A Quiet Place is between husband and wife, and is really only one scene, which makes this a little unusual — in a thriller the romance is most often a budding romance, in which the (heteronormative) man and woman are thrown together by circumstance and tested by external forces, impressing each other with their problem solving ability and falling in love after shared trauma.
(I did think Emily Blunt and John Krasinski made a convincing couple, completely forgetting that they are a couple in real life.)
The monsters in A Quiet Place do not run on logic. They are drawn to noise as if by instinct. They do not run on their own understandable (to us) logic. This makes them more like typical horror monsters — undefeatable. But these monsters do have a shortcoming, which makes them ultimately defeatable. This makes them more like thriller opponents than supernatural ones.
Why is this film listed on IMDb as a mystery? A Quiet Place does not outsmart the audience. In this way, it is far more thriller than mystery. I’m sure we all work out before the characters do that the monsters can be defeated by the high-pitched feedback that comes out of the daughter’s hearing aids. We sit back and hope the family works it out before they are killed off, one by one. In writing terminology, the viewer is in audience superior position.
What is the big question? The question is to do with the shortcoming, as mentioned above. If the viewers can work out the mystery of the monsters’ shortcoming, they can defeat the monsters.
A Quiet Place is most clearly a horror, specifically what has been called Isolation Horror.
A QUIET PLACE AS ALLEGORY?
A Quiet Place emphasises the vulnerability of the average person, and goes one step further by saying something — or trying to — about what it’s like to be deaf. This is a part of the theme I don’t understand. This is either because I’m not deaf, or because it really didn’t say anything profound at all. The monsters could be considered an allegory for the increased vulnerability of people who are missing one of the five senses. Even the hearing characters in this story are living like deaf people, unable to hear because they’re unable to make sound. They make use of American sign language. In this way, we are all encouraged to consider what it might feel like to be deaf.
It seems clear this film didn’t start out as an allegory about being deaf:
The kernel of the idea came to us when we were in college. We were making microbudget films and studying film history,” recalls Woods, who has been best friends with Beck since sixth grade. “We fell in love with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and all the things that can be accomplished without sound. We wanted to do a modern-day silent film that lived in the suspense genre.
It was Krasinski who pushed for a deaf actress, which is absolutely the right decision when writing a deaf character. But that fact alone doesn’t make this a story about the deaf experience. That would have to be written by, ya know, deaf writers, not least because people who use hearing devices saw plot holesthat the rest of us did not. Egregiously, the movie is captioned for a hearing audience.
Cast diversity is an important first step for Hollywood. Let’s not stop there. Others in the deaf community have been less grateful to simply see deafness on screen, and rightly so. This article starts off by describing the concept of ‘Deaf-Gain’ (a good thing) then goes on to critique the tired message that loss of speech is tragic.
In the end, to my dismay, I found “A Quiet Place” is actually yet another purveyor of the trope of disability being inextricably yoked to and dependent on technology, part of what disabilities scholars call “the medical model.” It instantiates the belief that technology providing a scientific and/or medical means of “curing” or normalizing people who are not “species-typical” is to be lauded.
“Sure,” the film seems to say, “ASL provides a good short-term ‘fix’ ― it can give you a way to communicate, and you can get by. But like the father’s ham radio signals, its reach is sadly limited; signing will only get you so far. You still remain silenced, imprisoned, forced into the margins. The only thing that will truly banish the ‘monster’ ― the only thing that will get things back to ‘normal’ ― is that screech of technological feedback.” Being deaf and signing is not enough. Regan needs her implant to restore the world to normalcy.
This is not a truly deaf-centric world. In this film, silence is scary ― at least it is for hearing people. The deaf people I talked to don’t seem to find this film all that frightening, because for them it’s not an unknown, it’s not a loss, it’s business as usual.
Others have saidA Quiet Place is a metaphor for the terror of parenthood, similar to Emma Donoghue’s Room. Possibly because this is Krasinski’s line, too.
Possible, undercooked allegory aside, the message of A Quiet Place is extremely conservative and non-controversial — in line with the suspense genres in general.
If we can’t protect our children, who are we? Emily Blunt’s character asks John Krasinski’s character after beseeching him to protect them all.
I challenge a single member of the audience to disagree with the idea that protecting children is a bad thing.
There’s more to that, though. The idea that ‘family is everything’ is possibly becoming a little controversial as more and more human pressure is heaped upon our fragile planet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ideology of A Quiet Place seems outdated in 20 years’ time, as a new generation of viewers grow up under the threat of climate change. Many may choose not to procreate, in deliberate favour of returning the planet to its former equilibrium, last seen before humans left Africa.
BIRTH ON FILM
I’m sure anyone who’s had a baby gasped at the family’s decision to have another baby. Because babies cry. BABIES CRY A LOT.
The characters do have a plan — they keep the baby in a box (like a little Moses — the basement filling with water is basically a Moses scene). They also have some kind of ventilator on his face and I suppose they were drugging him to keep him quiet. If there’s anything morally controversial about this film it’s, should humans procreate in times of great stress? Is it ethical to bring new life into a dangerous world? Looking at human across cultures and across history, it seems to me that humans are especially keen to procreate in trying circumstances — the more trying the circumstances, the more we feel the procreation instinct.
But first comes the birth itself, of course. I know it’s possible to give birth silently because a friend’s mother has always boasted that she didn’t make a sound. This sounds like a special kind of torture to me, but ladies be ladylike.
People who have given birth know that, the vast majority of the time, water doesn’t break like that, as an early sign of labour. Quite often the water has to be broken for you, in fact. This is an old Hollywood trick and hopefully most viewers know by now that just because it happens like that sometimes, it happens quite seldom.
There’s one birthing trope that irritates me far more, because I feel it is understood far less, and probably has an impact on real birthing pain.
I’m talking about the shots of labouring women flat on their backs. Unless hooked up to machines, in which case other poses are impossible, women in labour naturally tend to choose a very primal, unattractive, animalistic pose — on all fours, weight forward at least. Unless medicated, lying flat on your back while giving birth is next level torture. Emily Blunt in the bath, basically on her back, already in pain from her foot, also in pain from contractions, is a heavily unrealistic scene for me. But Emily Blunt has herself given birth and presumably had some say in the direction. I can only conclude that Hollywood storytellers don’t care about this sort of realism, preferring the ‘pretty pain’ shots. I only hope that people in actual labour throw out Hollywood ideas of what birthing looks like going in.
Mind you, I don’t think audiences really want to know what real labour looks like. I’ve never seen a Hollywood actress poo during labour. Midwives actually tell you to shit the bed — if you’re shitting the bed, you’re pushing correctly. And the amount of blood and blood-like fluid that comes out of a person during labour is more intensely horrifying than any horror film will ever manage.
Do women ourselves want the world to see us at our most base? I actually doubt it. So we all go on pretending that birth looks more like Emily Blunt in the bath. The particular labour of womb-owners remains largely invisible.
This is a setting reminiscent of fairytales, with humans living next to the ominous forest. Dark beasts come out of the forest. When humans enter the forest, they are facing their darkest fears. Forest equals the subconscious.
With the corn silo, the film-makers are also making much use of The Symbolism of Altitude. Characters in films go to high places in order to gain insight.
The house itself is a Symbolic House. It falls into the ‘warm house’ category, with its candles and a whole lot of clutter I’d be getting rid of, since if something falls over they’re all dead.
A Quiet Place feels like a very specific wish fulfilment fantasy — the wish to be self-reliant. I am vulnerable to this particular fantasy myself, ever since I read Little House In The Big Woods at the age of six. I loved that the Ingalls family had no dolls and made them out of rags. Even now, I occasionally watch Doomsday Preppers, part baffled by the display of conspiracy thinking, but also partly because I’m one step away from digging my own crazy hole and stockpiling cans of tuna.
The farm of this family is straight out of a picture book utopia, let’s face it. See also: Storybook Farms. There’s that big, red all-American barn, the fairy lights (which aren’t fairy lights, but look like that from a distance, in line with Stars Hollow of Gilmore girls.) Living self-sustainably is not pretty. Even on a highly successful self-sustaining farm, there are times of the year with slim pickings. I know this from my career in watching self-sustaining documentaries. But this family is depicted in a time of plenty, lifting smoked fish from under the floorboards like they’re dining at a fancy restaurant.
There’s an idea trending in America that moving from the city back to ‘your roots’ (the country) is a virtuous thing to do, and that this is how to fix the huge city-rural political divide. Lyz Lenz wrote a rebuttal of that ideology at Vox: Move back to your dying hometown. Unless you can’t. I mention this here because films such as A Quiet Place depict rural life as a utopia, or rather an snail under the leaf setting, and it definitely ends with the characters about to return to a utopian rural life. America does tend to glamorise this life.
I cop to sharing the self-sustaining fantasy as depicted in this film, but I’m not such a fan of the return to a patriarchal order which dystopian stories so often revert to, without question. We see mother and daughter back in the kitchen. We see father training son to look after his mother. Men as protectors, women inside the house.
This is the fantasy of dominant, patriarchal culture.
And I don’t want audiences to just swallow that one whole, either, just because the outtake image is Emily Blunt holding a big gun. That’s where we’re at with feminism in Hollywood. This is fake feminism. This is a version of gender equality when the creators lack imagination, when they can’t fathom what society would look like without a patriarchy. The best they can do is women as patriarchal men.
I want to see stories — dystopian or not — in which people of all genders use their various skills to work together, without expecting masculine types to hold the guns until they’re killed off and cannot hold them anymore.
I don’t want storytellers to allow female characters their arcs only after killing off the men. It’s kind of sick and I’m kind of sick of it. How do we move forward as a society when we hold this ideology as the unquestioned ideal? If this is the fictional story we’re happy to swallow, will we question sending our sons to the slaughter next time war breaks out?
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”.
I’ve mainly learned about thrillers from the following sources:
We love stories about tricksters who get away with stuff. But we don’t want them to get away with stuff forever. We want them to be found out.
For instance, when Emerson Moser retired from Crayola and revealed that he is colour blind, he made sure that this one little detail of his career would eclipse all others. I’m not sure if this is what he intended, but that is his Internet legacy.
Audiences love masks. More specifically, we love the slipping of the mask. Our love for the mask may explain the wide appeal of celebrity gossip:
I’ve come to realize that my main attraction to celebrity gossip comes from a fascination with slipping facades. I don’t care what celebrities eat for breakfast or what they buy at Whole Foods, but I like it when they lose their shit: the Britney Spears breakdown, Lindsay Lohan’s downward spiral, Paris Hilton going to jail, etc. I’m sure part of it is just base, ugly schadenfreude on my part, but there’s something else too. Their public images are so carefully micromanaged and manipulated and wrapped in Teflon, and there’s something exhilarating about seeing the mask slip once they stop giving a shit.
Suzanne Riveca at The Short Form
There is an ever more acute difference — and an intolerableness — between my inner self, which I know is the real me, and various faces of the outside world.
from Patricia Highsmith’s diaries
When creating characters for fiction, storytellers sometimes draw a distinction between what Michael Hauge refers to as ‘identity’ (masks) and ‘essence’.
Identity refers to the faces people present to the world, also known as masks.
Essence is the (one) true self.
This distinction is more clear in some non-Western cultures, for example in Japan. Japanese culture draws a clear distinction between ‘omote’ and ‘ura’ (public face and private face). The words literally mean ‘front’ and ‘behind’.
We may not have widely understood words to describe this in English, but the distinction is clear in our history of storytelling. The underlying message of most stories is the same no matter the genre: It’s only when a mask (false identity) comes off that true happiness can be found.
(Interestingly, this is not how Japanese culture sees it. In Japan, the ‘omote’ face is a necessary ‘mask’ for a harmonious society.)
Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.
Lie to yourself about this and you will forever lie about everything.
Like the veil, another aspect of costume worn in front of the face, the mask has a dualistic nature, and can indicate:
And both at the same time. This can be seen in a stock character such as the Harlequin, whose mask (alongside the diamond-patterned clothing) is an indispensable part of the costume.
Some think the word ‘mask’ comes from Arabic maskharat, which means clown.
Go back into antiquity and humans across cultures have used masks as a way to transform themselves, often as a way to try and become closer to the gods. (Maybe coming closer to the gods helps us come to terms with death?)
The Victorian fascination with death extended to the production of a range of Memento Mori, objects designed to remind the owner of the death of a loved one and indeed, their own eventual demise. These took several forms, locks of hair cut from the dead were arranged and worn in lockets, death masks were created and the images and symbols of death cropped up in all sorts of everyday paintings and sculptures. Photographs of dead relatives became an increasingly popular feature of family albums, often in a lifelike pose with a rosy colouring and even open eyes painted over eyelids.
Actual masks (in the Italian commedia dell’arte, see Harlequin)
Bismuth and rouge (in the English version of commedia dell’arte)
Flour (in old French farces)
Burnt cork (in the ‘n*gger’-minstrel shows)
Make up (at Shrovetide, a festival/carnival before Lent)
It’s hard to find a culture where there wasn’t some kind of mask wearing. Reasons for wearing masks vary:
To embody spirit helpers
As a haven for dead ancestors and animal spirits
As a place for demons/gods
In dance and mime, to exorcise evil spirits and other bad things
To catch the soul of a living being (including plants), and then send it back to the spirit world, generally so that humans can keep benefitting from it
Masks and dance go hand in hand, probably because as Lommel said in 1991, ‘ceremonies demand ever-new creative impulses’.
Modern Storytelling Genre And Masks
The ‘mask’ of modern storytelling no longer looks like an actual mask/rouge/red nose. The mask comes in many forms, and I mean it here to refer to any kind of deception or inauthenticity.
The Love Genre
This omote/ura distinction is important in the love genre. The audience is clued in about who is right for each other because even if the romantic pair start off fighting (fight fight, kiss kiss trope), they eventually get to know the other’s essence. All other romantic rivals never get past the ‘identity’ stage of knowing.
The transgression comedy is all about masks. A character tries to get away with something by posing as somebody else. The audience is in superior position, waiting with glee for the mask to come off. When it does, this big scene is full of comedy. We’ve been anticipating it, so it’s especially satisfying.
Tootsie is the tentpole example of a transgression comedy. A man dresses as a woman because he’s ruined his reputation in Hollywood and needs work. (If he dresses as a woman he assumes a whole new identity.)
A lot of The I.T. Crowd episodes are transgression comedy. Jen Barber is the biggest fraud, having secured the job as head of I.T. by bluffing. It is soon revealed that this is part of her character in general, to the last detail. In a later episode she buys shoes that are too small because she wants people to believe she has dainty little feet. Roy is a little duplicitous but not smart about it. Jen’s duplicitous nature contrasts with the personality of Moss, who says exactly what’s on his mind and takes everything literally.
In the “Kicking Up A Stink” episode of Kath and Kim, Sharon has found a job as a bootcamp leader, but the mask comes off when she invites Kim along. Kim isn’t one bit scared of her and walks off, prompting a mass exodus, ruining Sharon’s session.
The transgression thriller — surprisingly, perhaps — has the same structure as a transgression comedy. It’s just the entire tone and plot details that are different.
By the way, the structure looks like this, courtesy of The Narrative Breakdown podcast:
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
Another name for the transgression thriller is ‘the wrong man thriller’. Hitchcock was a big fan. He would set up a falsely accused innocent. Over the course of the story the truth is revealed.
It is said that horror stories exist to define what is normal by showing us what isn’t. There’s a long tradition of horror monsters who act because ‘the devil made them do it’. Equally lazy but more modern: The horror monster is ‘psychotic’.
The horror genre is beginning to move more solidly into a phase where the audience discovers the ‘true identity’ of the monster and finds that in fact we are looking at the darkest parts of ourselves. This is widely known as The Shadow In The Hero.
A stand-out example of a vampire horror story is “The Mask” by Richard Marsh, which appeared in Marvels and Mysteries in 1900. A homicidal madwoman adept in the art of mask-making transforms herself into a raving beauty and threatens to suck the blood of the hero.
Types Of Masks In Storytelling
…masks depend on people for care, and the people depend upon the masks to acquire certain states of control over their environment which are normally beyond human means of achievement … Power is an important concept here. If mistreated, the masks have vengeful powers, which act as important sanctions.
Masks are used in all cultures around the world, especially in rituals and ceremonies. Masks play an important social function.
The masks used in ancient Greek theatre are based on the culture of the ancient Dionysian cult. Thespis was the first writer to use a mask in stage writing. Members of the chorus wore masks to distinguish them from the main actors. There was a good logistical reason for this: The same actors were able to play a variety of roles in the same play. Also, the actors were men. Masks allowed them to play women, starting a tradition which is still utilised today (problematically).
Another logistical reason for stage masks: A bland-featured mask utilised over and over again distracts from the individual character and forces the audience to focus on that character’s actions.
Acting as someone with a different personality (Nom Nom the YouTube sensation Koala in We Bare Bears acts loveable but is actually evil.)
Walter White makes out he’s a nerdy, science teacher type (which works because he was), when in fact he’s the local drug lord.
The 2003 movie Thirteen by Catherine Hardwicke is a coming-of-age drama about two girls who pretend to be what they’re not. The structure involves the coming off of a mask. For much of the movie Tracy Freeland is acting as a pseudo-adult, ditching her mother who she still needs very much in favour of a girl who has not been so well protected from the world. How does Hardwicke wrap up this story? It’s a story chock full of conflict — arguments with Tracy’s mother, father, brother, teacher and former best friends. Therefore the ‘big struggle sequence’ needs something extra. In this case it’s the coming off of the mask. After rejection from Tracy’s mother, Evie Zamora outs Tracy to everyone as a thief, self-harmer, drug abuser and all-round evil person. While this portrait of her is not quite right either, it is in this scene that Tracy’s mother finally gets the full picture regarding what’s been going on with her daughter. The mask is finally off. In the outtake scene we see Tracy on a roundabout (a regression to childhood), emitting a primal scream. The torment of keeping up this facade of rebel has passed.
American Beauty involves two big masks: The teenage beauty who pretends sexual experience to disguise her complete inexperience, and the military neighbour with internalised homophobia. This contrasts with Kevin Spacey’s character, who takes off his mask at the beginning of the film and lives as his true, lazy, hedonistic self.
In some ways, Office Space is the comedy version of American Beauty. After hypnosis gone wrong, the hedonistic, don’t-give-a-damn side of Peter Gibbons is left. Comedy comes from the fact that this works to his advantage. Peter is now seen to have ‘leadership qualities’. Nerdy office workers pretend to be money launderers, knowing nothing at all about money laundering. This is a film with masks at every level — even the guy selling homeless magazines door-to-door is a well-spoken college student.
In both American Beauty and in Office Space, the double-identity characters are set up in contrast with people living as their true selves. Peter Gibbons meets a waitress who is so true to herself that she quits her horrible waitressing job by giving her boss the middle finger over an argument about not showing enough ‘flair’. Joanna is literally unable to pretend to be who she is not. Joanna in turn contrasts with her hyper-enthusiastic (but fake) boss. Michael Bolton is another character unable to fake anything with conviction, which is why it’s so funny to watch him try to pretend (in an important job interview) that he likes the singer Michael Bolton. Another character living his true life is Peter’s redneck labourer neighbour, whose basic urges make him crass but also relatable. Office Space has a happy ending because every character is living life as their true selves, ditching fake identities. American Beauty is a tragedy because characters are punished for their false presentations. In both films the message is identical: Faking who you are cannot possibly lead to happiness.
In the “Hello Nails!” episode of Kath and Kim, Kim gives Sharon a makeover. In a comedy, a makeover is a sure sign that the story will have the structure of transgression comedy.
Makeovers in non-comedies are often supposed to ‘reveal’ one’s true attractiveness, matching the attractive personality underneath. This is a fairytale view of humanity — that ideally, good people should look beautifulotherwise there’s an uncomfortable dissonance.
In comedies the real self is the unadorned version, which is why things don’t work out when the awkward, gawky Sharon Strezlecki tries to dress elegantly.
There is one type of mask often used in comedy, and it is used in almost every major children’s film. At some point a male character dresses as a female character to achieve some goal.
I feel Tootsie becomes more problematic as time goes on, with transgender feminists pointing out for us the downsides of equating feminine presentation with duplicity. In Tootsie, at least, Dustin Hoffman’s character dresses as Dorothy not with the main intention of exploiting femininity by bewitching men with fake feminine wiles, but in order to apply for jobs otherwise not open to him, and to disguise his own well-known male identity.
But in many stories for children, the male characters dressing as femme characters are using a mask of femininity to get away with behaviours which are manipulative in a sexualised way. A terrible example of that is the Australian middle grade book The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey. Yet this is a very popular book and few question its ideology.
This storyline is highly problematic. The message is that femininity equals duplicity >> women are manipulative liars >> “Lock her up”.
A few years ago I read a book called The People You Are by Rita Carter, which presents quite a different thesis of human behaviour.
Carter’s main argument is that there is no ‘one true self’. She argues that humans have the ability to change according to circumstance, and that we are rewarded for doing so. We are one way with our colleagues, another way with our families, and neither one of these ‘people’ takes precedence over the other.
The dominant idea in modern storytelling contrasts with this psychological view. No matter the genre, we are told time and again that that there is ’one true self’. This version of the self must make its way to the surface and be somehow ‘exposed’ before happiness can be found.
This view of human nature may age contemporary stories in the way that ‘one true love’ romance stories now seem old-fashioned to us, in the era of serial monogamy. Some pushback on that:
My problem is that people always say ‘don’t be afraid to just be yourself!’ and like…it’s not that I’m afraid, I just don’t know how to do that? Because I want to get super jacked and tattooed and never wear make-up and have plaid shirts and shave off my hair, and I also want to wear pretty dresses and high heels and learn how to do eyeliner properly and grow my hair out real long, and I want to be intimidating and confident and Speak My Mind and Take No Shit but I also want to be soft and kind and for people to think I’m cute, and I want to be seen as smart and well-read and respected but I also want to be seen as down to earth and approachable and fun…and I have no idea which if any of those people are actually ‘myself’ or if they’re all just a variety of exciting disguises.
Since culture prioritises the view of the personality as a ‘singlet’ (hence the popularity of astrology, as explained in Carter’s book), readers generally have little time for a fictional character who does one thing in one context, then seems to be completely different in another. Multiple selves in a single character may be one of those things which doesn’t work too well in fiction even if it would reflect real life. Certainly, if not written well, the reader may blame the author for failing to create an authentic and consistent personality, even though none of us is one hundred percent consistent in real life.
I believe moving past this idea of ‘one true self’, which includes all stories in which someone ‘finds’ their ‘true self’ needs a bit more pushback. It might be closely related to moving past the gender binary, and has particular impact on those who live in a more gender expansive manner, which is hopefully all of us.
In politics and economics, a Potemkin village is any construction (literal or figurative) whose sole purpose is to provide an external façade to a country which is faring poorly, making people believe that the country is faring better.
The best knock-offs in the world are in China. There are plenty of fake designer handbags and Rolexes but China’s knock-offs go way beyond fashion. There are knock-off Apple stores that look so much like the real thing, some employees believe they are working in real Apple stores. And then there are entire knock-off cities.
No Country For Old Men is a 2007 Coen Brothers film which hews pretty closely to Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name. This is a transcendent example of a crime story, with a pessimistic view on the greed of humans, and on the nihilistic worldview police officers can fall into after a lifetime of crime fighting. In conservative crime stories the baddies get their comeuppance. In reality, bad people don’t always get what’s coming to them.
Business Insider ranked the Coen Brothers’ movies from 1 to 17 and No Country For Old Men comes in at number three. (Did you know the Coens had written quite this many movies? I didn’t.)
HUMOUR AND IRONY
It is said in that same article that No Country For Old Men is without irony:
Many say “No Country for Old Men” is objectively the best film the Coen brothers ever made. They have a point. “No Country” earned them their first Oscars for best director and best picture. The awards were well-deserved. At first, this doesn’t feel like any Coen brothers film ever made. It is dead serious and unironic. The lively soundtrack has been replaced with dead silence, creating an absolutely brilliant sense of dread.
But is that really true? I go by the idea that all stories are inherently ironic. To use Matt Bird’s definition of irony, in every story there’s a gap between story outcome and audience expectation. It’s certainly true that this Coen Brothers movie is significantly different in tone. But there is indeed irony:
There is dramatic irony running throughout the entire plot. The audience knows exactly what Chigurh is up to because we’re there with him on his serial killing rampage before Llewellyn even discovers the box of cash. So the audience is in constant audience superior position. This is necessary in the creation of suspense, because we know just what’s at stake and we must watch Llewellyn come to that same, slow realisation for himself.
Even at a line level, I can see exactly how the novel No Country For Old Men would have appealed to the dark humour of the Coen Brothers. When Llewellyn arrives home with a satchel full of cash his wife asks him what’s inside. Llewellyn tells her it’s full of cash. “Yeah, that’ll be the day,” she scoffs, obviously used to her husband’s ironic sense of humour. Again we have dramatic irony — this is funny to the audience because we know that this time Llewellyn is telling the truth. Though we haven’t seen Lewellyn’s entire backstory we just know he’s got a history of ironic comebacks. We know this from Carla Jean’s response. “That’s just like Llewellyn,” we think to ourselves, along with his wife.
The name Chigurh was coined by McCarthy because he didn’t want Anton to be of any nationality in particular. But it’s also ironically funny, sounding very much like Sugar.
Both Lewellyn and Chigurh wear white socks — ironically symbolic, since white is heavily associated with purity and innocence. Carson Wells wears a white hat. In this film Carson Wells is indeed set up as the good guy from your unironic Western film, yet take away all the other evil and Carson Wells himself is a pretty terrible individual. The point of this irony? Evil is all relative. A bad person can be the good person depending on the story. Another crime show, this time British, gives us the full spectrum of evil men: Happy Valley.
Nor is this story without humour. It is the dark humour which makes this film watchable.
A lot of the humour derives from the juxtaposition between out-and-out evil walking around on a murdering spree in an environment where the ‘regular’ counterparts of friendly, guileless, open, helpful and ultimately confused when confronted with imminent death. This should not really be funny, but because it happens again and again, with Anton meeting basically the same characters in different bodies, it becomes almost ridiculous, and therefore, is. The predictability makes it so. A lot of gags in No Country For Old Menrely on the audience already knowing what’s going to happen. Any sort of comedic character relies on that, actually. We know Catherine Tate’s Nan character is going to turn sour as soon as a visitor leaves the room. We know that at some point in every episode of Kath and Kim, Kath will say, “Look at me, look at me Kimmy,” and we know that Magda Szubanski’s character Lynne is going to say, “I said pet, I said love…” and take a long draw on her cigarette.
So when Anton Chigurh grimly carries out his plans, sighing at the same responses, “You don’t have to do this,” or “I don’t understand”, I guess we can either laugh or cry. And I don’t believe the point is to make the audience cry over the murders of Anton’s victims. The point is for us to be further and further intrigued and baffled by his mindset.
This juxtaposition between Everyday People and Anton Chigurh hangs on expression of detail.
James Wood writes of the influence of Flaubert on modern crime writing (as well as on war reportage):
Flaubert manages to suggest that…details are somehow at once important and unimportant: important because they have been noticed by him and put down on paper, and unimportant because they are all jumbled together, seen as if out of the corner of the eye; they seem to come at us “like life”. From this flows a great deal of modern storytelling, such as war reportage. The crime writer and war reporter merely increase the extremity of this contrast between important and unimportant detail, converting it into a tension between the awful and the regular: a soldier dies while nearby a little boy goes to school. […] All detail is somewhat numbing, and strikes the traumatised voyeur in the same way.
How Fiction Works
When we see Anton take off both socks and fling them into the bathroom, this focus on detail sits in opposition to the out-and-out recklessness of the shooting spree — here’s a man who has killed three people because he had the wrong room. (Or had the right room and simply didn’t care.) Juxtaposition is one of the eleven elements of comedy, as described by the founder of The Onion.
GENRE BLEND OF NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
This is a crime story utilising thriller elements, combined with drama to provide subtle characterisation. The addition of ‘drama’ elevates the story and allows it to resonate with the audience while saying something deeper about human nature.
What makes this a ‘crime’ drama and not a ‘detective’ story? After all, the sheriff is doing detective work. Compared to detective stories, crime stories place less emphasis on detecting the criminal and more on the cat-and-mouse beats of catching them. In a crime story there is seldom any “mystery” as to who the criminal is. Typically the story starts with a brilliant or daring crime, and then a cat-and-mouse game of wits and will ensues, with the tension created by the increasing intensity of the big struggle between the opponents. The underlying question is: Will the cops prevail before the opponent stages their next crime?
No Country For Old Men is also an anti-western. Set on the frontier of USA and Mexico, this story is about the life and death big struggle that happens when you’re in the wilderness, with no one to rely upon but your own wits. It’s an anti-western because it does not glamorise the life and death big struggle, ending in a win. The point of an anti-western is to highlight the futility of expansion, not to glorify it. Llewellyn has struck his own jackpot in the form of two million dollars, in the same way that early white settlers thought they’d struck jackpot by finding a nice piece of land on the frontier, only to die of illness or injury, be challenged by Native Americans who were there first, or big struggled by the train company who wanted to take their land and use it for railroad.
No Country For Old Men is also an example of a neo-Western. This is a like a traditional western but set in the modern era. The setting isn’t necessarily The West, but somewhere reminiscent of that. It might even be set in space — typically it’s somewhere ‘godforsaken’, where you’re on your own.
SETTING OF NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
When depicted in a single image, the film colours of No Country for Old Men don’t surprise me — a lot of yellowy ochre. I’m pretty sure the defective Kodak film issued in the 1970s has something to do with our link between ‘yellowed’ and ‘the 1970s’. (I’m a 1970s baby myself — all of my baby photos are yellowed.)
The title clues is into the fact that this is a story about masculinity. No Country For Old Men. Significantly, the main story is set in the year 1980, when feminism had not touched the trailer park subcultures of the USA/Mexico border in the Texas desert. This idea of hunter-and-protector backfires, but Llewellyn has soaked in it his whole life.
Place In History
In 1980 the Vietnam War was not long over. This wartime experience most definitely would have played a part in shaping Llewellyn’s sense of right and wrong, and because he came back with all his limbs intact, it would have also given him a false sense of his own infallibility.
In 1980 the USA was really starting to have trouble with drugs. Take for example the Miami drug cartelwhich lead to a series of massive shoot outs, one major incident the year before this story was set, in 1979. Incidents such as the fictionalised drug war in this story ultimately lead to the drug panic of the late 1980s, and mass incarceration for anyone involved in the most peripheral way with illegal drugs.
The storyteller is looking back from the mid 2000s (the book was published in 2005), and the reader knows where this fictional drug war fits within the wider drug war. The shoot out on the plains is itself a given — it is not the shootout itself that is story-worthy in this case. It is the cat-and-mouse chase.
Interestingly, the term ‘serial killer’ (not used in this film) was only coined in the 1970s, by a FBI criminal profiler called Robert Ressler. Until the 1970s, people didn’t realise serial killers existed. And if they did, they understood nothing of their psyche, because the research had not been done. Imagine that. Sheriff Ed is of that generation, let’s not forget. Even as a police officer and detective, this character would not have encountered serial killing as a concept until he encountered the character of Anton Chigurh.
1980 is a great year to set a story like this because it’s before GPS and mobile phones. Technology is limited to the transponder — a piece of equipment a layperson such as Llewellyn would not have thought to look for. Lack of police technology is also what allows Anton to continue on a murder spree without being hunted down quickly.
Desert vs Trailer
The vastness of the Texas desert makes for a strong opposition against Llewellyn’s cramped trailer home. Anton is part of the desert — a personification of abject wilderness — whereas Llewellyn is your stereotypical ‘trailer park white trash’, so he is symbolically linked to that. He has no freedom at all.
Symbolically, deserts are associated with death. (So are icy environments, which the Coen Brothers utilised to full effect in Fargo.)
Note that Anton is injured in an opulent leafy suburb. We see an opposition between rich and poor when Carson visits the leader of the drug cartel in that high rise office block (the one ‘missing’ a floor). We see it again with those middle-class boys on their BMXs, responding as only well-off boys can without personal sacrifice, “Hell Mister, I’ll give you my shirt!” Ironically, Anton is almost killed in a kind of paradise. Why should such an evil character die in paradise? Is that where he’ll end up? Who’s to say he wouldn’t? Maybe the rest of us have it all wrong about morality.
STORY STRUCTURE OF NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Who should we consider ‘the main character’ of No Country For Old Men?
Sheriff Ed is a storyteller narrator and the main character in the metadiegetic levelof this story. Because Sheriff Ed was a part of the story himself, he is a homodiegetic narrator. But because he’s looking back on the story after some decades of reflection, he is also an extradiegetic narrator — no longer a part of the level zero story. Sheriff Ed is the main character of this level. It is the Sheriff storyteller who has the anagnorisis. Part of this revelation comes from the events themselves at the time, further revelations come in the decades following, and yet more come in the telling of it, to us.
That said, the ‘anagnorisis’ of Sheriff Ed is completely ironic. Why? Because he has no meaningful anagnorisis at all. The Sheriff has reached retirement and still cannot make head nor tail of how some people do the terrible things they do. When he tells us (his partner) at the breakfast table that he’s already lived twenty years longer than his own father ever did, we know that he’s as wise as he’s ever going to get, and the case of Anton Chigurh will never make any sense. The ‘revelation’ therefore, is that there will never be any revelation. Sometimes we can’t put a motivation behind evil.
The ‘level zero‘ story is, of course, the crime story in which Anton kills a lot of people in Sheriff Ed’s jurisdiction. In this level of story, who is ‘the main character’? We see about equal parts of Anton and Llewellyn. But because we do not identify with Chigurh at all — Chigurh is a wholly unsympathetic opponent — Llewellyn is more of a viewpoint character. But he’s not that either, because as I mentioned above, the audience constantly knows more about what’s going on than Llewellyn himself does. Instead, Llewellyn is the character we are encouraged to empathise with, and this is what makes him the star of the level zero story.
Llewellyn is a heavily flawed character. We first see him shooting a deer. A lot of non-hunters will already be against him for that. Hunters on the other hand will see him look chagrined that he’s injured the deer but not killed it, and now he’s obliged to hunt it down and put it out of its misery. But then we see how he reacts to a human being in the same state as the deer — a Mexican about to die only asks for water. Driven by greed, Llewellyn is unmoved by his pleas. Like Chigurh, Llewellyn has his own moralistic world view. Since these guys were drug runners, they had what was coming to them. (The police later articulate the same view “Did of natural causes” as in “Natural to the line of work they was in”.) This asks the audience to draw our own moral line. To what extent are we sympathising with the victims when they were drug runners? What would we do in the same position? Ah, but what if we were dirt poor, like Llewellyn? Would we be more money motivated then? (We soon see him go back to his home. This is not a rich guy.)
However, there is soon a Save The Cat moment for Llewellyn. This was Blake Snyder’s term to describe a characterisation trick writers employ to engender empathy for a hero. Show them ‘saving a cat’. Whatever other evil they get up to, that’ll put the audience on side. “Ah, this character isn’t all bad,” we will say. And we are amazingly forgiving. Llewellyn’s Save The Cat moment is failing to sleep out of guilt for abandoning the dying Mexican who asked for agua. He gets up in the small hours and we see him filling a big bottle from the tap. We are further back on Llewellyn’s side when his act of kindness ironically ends up almost costing him his life.
Llewellyn’s psychological shortcoming is that he can’t back down. We see that for ourselves, but this trait is underscored via dialogue between Norma Jean and Sherrif Ed. Norma Jean knows people well, is highly attune to her husband and is able to tell us that her husband thinks he’s some big shot and that he’ll never ask for help even if his life depended on it. Sure enough, this is what costs him his life, as well as many others’ lives along the way.
This particular psychological shortcoming has a definite Christian vibe to it. Christians are encouraged to submit to the healing powers of the Lord, to have faith and be constantly mindful of the fact that we are only human. We must consistently repent, try our best, fail then ask for forgiveness and do better. This is what gives this story a Christian feel, despite being atheistic and nihilistic in its message.
The nice thing about heavily flawed main characters: There are a few pitfalls writers aren’t going to fall into by accident. Here’s one of them, described by Dean Koontz:
If you choose to use a protagonist who is an admirable crook, do not fall into the moralistic trap of using the cliché ending in which, after all his trials and tribulations, the lead loses the stolen loot either through a quirk of fate, the machinations of an even more crooked partner, or the cunning of the police. If you have established your crook as a sympathetic character and have gotten your reader to root for him throughout the bank robbery (or whatever), your audience will only be frustrated when he loses everything simply because you feel that you must prove “crime doesn’t pay’.
Dean Koontz, from Writing Popular Fiction
When Llewellyn loses the loot, he kind of deserved it. We felt that from the start. Or perhaps we don’t feel the loss of the loot is significant because Llewellyn loses so much more than that.
The surface level desire is “I want two million dollars.” In this regard, the plot is similar to Hitchcock’s Psycho, because we never do find out for sure who ended up with this money. It is one of the most frequently-asked questions about this film on IMDb. The answer is that Chigurh probably ended up with it, not because we’re shown, but because we’ve been given enough about his character to know that’s what would have happened. (This in itself is a masterful case study in trusting the audience to ‘get’ a character — writers don’t have to keep beating us over the head with characterisation — audiences make assumptions pretty quickly when it comes to archetypes. A short story which achieves the same is “Je ne parle pas francais” by Katherine Mansfield.) As in the money stolen by Marion Crane in Psycho, the two million dollars therefore functions as what Hitchcock referred to as a McGuffin. This is the thing that starts the action, but by the end of the story we don’t care that much about what happened to the money — we care about who gets out alive.
What about Llewellyn’s deep down desire? The money functions only as a surface level desire. When Llewellyn tells Norma Jean that she is no longer employed by Walmart, that she is now a lady of leisure, this is a clue into his deeper psyche — he needs to be seen as the hunter and provider. It makes complete sense that we saw him first as a hunter. His sense of masculinity is so extreme that it is toxic. He needs to prove himself the big man, to himself, to his wife, and probably even to his mother-in-law, who has always said he is no good.
He also wants freedom. As we all do — this is a very easy desire for an audience to identify with. Here’s a guy who slaves away as a welder — a very versatile welder, by his description to Carson Wells — yet he lives with his wife in a trailer park. Between them they don’t seem to have enough money to bring kids into the world. (Not that this is mentioned.) I can imagine a man in that position feels he is owed this money. He fought for America, after all. Yet this is what he has when he gets back.
Anton Chigurh is the Big Bad Monster of the story. We see quite a lot of him, but only in the same way Twister gives us shots of the tornado. Anton is a fascinating character, because humans have the need to watch sociopathic behaviours carefully. As an opponent he is interesting because he has his own morality. Carson Wells makes sure to remind the audience of that (talking to Llewellyn in the hospital bed) in case we missed it. Anton is an extreme version of a nihilistic fatalist. He justifies his actions, however heinous, with the belief that they had it coming to them, and that he, too, is part of an evil machination and can’t get out of it, because there’s no such thing as free will. Anton is a complete loner, so it’s very difficult to get such a character to have an ‘attack by ally’ moment in the way writers can do for their heroes.
But McCarthy masterfully wrote one in anyhow. Right before she’s killed, Carla Jean tells him that his decisions have nothing to do with a coin — that his decision to kill is completely up to him. Carla Jean can hardly be called an ‘ally’, but for that scene she is functioning as a friend/mentor, calling him on his bullshit. Of all the characters in this story, Norma Jean is the most brave. She pays the ultimate sacrifice for challenging Anton’s worldview. (We know she does because Anton checks his shoes — for blood — on the verandah outside. Anton has already been shown twice avoiding blood on his feet, first by taking off his white socks and flinging them into the bathroom of the Mexicans at the motel, and next by lifting his feet as the blood of Carson Wells pools below him.)
Anton Chigurh is set up as both similar and completely different to Llewellyn. The similarity is only superficial, as pointed out to Llewellyn by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Llewellyn thinks he’s Anton’s match. At first the audience probably wonders if Llewellyn will win out in the end. We’ve watched many, many stories in which the smaller guy —the underdog— ends up winning against evil. When Llewellyn walks into the hunting and camping store and tells the shopkeeper that white socks are the only kind he wears, the audience is shown that Chigurh, too, only wears white socks.
What motivates Anton? It’s exactly the same thing that motivates Llewellyn.
Really, how many different ways are there to kill someone? And how many different ways are there to kill someone? And how many different motives can there be? In the end it all comes down to money and sex. At most a writer can create an original variation on a tried-and-true theme.
But it’s not even money and sex — it’s what these two things symbolise — power. Violent people have one thing in common — they need to be in control.
Until he finds himself pursued by Anton Chigurh and co., Llewellyn’s plans are pretty simple. He and his wife are going to live off the proceeds forever, quitting their unpleasant jobs and probably buying a nice place of their own somewhere. But when the plot turns into a cat-and-mouse chase Llewellyn has to constantly modify his plans in order to evade death. Unfortunately, he’s not as smart as Anton and doesn’t have all the information. It takes too long to look for the transponder, and when he’s told about it he’s angry in response, saying yes yes, he knows all about that.
As mentioned above, we’re shown so many big struggles that when it comes to the ultimate big struggle — the one where Llewellyn gets killed — we don’t get a scene, we get narrative summary. This is the opposite of what we’ve been led to expect from storytelling. Most stories ask us to revel in the big showdown after the big struggles get more and more intense. But we don’t even get to see Llewellyn die.
This is asking the audience to believe in fate. The story is training us to expect the worst, then it gives it to us, literally teaching us to become the pessimist that Sheriff Ed has himself become. In this way, even the big struggle scene is ironic — at a narrative level. We expect a big big struggle scene but don’t get one, defying story expectations.
This is why I reject the idea that this story is not ironic. It is ironic at every level, from dialogue down to plot structure.
The crime genre’s ur-story is explanation. Real life is arbitrary; bad things happen for no reason. Not so in the crime novel. There, justice may not be found but an answer is. Evil may not be controllable but there’s the solace of understanding.
Crime and Thriller Writing: A Writers’ and Artists’ Companion by Michelle Spring, Laurie R. King, which describes most crime stories, but not this one.
For another example of a big big struggle scene that takes place off screen, see Sicario, an action, crime, drama blend from 2015, which takes quite a bit from No Country For Old Men.
Sheriff Ed doesn’t understand these people and these events, and that’s the point.
Llewellyn never has any revelation either. He’s cavalier right to the end, showing interest in a woman beside the pool even though his life hangs in the balance.
Carla Jean is around a little longer, loses both her husband and her mother (to cancer) and everything she ever had, including her job, so at the end she is able to philosophise a little. She tries to help Anton Chigurh have a anagnorisis about self-determination but ultimately fails.
Everyone in the level zero story is dead (probably even Chigurh himself, by the mid 2000s), leaving Sheriff Ed to try and enjoy his retirement, putting aside the misanthropy he has tried to run from in his own cat-and-mouse, purely psychological, failed escape from nihilism.
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.
TAPPING INTO AMERICAN FEARS
Underworld narratives also formed part of Hollywood’s response to widespread moral panic around ritual abuse and child murder that spread throughout America in the 1980s and 1990s. The horrific sprees of society’s new apex predators like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, linked to hysterical rumours of organised child sacrifice, inspired a film cycle fuelled by pervasive anxiety that children could be snatched up and borne away to horrible fates in hidden lairs. When Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs swept the 1992 Oscars it was our neighbours or the corner grocer – not the government – preying on our fears.
Demme’s film deftly refashioned the myth of Theseus and the minotaur into a race-against-time manhunt. Cadet FBI agent Clarice Starling pursues a serial murderer who has abducted a Senator’s daughter. To track the beast, Clarice must descend into the den of captured cannibal monster Hannibal Lecter for clues to slay the monster at large, Buffalo Bill. For this underworld quest, Lecter is the pedagogue, not the monster. His role isn’t to eat Clarice (he passes up that opportunity when she ventures within striking distance) but to prepare her for her journey. Lecter provides the ball of string enabling Clarice to venture into the minotaur’s labyrinth and return.
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?