Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Harris’
It’s fair to say that I’ve spent more time discussing discussing Hannibal Lecter here than any other character in literature. This is a blog about writing, after all, and Lecter’s example is as good as case studies get, since it serves as both a model and a cautionary tale. The man we meet in The Silence of the Lambs, and to a lesser extent Red Dragon, is arguably the most compelling character to come out of the popular fiction of the last thirty years. Barely a decade elapsed before his most memorable cinematic appearance topped the list of AFI’s heroes and villains, which is astonishing for a role with less than twenty minutes of screen time. At his best, Thomas Harris is a suspense novelist of stunning intelligence and resourcefulness, and he’s written three novels that absolutely deserve to be ranked among the finest in the genre, as well as a flawed fourth book full of remarkable moments—although the fifth is best left unmentioned. But to a large extent, his reputation rests entirely on the creation of one character, and it’s defined his career to a degree that I don’t think he ever expected.
Of course, Harris himself was finally unable to keep Lecter under control, and if his prolonged silence is any indication, it seems that he’s gathering his energies for something else. This is all speculation, of course; Harris is notoriously private, and he’s never been anything but a slow, painstaking writer. But he’s also a man who wrote Hannibal Rising largely to avoid seeing his character fall into other hands, and I believe he’s intelligent enough to sense that the result is by far his weakest book. Hence the surprise of Hannibal, the NBC series that invents entirely new backstories for many of Harris’s most famous characters, all without the author’s involvement. I can’t say for sure what inspired Harris to relinquish control, and for all I know, there could be complicated rights issues involved. But I’d like to believe that Harris recognizes that he’s already sucked this particular vein dry, and is ready, at last, to move on. I’ve said before that an entirely new suspense novel from Harris would be the literary event of the year, possibly the decade, and I still hold out hope that we’ll see it.
As for Hannibal itself, I’m not sure how I feel. I watched the premiere last week, and plan to tune in again tonight, if only to catch a welcome glimpse of Gillian Anderson. It’s a well-crafted show, and there’s a lot of talent on both sides of the camera, but it also sets problems for itself that it may not be able to solve. Back when Red Dragon was first published, the figure of Will Graham, a profiler who willed himself into crime scenes to the point where he saw them play out through the killer’s eyes, may have been novel, but by now, we’ve seen variations on this character so many times that we’re already tuning out, no matter how hard the show works to make his the result visually exciting. Even more problematic is the casting of Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter. Mikkelsen is a fine actor, but his cold eyes and angular face make it hard for him to convey the character’s supposed charm, much less pass himself off as one of the leading lights of Baltimore society. He all but advertises that he’s the bad guy, which will only make his relationship with Graham increasingly implausible as the series continues.
But it’s really the premise itself that risks making the show unsustainable. Lecter needs to be in his cell, because he’s much less compelling for what he is than for what he was. His qualities as an epicure, a man of culture, and a social darling are all important facts to establish, but they only gain meaning from their absence: Lecter fascinates us once all these things have been taken away, leaving only a cold, flawless brain behind a pane of bulletproof glass, and what both Hannibal and the novel of the same name demonstrate is that it isn’t especially interesting to watch the old Lecter go about his business. (If Harris’s novel is any indication, he spends most of his time shopping.) If the show runs for long enough, it will eventually end up back where it needs to be, but it doesn’t do itself any favors by starting so far back in the timeline. As Lecter himself might say, a television series ought to start from first principles. And as it stands, it’s going to be a very long time before we see Hannibal back where he belongs.
Ideally, all stories should consist of a series of events that arise organically from the characters and their decisions, based on a rigorous understanding of how the world really works. In practice, and especially in genre fiction, it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes a writer just has a plot development that he really wants to write, and isn’t entirely sure how to get there from here. Frequently he’ll construct a story out of a number of unrelated ideas, and needs to cobble them together in a way that will seem inevitable after the fact. And sometimes he’ll simply paint himself into a corner, or realize that he’s overlooked a monstrous plot hole, and wants to extricate himself in a way that leaves his dignity—and most of the earlier material—intact. A purist might say that the author should throw the story out and start again, proceeding more honestly from first principles, but a working writer doesn’t always have that luxury. Better, I think, to find a way of keeping the parts that work and smoothing over the connective bits that seem implausible or unconvincing, while keeping the reader immersed in the fictional dream. And in the spirt of faking it until you make it, I offer the following suggestions:
1. Make it a fait accompli. As I’ve mentioned before, a reader is much more likely to accept a farfetched narrative development if the characters take it for granted. Usually, this means putting the weakest link in your story offstage. My favorite example is from Some Like It Hot, an incredibly contrived movie that shrewdly refuses to show the most crucial moment in the entire plot: instead of giving us a scene in which the main characters decide to go on the run in drag, it just cuts to the two of them already in skirts, rushing across the platform to catch a train to Florida. The lesson, clearly, is that if something in your story is obviously impossible, it’s better to pretend that it’s already happened. And the best strategy of all is to push the most implausible element of your story outside the boundaries of the plot itself, so it’s already in place before the story begins, which is what I’ve previously called the anthropic principle of fiction. If the viewer doesn’t see something happen, it requires an additional mental effort to rewind the story to object to it, and by then, the plot and characters have already moved on. It’s best to make like Jack Lemmon in heels, and just run with it.
2. Tell, don’t show. Normally, we’re trained to depict a turning point in the action as vividly as possible, and are taught that it’s bad form to describe an important moment indirectly or leave it offstage. When it comes to a weak point in the plot, however, that sort of scrutiny can only raise questions. It’s smarter, instead, to break a cardinal rule of fiction and get it out of the way as unobtrusively as possible. An implausible conversation, for instance, might best be rendered as indirect dialogue, leaving readers to fill in a more convincing version themselves. And if you can’t dramatize something in a credible fashion, it might be best to summarize it, in the way dramatists use the arrival of a messenger to convey developments that would be impossible to stage, although it’s best to keep this sort of thing as short as you can. There’s a particularly gorgeous example in the novel The Silence of the Lambs. Thomas Harris shows us Hannibal Lecter’s escape from federal security in loving detail, but when it comes to the most astonishing element of his getaway—the fact that he peels off another man’s face and wears it like a mask—he lets Jack Crawford describe it after the fact in a few terse sentences. It’s still hard to buy, but it’s more acceptable than if he’d allowed us to question the action as it unfolded.
3. Use misdirection. The secret of sleight of hand is that the audience’s eye is naturally drawn to action, humor, and color, allowing the performer to conduct outrageous manipulations in plain sight. Similarly, when a story is engaging enough from moment to moment, the reader is less likely to object to inconsistencies and plot holes. A film like Inception, for instance—which is probably my favorite movie of the last fifteen years—is riddled with logical problems, and even the basic workings of its premise aren’t entirely consistent, but we’re having too much fun to care. In some ways, this is the most important point of all: when a work of art is entertaining, involving, and emotionally true, we’re more likely to forgive the moments when the plot creaks. Some of our greatest books and movies, like Vertigo, are dazzling precisely because they expend a huge amount of effort to convince us of premises that, if the artist proceeded with uncompromising logic, would never make it past a rough draft. Just remember, as Aristotle pointed out, that a convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility, and take it from there.
I know what you’re thinking: I’ve finally lost it. For most of the last two years, I’ve used this blog to rail against the use of excessive backstory, advising writers to kill it whenever it occurs, preferably with fire. I’ve pointed out that characters in a novel are interesting because of their words, deeds, and decisions over the course of the narrative, not because of whatever they might have been doing or thinking before the story began. I’ve argued that backstory violates the principle that a good story should consist of a series of objectives, and that character is best revealed through action. I’ve pointed out, stealing an observation from the great William Goldman, that heroes must have mystery, and that to explain away a character through digressions into his past or psychology—at least in most forms of popular fiction—only serves to diminish him. And I’ve often referred to examples of characters who become more interesting the less we know about them, like Forsyth’s Jackal, and those who have been progressively ruined by excessive backstory, like Hannibal Lecter.
I still believe all these things. Recently, however, I’ve found myself writing reams of backstory for two different projects. One, Eternal Empire, is the concluding novel of a series that can’t be entirely understood without additional information about the earlier installments, which is something that I didn’t really appreciate until reading over the most recent draft. The other is a long, self-contained novel I’ve been working on for years, and whose protagonist’s actions make somewhat more sense with a slightly more detailed backstory. In both cases, I added backstory after both novels were finished, in an attempt to address specific narrative problems, namely a lack of clarity that was preventing readers from getting lost in the story. And although I’ve begun to tactically incorporate backstory where it seems advisable, my earlier convictions haven’t changed. For most writers, I’m convinced that less backstory is preferable to the alternative, and that implication and suggestion are more powerful tools than extended passages of introspection. But there are times, looking back at a story that is otherwise complete, when I’ve found that a few scraps of backstory have their place.
If this seems inconsistent, it’s only because the rules of writing, like most laws, operate under an informal hierarchy, and it’s often worth stretching a minor rule so as to preserve a major one. (Or, as the rabbis say, it’s better to break one sabbath in order to keep many sabbaths.) You can debate which rules are more important than others, but it’s hard to argue with John Gardner’s observation that for most writers, the primary objective is to preserve the fictional dream: the illusion, in the reader’s mind, that these events are actually happening. Anything that tears the reader out of the dream without good reason needs to be examined and, usually, corrected. And one issue that can break the illusion is unintended ambiguity. If the reader puts down the book to wonder about a detail in a character’s past that the author didn’t mean to leave unresolved, it’s probably worth introducing this information, solely for the sake of maintaining momentum. And my reluctance to spell things out has occasionally confused readers in ways I didn’t intend. This led to some trouble with my recent Analog story “The Voices,” and also seems to be an issue in The Icon Thief. (Given the chance, I think I’d insert a few more paragraphs about Duchamp and his place in art history to avoid sending readers to Wikipedia.)
That said, backstory needs to be introduced judiciously, and at the proper point. In particular, it’s often best to save it for a moment when the story can afford to slow down. Such flat moments, which serve as a breather between points of high action, provide a convenient place for filling in the background, as long as it makes sense within the structure of the novel as a whole. The two projects I’m writing now both happen to have a convenient opening in the exact same spot: at the beginning of the second section, which currently picks up immediately from a cliffhanger at the end of the previous chapter. Inserting a flashback here, with the tension of the previous scene unresolved, both extends the suspense and allows me to fill in necessary background in reasonable security that the reader will read on to see what happens next. This sort of thing can be taken too far, of course: I keep such departures as short as possible, afraid that I might conclude what T.E. Lawrence did after rereading a chapter intended as a “flat” in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “On reflection I agreed…that it was perhaps too successful.” So most of my earlier points still stand—even, or especially, when I’m forced to break them.
You’ve seen this baguette before. In any movie or television show in which a character is shown carrying groceries, a big loaf of french bread is invariably seen peeking out over the top of the bag. On the few occasions when it isn’t there, a similar role is assumed by a leafy bunch of carrots, or, in exceptional cases, celery. As the comically detailed TV Tropes entry on the subject points out, you’ll see the baguette among groceries carried by the unlikeliest of characters, like Liam Neeson in Taken, who carries not one, but two. (He’s in Paris, after all.) And given how often this loaf of bread turns up, it was only a matter of time before a clever screenwriter, in this case Tony Gilory in Michael Clayton, gave us a grocery bag full of nothing but baguettes. In this instance, it’s partially intended as a reflection of the unstable mental state of the character played by Tom Wilkinson, but it’s also a nod to a cinematic convention that, over time, has come to seem like a particularly ludicrous visual cliché.
And yet that baguette is there for a reason. For one thing, it’s a convenient prop that is unlikely to wilt under hot studio lights or after hours spent on location. It’s also a handy bit of narrative shorthand. If we see a character carrying a paper bag without any clues about what it contains, we immediately start to wonder what might be inside. The baguette poking out over the top is a visual flag that, paradoxically, actually makes the bag less visible: as soon as we understand that it’s just a bag of groceries, we stop worrying about it. (Thomas Harris, a shrewd exploiter and creator of narrative tropes, even utilizes it as a plot point in Red Dragon, when Francis Dolarhyde, the killer, uses a big bunch of leafy celery as camouflage in his escape from a crime scene: “He stuffed his books and clothing into the grocery bag, then the weapons. The celery stuck out the top.” And when he passes the police a moment later, carrying what is obviously just a bag of groceries, they don’t give him a second glance.)
Most clichés, after all, start out as a piece of authorial shorthand that allows the reader or viewer to focus on what really matters. William Goldman, who is close friends with Gilroy, makes a similar point in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell? He ticks off some of the most notorious examples of how the movies depart from real life—the hero can always find a parking space when he needs one, the local news invariably happens to be talking about a necessary plot point when a character turns on the television, taxi fares can always be paid with the first bill you happen to grab without looking down at your wallet—and goes on to make an excellent observation: all of these clichés are about saving time. In a good movie, everything that isn’t relevant to the story goes out the window, which is why we see so many ridiculously convenient moments that allow us to move on without pausing to the next important scene. That baguette serves a useful purpose. If they gave awards to props, it would at least merit a nod for Best Supporting Actor.
The trouble, of course, is that as soon as a narrative device proves its usefulness, it’s immediately copied by every writer in sight. And it’s easy to understand why: such tricks are worth their weight in gold. In my own novels, I’m constantly trying to find the right balance between advancing the plot and avoiding story beats that seem too obvious or convenient. (For example, in both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles, there’s a scene in which a suspect cracks a bit too easily under interrogation, just because I wanted to get on to the next big thing. I try to disguise such moments as best as I can, but I can’t claim the effect is entirely successful.) And whenever a writer discovers a novel piece of shorthand, or a clever spin on an old cliché, it’s like stumbling across a new industrial process. You’d like to patent it, but once it’s in print, it’s there for anyone to use. So the search for new tropes goes on, as it should. Because a baguette, as we all know, doesn’t stay fresh for long.
“I don’t want to be the man who learns—I want to be the man who knows.” This is author William Goldman in Adventures in the Screen Trade, quoting an unnamed movie star whom I’ve always pictured as Steve McQueen, although it probably wasn’t. Goldman is making a slightly cynical point about how a screenwriter needs to give every good moment in the script to the star, and especially can’t show the hero asking questions or carrying the burden of exposition. On a deeper level, however, this quote gets close to the heart of what we, in the audience, want from our heroes. Everyone has a different sense of the qualities of the ideal movie hero, but at the top of my own list is competence. When I’m looking for escapism, I like movies and books about men and women who are good at their jobs, who are smart and resourceful, and who embody the kind of confidence, or at least conviction, that I’d like to see in myself. As Emerson said of Napoleon, heroes are like the rest of us, except quicker, more decisive, and always sure about what to do next. Which only means that a hero is someone who sees at a glance what it took the screenwriter weeks to figure out.
I’ve been thinking about this recently while reflecting, once again, on the appeal of The Silence of the Lambs, which was inexplicably left out of the A.V. Club’s recent rundown of the fifty best movies of the ’90s. (Honestly, I’m not the kind of person who usually complains when a list like this omits one of his favorite films, but really, this is beyond comprehension.) Hannibal Lecter is one of our great villains—he’s at the top of the AFI list—but he’s also, weirdly, one of the most compelling heroes of the past several decades, and a lot of this is due to the reasons that I mention above. He isn’t just brilliant, but hugely resourceful. His escape from the security facility in Tennessee consists of one audacious move after another, and even if we can’t buy every detail, it’s hard not to be swept up by the result. And his ingenuity is really just a distillation and acceleration of the craft of Thomas Harris. That’s the beauty of fiction: a plan that took Harris months, if not years, to work out on paper occurs to Lecter in real time, over the course of twenty dense pages. And that kind of unnatural clarity of action is what fictional heroism is all about.
Of course, Lecter has since degenerated as a character, and although I’ve talked about this far too many times before, it hints at an important truth. In his book Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card draws a useful distinction between cleverness and intelligence:
[I]n our society with its egalitarian ideals, any obvious display of intelligence or erudition suggests elitism, snobbery, arrogance…Yet we love a character who is clever enough to think of solutions to knotty problems. Does this seem contradictory? It is contradictory…The audience loves a character who solves problems and knows exactly the right facts when he needs them—but they don’t like a character who flaunts his superior knowledge or acts as if he knows how clever he is.
As an example, Card cites the case of Indiana Jones, who is intellectually brilliant by definition, but slightly bumbling whenever we see him in the classroom—and endlessly inventive and resourceful when pressed into action. And Lecter is a cautionary counterexample. We don’t like Lecter because he can quote Renaissance poetry and appreciate fine wine, but because he outsmarts his enemies and deals ingeniously with problems presented by the story. The trouble with Hannibal and its sequel is that in the end, we’re left with nothing but Lecter the cultured epicure, to the point where his taste for the finer things in life becomes actively annoying, while his acts of violence grow increasingly baroque and grotesque. This, more than anything else, is where Harris faltered.
Which just means that a hero is only as good as the plot in which he finds himself. If you’ve constructed a surprising story in which the protagonist reacts in engaging ways, you’ve already solved most of the problems of writing a convincing hero, including the issue of making him seem too competent. You can always build flaws into your protagonist—Smiley’s miserable domestic life, Lawrence’s inner torment, Indy’s tendency to get in over his head—but really, if your plot is a match for the hero you’ve constructed, those qualities will take care of themselves. This is why James Bond, even in the best of the early films, is both a seductive icon and a narrative void: the plots are just too arbitrary and absurd to present him with any real challenge. It also explains why Casino Royale is, by a large measure, the best of all the Bond films, not because it goes out of its way to present us with a flawed Bond, but because the story around him, for once, is worthy of the character’s inner resources. Bond is still the man who knows, but in this case, the filmmakers knew just a little bit more. And that’s exactly how it should be.
Earlier this month, in his rather unenthusiastic review of the new musical Nice Work if You Can Get It, Hilton Als wrote of star Matthew Broderick, who, for all his other talents, is manifestly not a dancer: “His dancing should be a physical equivalent of Rex Harrison’s speaking his songs in [My Fair Lady]: self-assured and brilliant in its use of the performer’s limitations.” It’s a nice comparison, and indeed, Rex Harrison is one of the most triumphant examples in the history of entertainment of a performer turning his limitations into something uniquely his own. (If I could go back in time to see only one musical, it would be the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, starring Harrison and the young Julie Andrews.) And while most of us rightly strive to overcome our limitations, it can also be useful to find ways of turning them into advantages, or at least to find roles for which we’re naturally suited, shortcomings and all.
Years of writing have taught me that I have at least two major limitations as a novelist (although my readers can probably think of more). The first is that my style of writing is essentially serious. I don’t think it’s solemn, necessarily, and I’d like to think that my fiction shows some wit in its construction and execution. But I’m not a naturally funny writer, and I’m in awe of authors like P.G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, or even Joss Whedon, whose sense of humor is inseparable from their way of regarding the world. The Icon Thief contains maybe three jokes, and I’m inordinately proud of all of them, just because they don’t come naturally. This isn’t to say that I’m a humorless or dour person, but that being funny in print is really hard, and it’s a skill set that I don’t seem to have, at least not in fiction. And while I’d like to develop this quality, if only to increase my range of available subjects and moods, I expect that it’s always going to be pretty limited.
My other big limitation is that I only seem capable of writing stories in which something is always happening. The Icon Thief and its sequels are stuffed with plot and incident, largely because I’m not sure what I’d do if the action slowed down. In this, I’m probably influenced by the movies I love. In his essay on Yasujiro Ozu, David Thomson writes:
[S]o many American films are pledged to the energy that “breaks out.” Our stories promote the hope of escape, of beginning again, of beneficial disruptions. One can see that energy—hopeful, and often damaging, but always romantic—in films as diverse as The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Run of the Arrow, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo, Bonnie and Clyde, Greed, and The Fountainhead. No matter how such stories end, explosive energy is endorsed…Our films are spirals of wish fulfillment, pleas for envy, the hustle to get on with the pursuit of happiness.
As a result, whenever I write a page in which nothing happens, I get nervous. This isn’t the worst problem for a mainstream novelist to have, but like my essential seriousness, it limits my ability to tell certain kinds of stories. (This may be why I’m so impressed by the work of, say, Nicholson Baker, who writes brilliantly funny novels in which almost nothing takes place.)
So what do I do? I do what Rex Harrison did: I look for material where my limitations can be mistaken for strengths. In short, I write suspense fiction, which tends to be forgiving of essential seriousness—it’s hard to find a funny line in any of Thomas Harris or Frederick Forsyth, for example—and for restless, compulsive action, all executed within a fairly narrow range of tone. When I write in other genres, like science fiction, I basically approach the story if I were still writing suspense, which, luckily, happens to be a fairly adaptable mode. And while I’ll always continue to push myself as a writer, and hope to eventually expand my tonal and emotional range, I’m glad that I’ve found at least one place where my limitations feel at home, and where they can occasionally flower forth into full song. For everything else, I’m content just to speak to the music.
Aside from Thomas Harris, whose career I’ve already discussed at possibly excessive length, the suspense novelist who has had the most influence on my own work is Frederick Forsyth. Unlike Harris, I discovered Forsyth fairly late in life, after my interests and style as a writer were mostly set, so my debt to Forsyth is wholly conscious. I read The Day of the Jackal years ago, and was suitably impressed, but it wasn’t until I started writing suspense on my own that I realized the extent of Forsyth’s achievement, and began to study his example more carefully. He’s rarely had any literary pretensions, so he has been critically undervalued in comparison to someone like le Carré, but he’s an exceptionally good writer, the ultimate pro. To my eyes, he’s the ideal suspense novelist, at least when it comes to promising and delivering everything that an intelligent reader wants. He may not linger in the imagination in the way Harris does, but paragraph by paragraph, he’s the best I’ve found.
The heart of his achievement remains his debut, The Day of the Jackal, which is still the great international thriller, and a model for nearly every novel of its kind published since. Forsyth, who had worked previously as a journalist in Europe and Africa, wrote it relatively quickly, after years of research, and somehow hit upon the most effective suspense formula that has yet been devised: the violent chase, counting down toward a deadly assignment, with a constantly accelerating pace, so that each section of the book becomes increasingly compressed in both space and time. It’s such a good formula, in fact, that Forsyth acknowledges that he began writing his second book, The Odessa File, by going back over his first novel, seeing what he had unconsciously done, and trying to reverse engineer it—as many other writers have tried since, and for good reason. The great virtues of his work emerge fully formed in Jackal: the pacing, the seamless mix of fact and fiction, the mastery of lean convincing detail, and best of all, the luxuriant disclosure of arcane information, so that an account of the assembly and testing of an assassin’s rifle becomes as erotic as any love scene.
Forsyth has his flaws, of course. Foremost is the startling lack of women, or even the slightest interest in women, in most of his novels. His books are exclusively about men, either solitary or deeply immersed in wholly masculine worlds—those of spies, assassins, soldiers. All the same, whenever he tries to insert a woman in the story, as in the unfortunate The Negotiator, the results are so poor that one welcomes their absence elsewhere. (I haven’t even tried to read The Phantom of Manhattan, Forsyth’s attempt to write about “the human heart,” and one of the more inexplicable books in any great author’s bibliography.) Women are clearly extraneous to Forsyth’s vision, which seems so expansive at first glance—the locations, the knowledge of politics and espionage, the wealth of detail—but is, in fact, savagely focused. Indeed, Forsyth’s great strength, at least in his best books, is his refusal to be drawn away from his wheelhouse. At several points in his career, he has evidently grown tired of this singlemindedness, but the fact remains that none of his successors are nearly as good at this sort of thing as he is.
Once I realized that Forsyth was the best living practitioner of the kind of novel that I’d found myself writing, I set out to systematically read everything he’d written, something I’ve done with only a handful of other contemporary novelists, like Ian McEwan. In the past few years alone, I’ve gone through Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, The Devil’s Alternative, The Fourth Protocol, The Negotiator, the short story collection No Comebacks, and Icon, which I’ve just finished this week. (The Fist of God and The Deceiver are waiting in the wings.) Aside from The Negotiator, which represents one of Forsyth’s rare lapses in the suspense form, they’ve all been great reads, even as the details begin to blur. That’s the thing about Forsyth: he’s so good in the moment, but constructs his books so tightly that there isn’t much room left for the reader’s imagination, and hence, except for Jackal, less of an afterlife in the memory. That isn’t a criticism, just an observation, and perhaps a warning. Forsyth is our great constructor of clockwork thrillers, and in his career, we can see not just the potential of the suspense form, but also its limits.
Yesterday I indulged in another rant about Thomas Harris and the decline of Hannibal Lecter, which brings me to a larger problem of which all writers should be aware: the pitfalls of backstory. Before we begin, I should point out that my views on the subject are somewhat extreme, which has led to occasional disagreements with readers and editors. But after years of writing, reading, and watching film and television, everything I’ve ever seen points toward one conclusion: backstory is deadly. It’s boring, it brings the momentum of the narrative to a halt, and most damningly, it does nothing to enhance our appreciation for the characters in a work of fiction. Characters are defined by what they do over the course of the story. What they’ve done before the story begins just doesn’t matter.
There are at least two reasons for this. The first, as William Goldman points out in Which Lie Did I Tell?, is that characters—especially heroes—must have mystery. Our favorite characters in movies or literature, whether they’re Hamlet, Lecter, or Rick Blaine, leave as many questions unresolved as they answer, which is why they’re so interesting to think about. In my experience, the less we know about a character’s past, the more intriguing he becomes, provided that he’s also interesting now. Conversely, if a character isn’t engaging in the context of the story itself, it doesn’t matter how fascinating you’ve assured us he was in the past. Many writers like to introduce their characters with long biographical digressions, as Carl Sagan does in Contact, but this rarely works as intended. It’s far more important to focus on what the character does in the moment.
For proof, look no further than AFI’s list of the top 100 movie heroes and villains. Many of these characters have since been exhaustively explored in sequels, novelizations, and fanfic, but the striking thing is how little we learn about them in the films where they made their greatest impression. We learn nothing of James Bond’s backstory in Dr. No, or in any of the classic Bond films—and even in Casino Royale, a deliberate attempt to show us the early Bond, his life before the movie is left unexplored. The same applies to Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, to John McClane, and even to Atticus Finch and T.E. Lawrence. And this is doubly true of villains: there’s Lecter, of course, but even Darth Vader, who remains just a man in a mask until the end of The Empire Strikes Back. In many cases, we’ve learned a lot more about these characters since then, but with few exceptions, this has nothing to do with why we fell in love with them in the first place.
So what’s a writer to do? At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’ve made a list of my own highly restrictive rules for backstory, with the caution that these only reflect what works for me:
- Don’t give any backstory in a character’s first appearance. A sentence or two briefly explaining who he is and why he’s here, if necessary, is more than enough. Just slide him directly into the action.
- Don’t worry about motivation. As long as the character’s objective in each scene is clearly defined, you don’t need to explain how he was shaped by events that took place years ago.
- After the character has been established by a handful of good scenes, and his role in the story is clear, then, if you must, insert some backstory. But no more than necessary. And always, if possible, conveyed through action or dialogue, rather than through flashbacks.
One last paradox: if you’ve followed these rules, readers are going to want more backstory. You’re going to get pleas for backstory from readers, from agents, from editors. Resist them if you can. If they want to know more about a character, it means you’ve done your job as a writer. But that doesn’t mean you should give it to them. Just ask Thomas Harris.
Last year, I wrote a long post titled “The sad case of Hannibal Lecter,” in which I lamented the fact that one of the most compelling fictional characters of the past thirty years had been destroyed by excessive backstory and authorial indulgence. Since then, this posting has become one of the most frequently viewed entries on this blog—mostly because of people searching for the Hannibal Lecter mask—and I’ve had a chance to revisit Lecter several more times, notably while reflecting on the movie adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs. What remains unchanged is my original conviction that Lecter is a ferociously effective supporting player who wilts when thrust into the spotlight, a wish-fulfillment character who doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s always dangerous when an author falls in love with his own creation, and in this case, fond father Thomas Harris ended up being Lecter’s worst enemy.
So you can imagine my feelings at the announcement that Lecter is being retooled for a new television series, of all things, focusing on the relationship between Hannibal and FBI profiler Will Graham prior to the events of Red Dragon. Bryan Fuller, the producer given the unenviable task of bringing this show to life, is a smart guy, and it’s possible that he’ll surprise me with an unexpected take on the material. And Lecter will evidently be confined to his cell for most of the series, which is exactly where he belongs. But for the most part, this project seems utterly misguided, an attempt to wring the last bit of interest out of a character who made his most indelible impression in eighteen minutes of screen time. Even if there really is demand for more Lecter, this is a textbook example of Joss Whedon’s axiom: “Don’t give people what they want. Give them what they need.”
And yet there’s a bright side to all this. Thomas Harris, despite his self-imposed seclusion, was once the best suspense novelist in the world. There’s a reason why The Silence of the Lambs recently topped NPR’s list of the best thrillers of all time: no one, not even Forsyth, has been better than Harris at his peak. And one of the saddest spectacles in recent literature has been watching Harris waste his talent on Lecter. After the novel Hannibal, there was clearly nowhere else for the character to go—especially once the movie version’s ending departed so radically from the original—so Harris was forced to dig deep into backstory, with the usual sorry results. Lecter’s dialogue used to be razor sharp, if often slightly too clever; in Hannibal Rising, he was reduced to lines like “My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.” As Anthony Lane said in his review of the book: “What the hell is going on here?”
But I remain hopeful that the old Harris still exists. We know for a fact that Harris is a slow, laborious writer: Stephen King has spoken of him as “writhing on the floor in agonies of frustration.” But the results were worth it. The more mediocre thrillers I read, the more I come to appreciate the Harris of Black Sunday, Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and even parts of Hannibal: his attention to detail, the density and texture of his prose, the inventiveness of his violence, and his odd compassion. And I’m convinced he can do it again, as long as he leaves Lecter behind. I’ve always thought that a new thriller by Harris, without Lecter, would be a major publishing event, and the fact that Harris seems willing to relinquish his most cherished creation to television—when he wrote Hannibal Rising expressly to prevent an unauthorized prequel from being made—implies that he has finally learned to let go. With Lecter outsourced to Bryan Fuller, could Harris give us another great novel? My heart hops at the thought.
In popular fiction, the ending is everything. An audience is often surprisingly tolerant of poor storytelling, at least after they’ve been engaged by the plot—either by having been hooked by a good beginning or, more prosaically, by having paid eleven dollars for the privilege of watching it—but a bad ending is something they won’t forgive. Conversely, a great ending, especially one that takes the audience by surprise, can send a story’s prospects into the stratosphere: Inception, for instance, where I was impressed by the movie but unsure of my reaction until the startling final shot. Similarly, I love the ending of The Departed, which replaces the morally ambiguous conclusion of Infernal Affairs with a simple severing of the knot. As De Niro says at the end of Casino: “And that’s that.”
Much worse, of course, is the protracted or endless ending. We’ve all experienced books or movies that drag out the story long after a natural climax has been reached, like The Return of the King, a great movie, or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a not-so-great book. With a book, at least you have a vague sense of how many more pages remain, but at the movies, I’ve often found myself hoping for a cut to black after a particularly cathartic moment, only to find that the story still had another ten minutes or more to run. Far more unusual is a movie that ends before we were expecting, but at what, in retrospect, was just the right time—which always inspires what I can only describe as surprised relief in the audience. And fiction abides by the same rules. In his valuable, if somewhat dated, Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz lays down the law:
Do not resolve the main plot problem on page 200 and continue to page 220 before typing “The End.” When the reader knows what happened, he doesn’t want to read on while the characters gab about how awful it was. If your plot contains an element of mystery, the explanations should be given throughout the climactic scene and not as an afterthought when all the action strings have been tied and cut. On the other hand, try to leave a couple of pages after the climax to let the reader settle down from that peak of emotion—a thousand words, no more.
This is good advice, although the limit of a thousand words is probably too restrictive. The two novels I’ve written have fairly similar structures: an intense climax, a short concluding chapter to tie off a few loose ends, and then a separate epilogue to set the stage for the next installment. Needless to say, I do my best to make sure that the material after the climax is as quick and concise as possible. More than one chapter of denouement, for instance, is almost certainly too much—a flaw that I’d argue applies even to that greatest of all thrillers, The Silence of the Lambs. (Thomas Harris uses a similarly long denouement for a sensational fakeout at the end of Red Dragon, which is why it’s surprising to see him play it straight in the sequel.)
As far as pushing the climax to the end is concerned, the quintessential example among thrillers is probably The Day of the Jackal. Frederick Forsyth’s debut is still the best international suspense novel ever written, thanks largely to its tight, almost mathematical pacing. The book’s three sections grow progressively compressed in length and scope: the second section is half as long as the first and covers about half as much time, while the third is even shorter, giving a sense of continuous acceleration. The main plot resolves itself on the next-to-last page, and Forsyth even saves a small surprise for the very end. It looks easy, but it isn’t: Forsyth’s subsequent novels, although some are very good, never quite manage to sustain the suspense so beautifully. And if it were easy, after all, it wouldn’t be so rare.
It’s been just over twenty years now since The Silence of the Lambs was released in theaters, and the passage of time—and its undisputed status as a classic—sometimes threatens to blind us to the fact that it’s such a peculiar movie. At the time, it certainly seemed like a dubious prospect: it had a director known better for comedy than suspense, an exceptional cast but no real stars, and a story whose violence verged on outright kinkiness. If it emphatically overcame those doubts, it was with its mastery of tone and style, a pair of iconic performances, and, not incidentally, the best movie poster of the modern era. And the fact that it not only became a financial success but took home the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as the four other major Oscars, remains genre filmmaking’s single most unqualified triumph.
It also had the benefit of some extraordinary source material. I’ve written at length about Thomas Harris elsewhere, but what’s worth emphasizing about his original novel is that it’s the product of several diverse temperaments. Harris began his career as a journalist, and there’s a reportorial streak running through all his best early books, with their fascination with the technical language, tools, and arcana of various esoteric professions, from forensic profiling to brain tanning. He also has a Gothic sensibility that has only grown more pronounced with time, a love of language fed by the poetry of William Blake and John Donne, and, in a quality that is sometimes undervalued, the instincts of a great pulp novelist. The result is an endlessly fascinating book poised halfway between calculated bestseller and major novel, and all the better for that underlying tension.
Which is why it pains me as a writer to say that as good as the book is, the movie is better. Part of this is due to the inherent differences in the way we experience movies and popular fiction: for detailed character studies, novels have the edge, but for a character who is seen mostly from the outside, as an enigma, nothing in Harris prepares us for what Anthony Hopkins does with Hannibal Lecter, even if it amounts to nothing more than a few careful acting decisions for his eyes and voice. It’s also an example of how a popular novel can benefit from an intelligent, respectful adaptation. Over time, Ted Tally’s fine screenplay has come to seem less like a variation on Harris’s novel than a superlative second draft: Tally keeps all that is good in the book, pares away the excesses, and even improves the dialogue. (It’s the difference between eating a census taker’s liver with “a big Amarone” and “a nice Chianti.”)
And while the movie is a sleeker, more streamlined animal, it still benefits from the novel’s strangeness. For better or worse, The Silence of the Lambs created an entire genre—the sleek, modern serial killer movie—but like most founding works, it has a fundamental oddity that leaves it out of place among its own successors. The details of its crimes are horrible, but what lingers are its elegance, its dry humor, and the curious rhythms of its central relationship, which feels like a love story in ways that Hannibal made unfortunately explicit. It’s genuinely concerned with women, even as it subjects them to horrible fates, and in its look and mood, it’s a work of stark realism shading inexorably into a fairy tale. That ability to combine strangeness with ruthless efficiency is the greatest thing a thriller in any medium can do. Few movies, or books, have managed it since, even after twenty years of trying.
Yesterday’s posting on the lure of bad movies, like Birdemic, raises the obvious question of whether the same allure clings to certain trashy books. At first glance, it might seem that the answer is no, at least not the same way: while a bad movie can be polished off in ninety minutes, even the junkiest novel usually requires a somewhat greater commitment, which raises the question of whether this is really the best use of one’s time. Life, it seems, is too short to knowingly waste on bad books, especially when so much good stuff remains unread. (Whenever I read a bad book, I feel as if I need to apologize personally to William Faulkner.) And yet I’ve learned a lot from bad fiction as well. As a writer, it’s useful to know something about every kind of literature, especially when you’re trying to make your mark in a genre that has generated its share of junk. And if you don’t read some trash, as well as better books, you’ll have no way of knowing if you can tell the difference.
The trouble, of course, is that one man’s trashy novel is another man’s masterpiece. The early novels of Thomas Harris, for instance, are hugely important to me, but diminishing returns set in about halfway through Hannibal, and by Hannibal Rising, there’s barely a single interesting page. But this, of course, is a judgment call, and some might draw the line much earlier or later. The same is true of Frederick Forsyth, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, or any other prolific popular novelist. Discriminating between the good (The Day of the Jackal) and the bad (The Negotiator) in a single writer’s body of work is an important part of developing one’s own taste. And sometimes a novelist will surprise you. I’ve repeatedly tried and failed to get into Tom Clancy—The Cardinal of the Kremlin nearly put me to sleep on a recent long bus trip—but I was delighted to discover that Without Remorse is a real novel, vicious, compelling, and with bravura set pieces that recall Forsyth, or even James Ellroy.
And sometimes even literary fiction can benefit from a touch of trash. I love John Updike, and believe that the Rabbit novels are among the essential cultural documents of the last century, but if I could own only one Updike novel, it would be Couples, which even his greatest fans seem to think he wrote at least partly for the money. And yet there’s something weirdly exhilarating about seeing Updike’s extraordinary prose and observational skills applied to blatantly commercial material. Updike can’t help being an artist, even when he’s writing a big sexy novel, and I’d argue that Couples, which isn’t that far removed from Peyton Place, was the novel he was born to write. (His later attempt at a “thriller,” in the form of Terrorist, is much less satisfying, and only comes to life whenever Updike revisits his old adulterous territory.)
But have I ever deliberately set out to read a novel that I knew was bad? Sure. While I haven’t managed to make it through Still Missing, for one, I love reading the bestsellers of yesteryear, embodied in the rows of yellowing paperbacks that line the shelves of thrift stores. The 1970s was a particularly rich era for trash. During my move from New York last year, the only book I kept in my empty apartment was a battered copy of Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, which I enjoyed immensely, especially when I mentally recast all the characters with actors from Mad Men. And I’m a little embarrassed to admit how quickly I plowed through Irving Wallace’s The Fan Club—a terrible book, and much less interesting than Wallace himself, but remarkably evocative of its era in popular fiction. Such books may not be great, but they’re an undeniable part of a writer’s education. (As long as they aren’t all you read.)
Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.
—Hannibal Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs
Yesterday I mentioned The Silence of the Lambs as a book that any aspiring writer might want to study to see how, exactly, it works, and with good reason: it’s possibly the most perfect thriller ever written. One could also read, with profit, the two earliest novels by Thomas Harris: Black Sunday is a fine, underrated book, and Red Dragon, though it has some structural problems, is still astonishing. Yet Hannibal, his fourth novel, should be approached with caution, and Hannibal Rising should best be avoided altogether. And the story of how Harris went from being the finest suspense novelist in the world to a shadow of his former self is an instructive cautionary tale.
Harris began his career as a crime writer for the Associated Press, and his background in journalism—like that of Frederick Forsyth, my other favorite suspense novelist—is evident in his earliest novels. Black Sunday is full of fascinating reportage, while Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are virtual textbooks on forensic profiling and criminal investigation. (While I was writing The Icon Thief, I was almost always rereading one of those three books, along with the best of Forsyth and James M. Cain.) Harris’s writing could be baroque, but he also had a nice ear for technical jargon, and a sense of how smart cops and FBI agents might talk among themselves.
None of these things would have made so great an impact, however, if Harris hadn’t also created Hannibal Lecter, the most vivid and enduring fictional character of the past thirty years. And the really impressive thing is that Lecter originally appeared in only a handful of chapters in Red Dragon and perhaps a quarter of the pages in The Silence of the Lambs. (Anthony Hopkins’s performance in the movie version of the latter consists of only eighteen minutes of screen time.) We don’t learn much about Lecter, we see him only briefly, but we—and the other characters—spend a lot of time thinking and talking about him when he isn’t onstage. And this is crucial to his character’s appeal.
Why? Here’s the big secret: when you shine a spotlight on Hannibal Lecter, he disappears. He’s unbelievable. He’s omniscient, infallible, unfailingly one step ahead of his adversaries. Aside from being utterly insane, he’s perfect. The fact that he’s embedded within a novel that is otherwise incredibly convincing and plausible, down to the smallest details of police procedure, blinds us to the fact that Lecter is a fantasy. And that’s fine. Nearly all the great heroes of popular fiction—and Lecter is a hero, cannibal or not—are fantasies as well, and they don’t hold up to scrutiny. WIlliam Goldman, in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, does a nice job of explaining why, in reference to a very different character:
The character of Rick [in Casablanca], of course, is very old—he’s the Byronic hero, the tall dark handsome man with a past.
Most movie stars—actors, not comedians—have essentially all played that same role. And they have to always face front, never turn sideways—
Because, you see, there’s nothing to them. Try and make them full, try and make them real, and guess what? They disappear.
…Hollywood heroes must have mystery.
Which applies just as much to Lecter, if not more so. It also applies to many of the most popular characters in fiction, who exist entirely in the moment. For all the valiant efforts of Sherlockians, we know almost nothing about the past of Sherlock Holmes. Forsyth’s Jackal doesn’t even have a name. And while it isn’t necessary for every novelist to go so far, remember this: backstory can be deadly. The primary interest of a fictional character comes from what he does, or doesn’t do, in the story itself, not from what happened to him before the story began. Character comes from action. If you’ve written a compelling character, of course, readers are naturally going to want more backstory, which is great—but that doesn’t mean you should give it to them.
Which is precisely where Harris went wrong. In Hannibal, and even more so with Hannibal Rising, Harris forgot that his most famous character absolutely needed to remain a mystery. Lecter was the breakout star of the series, after all, and readers clearly wanted to see more of him. So Harris turned Lecter into the lead, rather than a key supporting character, gave him a massive backstory involving Nazis, cannibalism, and a castle in Lithuania, and finally made him, in Hannibal Rising, almost entirely admirable and heroic. To use Martin Amis’s memorable phrase, Harris had “gone gay” for Lecter. And the series never recovered.
I still hope that Harris comes back and writes another amazing novel. I really do. Even Hannibal, for all its problems, has remarkable moments (although Hannibal Rising is almost entirely worthless). All the same, it’s been four years since we saw a new book from Harris, a notoriously slow and methodical writer, and there hasn’t been a whisper of another project. And the pressure to write another Hannibal Lecter novel must be tremendous. But I hope he resists it. Because an ambitious new thriller by Harris without Lecter would be the literary event of the year, maybe the decade. While another Lecter novel would be thin gruel indeed.