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Archive for June, 2010

Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is not a who-done-it. The page turning mastery here is in putting readers squarely in the criminal mind of Tom Ripley, setting up the unbelievable risks he takes, and convincing us at each turn that he’s sure to get caught in his lies, as we watch him get away with it all. 

I can’t compare Highsmith’s techniques to other writers of mysteries and thrillers, because I rarely read them. I don’t find the writing as rich and engaging in these genres as I do in more literary fiction. But Highsmith is one of the best in her field, and by studying how her plot and tension points pay off, we can apply what we learn to other fiction, as well as to thrillers.

Lesson: Foreshadow from the get-go

In the opening scene, Tom Ripley is walking fast, dodging someone. He’s a man with a questionable past, questionable intentions. He slips into a bar. Tom saw the man make a gesture of postponement to the barman, and come around the bar towards him. Here it was! Tom stared at him, paralysed. They couldn’t give you more than ten years, Tom thought. Maybe fifteeen, but with good conduct—In the instant the man’s lips parted to speak, Tom had a pang of desperate, agonized regret.

A criminal so quick to regret? Maybe he’s not such a bad guy. He’s had a tough go in life, and uses his considerable talents and charm to get what he can without working as hard as someone from his background usually must. The dodging and the pang are foreshadowing of action and of character.

When wealthy Herbert Greenleaf asks Tom to go to Europe, all expenses paid, to encourage his son Dickie to return to America, Tom jumps at the chance. This first case of mistaken identity foreshadows the identity theft to come. Tom is not the close friend to Dickie that Mr. Greenleaf assumes.

Lesson: It takes more than plot to engage readers—let them have tension!

Tom kills Dickie in order to become him, and then, through a turn of events, must become Tom again in order to inherit the dead Dickie’s trust fund money. That’s the plot, which Highsmith unfolds at a fast clip. Tom’s chameleon nature and his ability to bluff his way through every situation keeps him ahead of his pursuers.

What keep us engaged as readers is the tension between knowing, along with Tom, what he intends to do and wondering how he could possibly succeed without being discovered. Highsmith asks us to suspend our disbelief again and again —particularly in scenes such as one in which an investigator who questioned Tom posing as Dickie now questions Tom as himself. She accomplishes this by bringing the reader along with Tom’s anticipations and giving him heedless confidence in his brazen plan. [The tenente] was staring at Tom’s hands. Or at least Tom imagined that he was staring at his hands. Tom had his own ring on again, but did the tenente possibly notice some resemblance? Tom boldly thrust his hand forward to the ashtray and put out his cigarette.

The tenente and his assistant are fooled and don’t see Tom’s resemblance to himself when he pretended to be Dickie. Rather than being relieved and grateful, Tom is arrogant. He could have flown—like a bird, out of the window, with spread arms! The idiots! All around the thing and never guessing it! Never guessing that Dickie was running from the forgery questions because he wasn’t Dickie Greenleaf in the first place! The one thing they were bright about was that Dickie Greenleaf might have killed Freddie Miles. But Dickie Greenleaf was dead, dead, deader than a doornail and he, Tom Ripley was safe!  

For how long we don’t know, but Tom keeps upping the stakes, taking bolder and bolder moves in a master scheme to gain the trust fund of the man he murdered. Surely, we think, he can’t get away with it.

Lesson: Give your character a complex psychology

The sympathy in Tom’s character comes from Tom’s childlike desire to be admired for being someone he’s not. Who hasn’t felt that way at some point? If Tom didn’t loathe himself so much, the reader might loathe him more. To Tom, money and position will garner love or substitute for the love he’s never had. Through his bold cleverness and some luck, Tom gets away with murder and theft. He even gets the blessing of Mr. Greenleaf, who ultimately believes Tom’s story that Dickie wanted Tom to have the money. But the self-doubt and self-loathing that inspires Tom toward crime, and the successful crime itself, are his nemesis.

Lesson: Create a loop—beginning to end—for story symmetry

At the end, Tom tries to shake the notions that he’s being followed. He’s escaped everything and everyone, and though richer, he has not come far from where he began, glancing over his shoulder. There is symmetry here, a roundness from beginning to end.

He sees police, is sure they’re after him, and heads toward a group of four. For a moment he seems resigned to being caught, and he seems relieved. No fuss, he thought, he’d just tell them himself who he was. There was a big newsstand behind the policemen, and he thought of buying a paper. Perhaps they would let him. The policmen stared back at him from over their folded arms as he approached them. They wore black uniforms with visored caps. Tom smiled at them faintly. One of the touched his cap and stepped aside. But the others did not close in. Now Tom was practically between two of them, right in front of the newsstand, and the policemen were staring forward again, paying no attention to him at all.

Tom can’t get away with it, after all. He can escape everyone but himself, a man painfully alone in the world. 

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In the chilling short novel Felicia’s Journey, William Trevor sustains tension page after page through control of information slipped to the reader. When we meet the young Irish girl Felicia on page one, she’s sick. Perhaps her illness is caused by the motion of the ferry she’s on, but might she be pregnant? Trevor plants the suspicion.

Lesson: Let readers see the action and draw their own conclusions

Trevor doesn’t tell us she’s left home, he shows her sneaking away: Then she slipped out the back way to the Square, twenty-five minutes early for the 7:45 bus. All the time she was nervous in case her father or her brothers appeared, and when the bus started to move she squinted sideways out of the window, a hand held up to her face. She kept telling herself that they couldn’t know about the money yet, that they wouldn’t even have found the note she’d left, but none of that helped.

Through flashbacks in Felicia’s consciousness, more is revealed. There’s been a sexual relationship with a boy she met: His lips are moist when he kisses her again, and he closes his eyes when she does, in just the same moment, as if they are one. Felicia asks for help from a Miss Fury, who it was rumored had once been unwed and pregnant, but the narrative is unspecific. We only hear: [Felicia] let it all tumble out. 

Lesson: Play with doubt, but don’t take the reader for a fool  

If we read the jacket copy, we know Felicia is unmarried, pregnant, and penniless before we begin. But Trevor is such a master of delusion, that we may still have a shred of doubt by page 59 when Felicia’s father confronts her ( in her flashback )—Has Lysaght got you pregnant?She didn’t pretend otherwise. Finally she admits, as we’re ready for her to do, “There’s no doubt about it.”

Lesson: Triple the tension, triple the fun

Since the opening scene on the ferry, we’ve been accompanying Felicia on her journey to find Johnny Lysaght, the father of the baby. That alone might be enough tension for readers: Will she find him? Will he take her in or refuse her? Will she be able to return home?

Trevor ratchets it up with the introduction on page six of Mr. Hilditch, an odd duck at best. Mr. Hilditch’s hands are small, seeming not to belong to the rest of him: deft, delicate fingers that can insert a battery into a watch or tidily truss a chicken, this later a useful accomplishment, for of all things in the world Mr. Hilditch enjoys eating.

Should we assume that his talent with the chicken is not an admirable quality?

His bulk suggest a man careless of his own longevity, his smiling presence indicates an extrovert philosophy. But Mr Hilditch, in his lone moments, is often brought closer to other, darker, aspects of the depths that lie within him. When a smile no longer matters he can be a melancholy man.

The thrill is in knowing that he’s the bad guy and in guessing just how bad.

Lesson: Work against expectations

We’re sure Mr Hilditch is up to no good. Again, the jacket copy has warned: [Felicia] meets up with the fat, fiftyish, unfailingly reasonable Mr. Hilditch, who is looking for a new friend to join the five other girls in Memory Lane. 

Memory Lane? The innocuous sound of the place terrifies and so does the mild-mannered Hilditch. 

On page 9, before Mr Hilditch has seen our wayward protagonist, we begin fearing for her. Just before midday on this Wednesday—a day that so far strikes Mr Hilditch as being in no way special apart from the promise of turkey pie—he makes his way to the kitchens in order to taste the lunchtime menu in full.

He’s not sharpening his knives, loading his gun, or reading child pornography. He’s just a factory lunchroom manager with food always on his mind and a pot of sinister on simmer.

Lesson: Drop crumbs of revelation and keep a few in your pocket

When Mr. Hilditch does meet Felicia, we understand only as much about him as Trevor allows: Being curious by nature, Mr. Hilditch wonders what her plastic bags contain….a careful man, [he] doesn’t wish to be seen with a girl on the factory premises. No one has observed their meeting, of that he is certain. No windows overlook the tarmacadam expanse; no one is, or has been about. He has never been seen in the company of a girl on the factory premises, nor anywhere in the immediate neighbourhood. Nothing like that on your own doorstep is the rule he has.

Nothing like what? It’s page 12 and we’re hooked. Our desire to turn the page depends as much or more on what Trevor doesn’t reveal as what he does.

Lesson: Alternate points of view

Trevor strings us along by alternating points of view between Felicia and Mr Hilditch, chapter by chapter or within chapters. At times it’s close third person, at other times it’s an observant narrator giving us the feeling that someone is watching Mr. Hilditch while he’s watching Felicia or someone is watching Felicia while she’s unaware of Mr. Hilditch waiting his turn to follow and entice her into his Memory Lane. The back and forth play gives Trevor the latitude to go into flashbacks with Felicia — what happened before her journey began — and to end a chapter on a cliffhanger and make us wait for a chapter or more to see what happens. Even better, the back and forth makes it possible for him to spin out delusion and tension until the very end.

On page 156, we’re in Felicia’s consciousness. She has become aware of the danger Mr Hilditch presents. She’s in his home and has found a piece of grate to use as a weapon. The chapter ends with this: She descends the unlit stairway, pausing every two or three steps to listen in case he has returned to the house. The metal bar makes a clatter on the tiles of the hall when it slips from her fingers. In a panic because she can’t find the latch of the hall door, she feels for  alight switch.

The next four chapters are Hilditch’s. It’s not until page 200 that we find out what happens to Hilditch and a few pages later what happened to Felicia. Because Trevor established the back and forth early on, we don’t feel manipulated. We stay with the story, trusting him to reveal all in his own time. 

Lesson: Use delusion to advantage

Mr Hilditch is not cooking on all four burners. His delusion becomes ours. We fear he’s killed Felicia, but then we’re not sure. We’re not sure that Hilditch knows or remembers what happened. His Memory Lane seems a blur to him as well as to us. We hear his thoughts about Felicia: There’s no place for her in his Memory Lane, because any moment she may walk in. We hope she escaped, but realize that he’s also unclear about the whereabouts of the other girls in Memory Lane. He seems to have had a blackout: The moment of each departure having been so painful that an unconscious part of him has erased the surrounding details.

Maybe our conclusion that he’s a murderer is wrong, maybe he’s just a strange man who has his way with girls and lets them go. We see through his eyes how Felicia disappeared into the fog, but did she escape? Maybe the fog is just another euphemism for death, a way for him not to deal with reality. His guilt and fear of being caught are making him increasingly delusional.

Lesson: Give your antagonist a dollop of humanity

And then there’s his relationship with his mother, no longer living, from which we learn through few specifics the reason for his off-balance predatory interest in girls. We may find Mr Hilditch despicable, but we gain a bit of compassion. This gives the story a new twist and keeps us engaged. We want to know about Felicia and now much more. Rather than flip to the end to see what happens to her, we keep reading, turning pages as Trevor intended.

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