Getting Away with It

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 policemen 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 them 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. 


Trevor’s Masterful Control of Tension & Reveal

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.

Master Craft Juggling

Writing a book is like juggling balloons. You pay attention to one element or the other, while a centrifugal force in your mind keeps them floating together in a big balloon cloud above your head.

Master Fiction Craft Juggling

A graphic depiction of learning fiction craft mastery


 In Read to Write, we begin with first sentences (front gatekeepers), because that’s where we begin as readers. A writer may, in fact, begin in any number of places—with a story seed (whether consciously or not), a character, place, theme, or any other craft element. This diagram shows how the course structure works for your manuscript draft or revision or to gain understanding of an author’s mastery. As we start at 1, thinking about beginnings, we’re also looking to the end (last sentences, gates swinging shut or opening out past the story) and to all that comes between. When writing a book, each craft element influences the development of all the others, and as the book builds from its essential reason for being, the cumulative effect of the elements reaches out to re-influence each element again individually.

This back-and-forth and circular dynamic enriches the writing and the book’s gestalt. Initial close examination of a few sentences sets the standard for mastery. The book is composed of sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, into which we infuse all the elements. The thrill and challenge of writing a book is in keeping it all juggling in the air, whether while writing or going about other activities and consciously or subconsciously tucking new thoughts and observations up into the individual thought balloons and the larger whole.

Books by masterful authors, whether read during the course of working on a project or echoing from having been read however long ago, continually instruct and influence a writer’s processes and projects. 

The diagram above shows why a book project may feel like its spinning totally out of control at times or like its humming along at other times. The writer must make each element serve the cumulative effect of the book. Elements out of balance throw off synchronicity. 

Writers go through a semblance of this craft process many times, perhaps many hundreds of times, when writing a book. And with each new project, they begin again. Call it revision, but it’s more than that. It’s mastery, for which there are no direct routes, easy steps, or guaranteed results. No matter how skilled or famous the writer is, each new book calls for juggling its own way.

The Days of Abandonment: Back Story in Bed

Pain on page one

In Ferrante’s second paragraph, she puts our protagonist in bed—a double bed—desolate. Most craft books warn beginning writers: don’t start your story with a character in bed. However, so much has happened to this poor woman by the book’s seventh sentence that she deserves a rest. She can’t sleep, but only obsesses about her husband. She can’t figure out why he’s left. “I knew him well, I was aware the he was a man of quiet feelings, the house and our family rituals were indispensable to him.We talked about everything, we still liked to hug and kiss each other, sometimes he was so funny he could make me laugh until I cried.” She’s baffled: “It seemed to me impossible that he should truly want to leave.” She’s sympathetic: “When I recalled that he hadn’t taken any of the things that were important to him, and had even neglected to say goodbye to the children, I felt certain it wasn’t serious. He was going through one of those moments that you read about in books, when a character reacts in an unexpectedly extreme way to the normal discontents of living.” Hmm. Does she really know him as well as she thinks she does? She sees him as a character, just as we do. She’s a character too, after all, but by naming him as such, she (the protagonist guided by Ferrante) adds another layer of detachment to her crisis and moves closer to the reader. We feel her physically.

Transition to back story

Then in paragraph three, she confides: “After all, it had  happened before: the time and the details came to mind as I tossed and turned in the bed.” This is a masterful transition to back story for many reasons. Ferrante moves from the present to the past keeping the woman in place—in bed— for four pages. During this time the protagonist remembers what happened that other time her husband left, then muses over their relationship with a realtor, Gina, that they’d engaged to buy their house and her teenage daughter, Carla. With the back story, the protagonist can leave the bed in her mind and take us with her: she gives us a taste of Turin, the city to which they’d moved five years ago—metallic, green, yellow, red, leaves, stripped by the wind, foggy air, fresh sparkling breeze. She paints a picture of Mario (her husband is named on page three) with Carla, realizing “it wasn’t the mother I had to worry about but the daughter.” The girl has a “swaying body, restless eyes.” Though this is still back story, it’s sensuous, fully fleshed in our protagonist’s mind as if in the present. We’re told that the marital crisis of the past was resolved and that her husband “returned to being the man he had always been.” By now we’re not sure that is such a good recommendation, if, in fact, he was a man who, as she’s revealed, broke off relations with her for no apparent reason only six months after they had been together, because “there had come upon him a sudden absence of sense,” and then used that same excuse when he became infatuated with the the realtor and her daughter.

Transition to present story

The protagonist breaks her reverie, gets out of bed for a cup of chamomile tea. From her window, she sees the musician Carrano, her downstairs neighbor, “coming up the path,his head bowed, carrying over his shoulders the giant case…” He “disappeared beneath the trees in the little square.” She goes back to bed, believing everything will return to normal. We’re at the end of page six, all the major characters have been introduced, we have a sense of place and time, sensuous detail we can touch, taste, and see, full-bodied characters, an informative and vivid back story—just enough. We’d like to get in bed, too, and believe in normal, but we know that can’t be—or why would this story exist? The tension is palpable. We’re not sleeping tonight. We have to turn the page.

Lesson for writers

Create a “vivid, continuous dream”

Use sensory language to create scenes in the present, past and future. Bring your reader into the character’s consciousness and create the vivid, continuous dream that John Gardner talks about in his artful book The Art of Fiction. He’s not referring to a dream in the character’s mind, though the character may be dreaming. He says that “fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.”  The pull of place—in the above example the bed, a comfortable setting we all know and understand—and sensory language—casts a spell. Olga’s husband’s sudden “absence of sense” is replaced in our minds and its opposite heightened by familiar and vivid sensations. Even when she breaks her reverie, Olga’s desire for camomile tea steeps the transition from back story to present story in sensory detail.

The Days of Abandonment: First Paragraph

Entering the story of “The Days of Abandonment,” author Elena Ferrante drops us right into the protagonist’s pain, and does so with a detachment that sets up the woman’s emotional state. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator.”

Masterful control of narrative

Let’s examine this first sentence from the hand of an author who is in complete control of her narrative and kind to her readers, even though she is about to take us into the depths of the narrator’s despair. With calm clarity, Ferrante places us in time in this domestic drama: “One April afternoon, right after lunch…” Nothing could be more ordinary. The repeated “after” propels us forward. This is a story about what’s coming next. We can’t hold onto the past any more than the narrator can, though she tries in vain to do so. She gives us the reason for what will be the narrator’s unraveling: “my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Already we sense narrator’s out-of-body response to the news: “He did it while we were clearing the table”—as if the crisis were just another dish to wash. We learn later how much she has given up to be wife and mother and how little self-identity she still claimed, even before her husband abandoned her.

Punctuation matters

Punctuation plays a role. The semicolon separates her husband from the children and the dog, just as his leaving splits their family life. The children and dog remain in her care, though the children’s “quarreling” anticipates it won’t be easy to be the single parent and the dog’s “growling” suggests he may play an role other than silent pet, and he does.

Lessons for writers

Point the way in the first sentence

When I read masterful opening sentences such as these, I wonder how they evolved. Did the author write them first? Did she know where she was going and how well they’d lead her there? Did she go back to the beginning with each draft, honing these sentences to direct the final manuscript? In the novels I’ve written, there are many attempts at first paragraphs which set up the same story from radically different entry points. Rewriting the first sentence helps me understand the story—a pointer showing where the story wants to go.

Drop details bit by bit

In Ferrante’s first two sentences, the major characters are introduced, except for the “other woman” and the narrator’s new love interest, both of whom will be mentioned by page five. But this novel is mainly about the dissolution of a family, the abandonment of a marriage covenant. Why does the dog appear here? Because he will play a major role in the narrator’s descent into hell and her redemption. Do we need to know this as readers starting out? No. But novel writing is a bit like Hansel and Gretel’s dropping of bread crumbs to mark the trail. Ferrante’s crumbs keep us turning pages, yes, but also introduce bit by bit the ordinary and terribly extraordinary daily details of abandonment.

Make characters complex: Give flaws to protagonists, redeem antagonists

Read Ferrante’s next two lines: “He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.” Wouldn’t it be so much easier for the abandoned wife if she could hate her husband with better reason than that he left her? How much simpler it would be if he was cruel to the children or beat her. How more likely we could hate him if he just walked out, didn’t “talk for a long time” and reproached her unfairly. How much easier for us and for the narrator to despise a bully than a coward.

Use vivid detail, vivid metaphor

The first paragraph consists of six sentences. Here are the final two: “He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were uging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.”

How could we not read on? She’s turned to stone and we don’t even know her name. In fact, she’s so lacking in her own personal sense of identity that we don’t find out her name—Olga—until pages into the story, long after the name of the “other woman” is mentioned. But the “turned to stone” tells us that Olga isn’t taking this calmly in the course of her day, as the narrative tone suggests.

Thread tension: create friction between opposites, against expectations

The tension established between what seems to be and the true depths of emotion keeps tension on the page.  The dropping in, little by little, of information tucked among sensory language—”dog growling, radiator (the heat will be echoed later in Olga’s August entrapment in the apartment), extravagant gesture of his right hand, childish frown, sort of whispering”—keeps us reading. We can see, hear, and feel the scene. The “turned to stone” anticipates how bad it will be for our protagonist, who is left not in a romantic upheaval—on the bed! under the train!—but “beside the sink.” For this women, there are dishes to do, even though her marriage has fallen apart. Ferrante shows us well that when things go wrong it’s harder to bear real life if there is no escaping from it.

In my next post, I’ll examine how Ferrante masterfully brings in the necessary back story—never an easy task, always a pitfall for a writer.