Ken Wallo asked me to write a post on what I have learned from reading The Silence of the Lambs. There are a ton of things, and I'll try to summarize them all here, but I didn't just learn them from reading The Silence of the Lambs, but also from reading The Story Grid that dissects it in detail (I highly recommend you read it and see for yourself). Let's get this party started.
1. Introduce all your main characters in the first chapter.
It's a good idea to cram them all into the first chapter (and I mean, all of them, as there are usually not more than four—if you have more than four, you have a problem, unless you've got years and years of writing experience under your belt). You gotta grab your readers early. The earlier someone is mentioned, and the more often they're mentioned, the more importance they will bear, the more attention your readers will give to them (and the more seeds you can plant for later plot twists). Go grab a copy of The Silence of the Lambs and thumb through the book with me. Let's take a look at who is introduced in Chapter 1.
When it opens, we're immediately (in the second sentence) introduced to the protagonist Clarice Starling, the underdog and the future hero. Then to her good mentor Jack Crawford, in sentence six. We're given brief histories on both, enough to establish rapport. Then Harris mentions Clarice's father, a marshal. Then thirty-two serial killers (note the big number, to make the thirty-third of them stand out). Then Clarice's bad mentor—Hannibal Lecter. Then, cleverly, the killer by his nickname Buffalo Bill. Then the hospital director, Dr. Chilton (and he's presented as a fool right away, so the seeds are planted). And finally, Lecter's victim, Will Graham; his protege, killer Red Dragon (from the previous book); and his other victim, the nurse. Plus, we're given a general feeling of the time (Prince Andrew is mentioned), the importance (the FBI Behavioral Science section Director is mentioned), and the urgency (the press—National Tattler—is mentioned). All rolled up into a few opening pages. Just some mentions here and there, while we read the chapter, unaware, thinking it's just two people talking. Impressive.
2. Create "layers" to get to the killer.
Because the book we're discussing is a thriller, this will be applicable mostly to thrillers. Thomas Harris did something very smart. He has used layers, like matryoshka dolls (or onion skins), for structuring access to the biggest mystery of the book. The two major book questions are: Who is the killer? And where the hell does he kill his victims? Note how it takes Starling "layers" to break through, to find the killer and to get to him. Note also how those "layers" are people—human obstacles standing in her way. First it's Crawford (in the first chapter), then Chilton (in the second chapter), then Lecter (in the third chapter), then the identity of Buffalo Bill (in the fourth chapter), and so on. Starling keeps moving down more layers—more people and obstacles. It's not clear-cut like in math, but if you read the book with "layers" in mind, you'll see how Harris wraps Jame Gumb inside all those other personalities, and how Starling can't get to him until she peels off the skins of others. A fascinating technique (I'm going to steal it).
3. Two characters per scene/chapter to keep the conflict simple.
Every scene (most scenes in this book are chapter-long) has only two to three main characters. Thus, the conflict is confined to only two to three characters. It makes the story clean and simple, and the book overall very easy to read. Which is exactly what you want. Although the story seems very big (lots of stuff happening, lots of people mentioned), the actual cast of characters is very small.
Here is a rundown of scenes and the number of characters in each (borrowed from The Story Grid book that conveniently breaks it down): In the total of 64 scenes, 19 have two characters, 22 have three characters, and the rest have anywhere from 1 to 14 characters. So in two thirds of the whole book you're only dealing with two-three people at a time in any given scene. As they say, keep it simple, stupid. It pays off.
4. Nest the clues inside one another.
There are many ways to sprinkle in the clues. Like a chain. Like a tree. At random. Harris uses an approach I fell in love with. He comes up with only one clue, one major core clue, then he nests it in another clue, and so on, again, like matryoshka dolls, so you have to peel them off to see them. It's brilliant in its simplicity. Only he goes one step further. He makes sure each clue is so different from its peeled-off predecessor, it seems completely new and unrelated and keeps the reader glued to the page. Let's take a look at them.
There are a total of nine clues (and three conceptual nests). Clue 1 is Raspail's car. One big container of something, right? Now get this. Clue 2 is also a container, only smaller—the jar in the Raspail's car, and (nested again!) inside that jar is a dead head. Clue 3 deviates from Nest 1 (like I said before, it's not clean mathematically) in that it's about the killer's house—it has two stories—which is Nest 2, also a big container. Clue 4 returns to Nest 1—the bug cocoon found inside the head. See how they're all tied together? Clue 5 tells us that the moth from the cocoon is homegrown. So it's back to Nest 2, the two-story house where the moth lives. Clue 6 brings us back to Nest 1—there is an identical moth cocoon in the head from the jar. Clue 7 establishes Nest 3—the identity of the killer is hidden in the denied sex-change applications. Clue 8 goes deeper another level of Nest 1 (away from the physical, down into the psychological)—the idea of imago. And then Clue 9 brings them all together. Hannibal Lecter asks Clarice Starling: "Do you sew?" It's yet another "nest"—or skin—that Jame Gumb had been sewing for himself, to change from a man to a woman, from a pupa to a butterfly. So we have the car as Nest 1, the house as Nest 2, and the paperwork as Nest 3. So when we get that the killer is making himself a new skin, the rush of insight unravels all those nests and gives us a powerful high.
5. Use false scene endings.
I noted a few of those—when we think all is lost, only to have it reverse at the very end. The most powerful one unfolds in the beginning of the book, when Lecter refuses to fill out Starling's questionnaire, and she exists the ward, thinking she has failed. Then at the last moment Miggs sprays her with his sperm, and Lecter, furious at the rudeness and the indecency, calls to Starling and gives her a clue. This scene follows the plot structure to the T: the crisis is when Starling thinks she has failed, and the climax is when Lecter gives her the clue. The resolution is nearly non-existent, collapsed with the climax. But such is the case, I've noticed, in many dramatic scenes. To keep the tension high, it pays off to end on the very climax. The resolution happens in our minds.
6. Plant clues as one-liners early on.
Just one line is enough, really. Or even one word. Ideally, connected to one of the senses. Look what Harris does. He drops a line about the goat smell of a schizophrenic. Then later, when Starling is alone in the dark with Jame Gumb, what does the smell? The goat. In that one little instance we get two things: she knows where Gumb is, and she knows he's crazy (just like we do, of course). Minimalism at its best. Another such one-liner is when Lecter tells her about his drawing—it's the view from Belvedere. It's a play on words, because later we find out that Gumb's home is in Belvedere, Ohio. Another one is about Starling being very good at shooting (she is praised in a one-line sentence). So when it comes to the final scene in Gumb's basement, the fact that she manages to shoot him in the dark, directed by his smell and the sound of the pistol being cocked, is justified. There are more, but these are the ones that jumped out at me. You can plant those in your own book, by going backwards when editing. That's how I do it. Except it's much easier now that I plot my books, as I think of those one-line clues ahead of time.
7. Describe the failure in detail.
I haven't seen this one used as extensively before, and I will watch for it in other books. I suspect it's very common, as it makes perfect sense. To build tension, we have to make the good characters suffer (and show how they suffer). Also, it's much more dramatic to describe the failure as opposed to the win. We like the dark, gory details. Harris does it very well with Catherine, describing in painstaking detail her failure to capture Precious. We feel it with her every step of the way, and we're devastated with her, scared, crushed, anguished. Notice what he does next. Catherine ultimately manages to catch Precious, but Harris keeps it offstage. We're never told how she does it. We're surprised by it, when he mentions she got her, in one line. And why would he? That would be boring. Another thing I learned—focus on the misery, stretch it for as long as you think your reader will tolerate it, then deliver the win fast.
8. Last line of a chapter is a punchline.
This goes back to ending each high-tension scene (or chapter) on a climax. It can be applied to any chapter, really, not only the ones that have us biting our nails. The final line of a chapter is used as a punchline, the answer to the chapter's overall question. "His name is Jame Gumb," is one such line. BOOM. It's huge. It's the name of the killer, one of the main novel questions, answered. After a line like this nothing else should be added, to let it stand alone. Lesson learned.
There you go. These are the eight major things I've extracted. Of course, there are many more. I suppose we all do some versions of the above unconsciously, but it's cool to dissect a book and hunt for patterns (though who knows, maybe Harris didn't mean them the way I thought he did). Not that those patterns stay in my head when I start writing my own book, but occasionally, when I think of some issue, they crop up in my mind, and I use them. So hopefully this is what you've been looking for, Ken, when you asked me what I learned from reading The Silence of the Lambs. Now you owe me cookies. With a nice Chianti.