What’s it All About?

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Now that Thomas Harris has his marching orders set in stone on his Foolscap Global Story Grid in terms of his External and Internal Content Genres, what he’ll do now is write down the obligatory scenes and conventions of the serial killer thriller in shorthand to remind himself of his “must haves.”

Obligatory Scenes and Conventions: 1. Crime/MacGuffin 2. Villain makes it personal 3. Red Herrings 4. Clock 5. Speech in prais of villain 6. Hero at mercy of villain scene 7. False Ending.

Looking at this list of seven, Harris understands that each of these elements should be literally “on stage, on the page” so that the reader is clearly satisfied that they’ve been delivered. They can’t be off stage and reported by a third party or the reader will find himself vaguely disappointed by the Story.

So, we’ll need at least seven scenes to deliver what is expected in a thriller:

  • A scene/chapter that establishes the central crime and its inherent MacGuffin (the big “want” of the villain)
  • A scene/chapter that establishes that the villain has made his crimes personal in relation to the investigator
  • A scene/chapter that establishes at least one false lead/red herring
  • A possible scene/chapter that clearly establishes a clock
  • A scene/chapter that establishes the gravitas/praises the intelligence and/or power of the villain
  • A scene/chapter that puts the hero at the mercy of the villain
  • A scene/chapter that is a false ending

These seven scenes are extremely concrete assignments. They break down an extremely intimidating task into clear, doable bits. While you may end up writing twenty versions of each of these scenes before you find the perfect fit for your Story, understanding what these scenes are and why they need to be in your thriller leapfrogs you into action.

Write them down on your one page foolscap so that you never forget their importance. And then make damn sure that you have them in your final manuscript. I’ll show you how to do this when you map out the final Story Grid. I’ll pinpoint exactly where Harris satisfied these conventions…the exact scenes themselves.

Now that we have some momentum, let’s keep moving down our Foolscap.

Harris now has to make global decisions about the point of view and generally what his controlling idea/theme will be for the entire novel.

Let’s start with Point of View.

This choice is relatively simple for a thriller. I’d suggest either one of two.

You can write a thriller in first person from the lead character’s point of view. The effect is literally having your lead character tell the Story to the reader. I went to see Hannibal Lecter… for example.

The advantages of first person are the immediate establishment of a tight bond between the reader and a character. Gillian Flynn does this extraordinarily well in Gone Girl for both her female and male lead characters.

The limitations of first person, though, are the inability to narrate a scene where your lead character is not present. Some writers get around this limitation by having multiple first person Storylines, like Gillian Flynn does. Others find that a singular and direct approach aids them in creating tension. First person is a perfectly valid, and when done well, an extremely compelling choice. Years ago I worked on a police procedural novel called Eleven Days by Donald Harstad, which used first person to perfection as did a more recent novel from one of my clients, The 500 by Matthew Quirk.

The alternative to pure first person is to use the wonderful old standby “cheat” called Free Indirect Style. Free Indirect Style evolved in the nineteenth century in France and other places where writers were working out “realism.” Gustave Flaubert is often credited with the first very immersive Free Indirect Style in Madame Bovary. Essentially, Free Indirect Style is a way of writing in third person, while also allowing the writer to crawl inside the brain of a character and tell the reader her thoughts. For more on it, re-read this.

Harris chose to use Free Indirect Style throughout The Silence of the Lambs.

Just to make the Free Indirect Style more clear, I refer to this technique in The Story Grid Spreadsheet and from this point forward as Omniscient Intracranial, which is sort of a wide-angle “mind-reading” vision from a single character’s point of view.

Next Harris had to choose whether he should add additional points of view other than his lead character, Clarice Starling. I’m sure he debated these choices innumerable times in his mind, but for my money, I think he came up with a perfect mix when he gave dedicated chapters to Jack Crawford, Jame Gumb, Hannibal Lecter, Catherine Martin, Senator Martin, Ardelia Mapp, and Select Police/FBI/Paramedics. Harris also used straight up third person omniscient a number of times (the journalist’s default choice to tell a Story) in order to convey an authoritarian sensibility for exposition. The effect was to drop in essential exposition in the guise of an official report or a journalist’s notes. He does this with his journalistic detailing the preparations of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team for example.

Here’s a list of all of the points of view and the number of scenes each point of view has in the Beginning Hook (BH), Middle Build (MB) and Ending Payoff (EP) of the entire novel.

Point of View in The Silence of the Lambs

Point of View in The Silence of the Lambs


Last but certainly not least, Harris may have begun writing The Silence of the Lambs with some sort of controlling idea in mind. I don’t think it tormented him to the degree that his first Lecter-themed novel, Red Dragon did. But remember that I have no idea whatsoever about his writing process. All of my analysis of his work is through the lens of The Story Grid and not in any way a nonfiction account of how Mr. Harris writes.

Let’s review again exactly what a Controlling Idea is. If you’d like more of a refresher, read this.

The controlling idea is the takeaway for the reader. It’s what the entire Story is all about. And it should be easily expressed in one sentence, describing how and why a change has occurred from the state at the beginning of the Story to the state at the end of the Story. As Harris has decided to counterbalance his external thriller plot with an internal disillusionment plot, he’s setting out to leave the reader with a sense of irony.

If he had decided just to focus on the External Plot, his controlling idea would be something like “Justice triumphs when the protagonist empathizes with the victims.” Remember that Starling doesn’t crack and break the Buffalo Bill case until she looks at the world through Fredrica Bimmel’s eyes, the first victim of Jame Gumb in Belvedere, Ohio.

But Harris set out to do more than just convey the message that we should pay as much, if not more attention to the victims of violent crime as we do the perpetrators. As a former journalist for the Associated Press and reporter on the police beat in Waco, Texas, Harris was well aware of the human infatuation with evil and of how that curiosity is exploited by tabloid journalism.

That theme was a very big element in Red Dragon.

How he chose to create deeper meaning with The Silence of the Lambs is by placing as much emphasis on Starling’s self-delusion and naiveté as he does on the thriller plot. How she changes from the beginning of the novel and how she comes to a deeper understanding of herself and her place in the world by the end is the heart and soul of the work. It’s not just the emphasis on the disillusionment plot that takes the novel into a higher realm; it’s the mechanism Harris chose to enlighten Starling that provides an even deeper irony.

At the end of the novel, Starling has saved the life of another person and saved herself from personal damnation (if she had decided to not go to Ohio against orders, Catherine Martin would have died…). But she did so not by being supported by a righteous human institution, the FBI, but through the help of evil incarnate, Hannibal Lecter. The FBI portrays itself as a force of good, but in the novel, it is in fact the opposite.

The psychopath who literally eats human beings he finds contemptible for seemingly no other reason than sport is in fact the most consistent and forthright character in the entire novel. While he certainly withholds information from her, Lecter does not lie to Starling.

He mentors her far more than Jack Crawford.

And it is through Lecter’s help that Starling is not only able to help humanity, but to find the truth about herself. The trick she learns by the end of the novel is not to silence the screams of the lambs within her, but to listen to them.

So what is the overarching controlling idea of The Silence of the Lambs? The clue for me is in Harris’ choice of title.

Starling has to accept that the shrieks of the lambs within her psyche will never go away. She can live in fear of them and do everything in her power to escape them or she can use them as fuel to compel her in her life’s work—seeking justice. On a global thematic scale, I think you can see the lambs as Jesus Christ metaphors. That is, we continually slaughter the truth, the word of Christ, the lamb of God.

We deny the truth of ourselves. We silence innocence.

Lecter, the dark prince, understands that Starling’s anger (a dark force) and her deep sense of injustice from her childhood are the very things that will enable her to unearth the truth about Buffalo Bill. Lecter literally asks Starling a number of times in the novel, “What do you do with your anger, Clarice?”

She never verbally answers the question. But she does with her actions.

She uses her anger to drive herself into the abyss…to raise the courage to battle the dragon in his own dark lair. She succeeds on one level, slaying Buffalo Bill, but loses on another.

Her pas de deux with Lecter ultimately ensures the cannibal’s escape. Perhaps the controlling idea is this: Justice prevails when the protagonist engages her inner darkness as passionately as she does her “positive” side.

Alternatively, We silence the word of God because the Devil’s diction is far more entertaining.

Or, Evil silences truth.

I suspect Thomas Harris understands the irony of a serial killer thriller as “entertainment” far better than we.

Next up?  We’ll finish the Foolscap for The Silence of the Lambs.  And next week, we’ll begin the final push…putting the The Foolscap Global Story Grid together with The Story Grid Spreadsheet to create the final Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.



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Shawn Coyne

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the ’70s and the Fight For America’s Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.