Primal Fear (William Diehl)

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1. What is the genre?

Global — Thriller > Psychological

Secondary — Worldview > Revelation

2. What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for the genre?


MacGuffin (This is the Villain’s Object of Desire, what he or she wants): Aaron Stampler wants to get away with murder. He’s done it before and he wants to do it again.

Investigative Red Herrings (seemingly revelatory false clues that mislead the Protagonist): There are many red herrings in this novel and chief among them is Aaron Stampler himself. His innocent boy from Crikside act fools most people, and his portrayal of split personality disorder throws misdirects everyone from the truth. Vale ultimately realizes what’s going on, but that’s only because Roy confesses it. Specific examples of red herrings include: fugue state (losing time), Aaron’s appearance and demeanour, Aaron stating eight times that he’s innocent, Aaron’s statement that there was someone else in the room when Rushman was killed, Rebecca’s story, the split-personality act, and even Vail’s belief in the split-personality.

Making it Personal (The Villain needs the Hero to get the MacGuffin and thus must victimize the Hero to get what he or she wants):  Aaron needs Martin Vail to get the MacGuffin for him because Vail is the best lawyer in town. When Aaron realized Vail was his attorney, he uses Vail’s ego against him. It’s not enough to merely be exonerated, however. Aaron makes it even more personal by revealing the truth to Vail at the end; he was only ever Aaron’s plaything. Aaron uses Vail’s desire to win (above his desire for justice) against him.

Clock (There is a limited time for the Hero to act; failing to act burns precious time): The clock is introduced immediately. Judge Harry Shoat (along with Roy Shaughnessey) want the trial over in 60 days. Even though Vail has some ideas to buy a little extra time, the trial will come to an end very quickly, and a verdict will be delivered.

Obligatory Scenes

An Inciting Crime indicative of a master Villain. There must be victims: In the opening scene, Aaron Stampler murders Archbishop Richard Rushman. We later learn that he also killed Reverand Shackles, Sam Stampler (his brother), Mary Lafferty (Sam’s girlfriend), Billy Jordan and Peter Holloway (two of the alter boys) and Floyd (funeral home employee). Alex (another alter boy) was a target but escaped and of course, his ultimate victim (of manipulation) is Martin Vail.

Speech in Praise of the Villain: speech by a character, or a revelation, that praises the cunning/brilliance of the villain:

In Primal Fear, the speech in praise of the villain comes in bits and pieces throughout the novel, and it comes for both Aaron and Roy. Almost everyone who knew Aaron prior to Rushman’s murder has positive things to say about him. For example, Father Delaney, Maggie (resident of Savior House) and the sister at Savior House refer to him as a caring and sweet boy. Citizens of Crikside admit that he was odd, but otherwise a good worker and never complained. The doctor he worked for admired his constitution (autopsies didn’t bother him) and his childhood teacher, Rebecca, refers to his intelligence and genius IQ. Even Vale and his team recognize Aaron’s intelligence and angelic demeanour.

Able Stenner, the medical witness for the prosecution, and other enforcement personnel remark on the nature of the crime. While they think it’s horrific, they also have a kind of admiration for the cold-heartedness required to kill Rushman and the others. They’ve never seen anything like it. In a manner of speaking, they praise the sheer villainy of it all.

The Hero/Protagonist becomes the Victim. A scene reveals that the Villain makes his crimes personal to the Hero and the Hero becomes the primary Victim: When Aaron/Roy reveals that he’s been playing Martin Vail from the beginning, Vail becomes his final victim. Aaron hasn’t killed him literally, as he has with his other victims, but Vail’s professional reputation will be destroyed if the truth ever gets out, but moreover, his sense of self is shaken when he realizes just how clever Aaron is. Vail never suspected a thing.

The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain. The core event of the Thriller, the All is Lost Moment when the Hero unleashes his or her gift: Vail is openly at Aaron’s mercy in the last few pages of the novel when he reveals that his true identity is Roy, and that he’s been playing Vail all along. However, there’s an argument to be made that Vail has been at Aaron’s mercy from the start and that every scene between Aaron and Vail, and Aaron and Dr. Molly Arrington, is a HATMOV.

False Ending (there must be two endings): When Aaron is found not guilty by reason of insanity, the story seems to be over. He’ll be sent to Daisyland for treatment which appears to be justice served. However, in the last few pages of the novel, Aaron reveals his true identity (Roy). While Vail initially believes this to be Aaron’s alter-ego, Roy is in fact the true identity.

Learn more about obligatory scenes and conventions.

3. What is the point of view?

3rd person omniscient with liberal use of free indirect style. By hopping in and out of the character’s heads, William Diehl is able to create doubt in the reader’s mind about what she can, and can’t believe. Which clues are real and which are fake (in other words where are the red herrings and where are the cuttlefish).

Learn more about point of view.

4. What are the objects of desire?

External/Conscious: Martin Vail wants to win the trial. Winning is everything.

Internal/Subconscious: Vail needs to grow in awareness/wisdom. He’s not infallible and as clever as he is, he can still be duped. 

Learn more about objects of desire.

5. What is the controlling idea / theme?

Damnation triumphs when the protagonist fails to unleash his or her special gift.

Martin Vale is a talented lawyer, but he no longer practices his craft in the pursuit of justice. Winning is all he cares about, and this comes up over and over throughout the novel. Jane Venable knows it, Connerman knows it, Roy Shaughnessy knows it, Aaron certainly knows it (because he uses it against Vale) and Molly, in her own worldview>disillusionment plot, discovers it (chapter 37).

Learn more about controlling ideas.

6. What is the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff?

Beginning Hook: When Judge Shoat asks Martin Vail to take on a high profile pro bono case (to defend the man accused of brutally murdering Archbishop Richard Rushman) with very little preparation time, Vail must choose to either refuse the case (and make enemies of Shoat, Shaughnessy and others in authority (including other judges), and possibly destroy his career) or take the case (and make enemies of Venable and authorities in the Catholic Church and business community, and possibly destroy his career by losing). He decides to take the case (because losing this one would at least mean staying in the good graces of other judges so he can win future cases), and goes off to meet his client.

Middle Build: Martin Vail and his team prepare for trial by conducting research, interviews and gathering clues. When Roy appears, and it seems that Aaron has multiple personality disorder, Vail must decide whether to disclose the information to the prosecution or not. He decides not to disclose the information, and not to ask for a postponement. He wants to go to trial with a new plea. He and his team make final preparations for trial including visiting Aaron at the Daisyland mental facility.  

Ending Payoff: The third act is the trial and sentencing. When Roy appears during the trial, prosecutor Jane Venable and Judge Harry Shoat must decide whether to take the plea bargain Vail offers them (which would see Aaron (a serial killer) go to Daisyland (and ultimately be released back into society) rather than the electric chair), or continue with the trial (which would discredit Rushman and by extension, the Catholic Church, and would reveal the illegal activity of several high-ranking authorities). They both take the plea bargain and Aaron is sent to Daisyland for treatment. But, before he leaves, he reveals to Vail that he does not have multiple personality disorder, and that he is truly a psychopath.

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About the Author

Valerie Francis is a Certified Story Grid Editor and best-selling author of both women’s and children’s fiction. She’s been a Story Grid junkie since 2015 and became a certified editor so that she can help fellow authors become better storytellers. To learn how to put story theory into practice join Valerie's inner circle:
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Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.