Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Silence of the Lambs: why no one has done it better


I’ve decided that for our next full movie breakdown I’m going to do The Silence of the Lambs.

Because oddly, I’ve never actually done it, here or in one of the workbooks. I reference it so often you would think I had, and I’ve actually taught the movie in my film classes - but that’s not the same as powering down and doing a full on-paper story breakdown.

And I’m in the mood to do it because I just started and almost instantly abandoned another one of those serial killer novels. I don’t usually read serial killer novels, even though I am sort of writing a serial killer series. But really the Huntress series is more like an anti-serial killer series.



However, The Silence of the Lambs is one of my all-time favorite books and movies.. It and Red Dragon are the platinum standard of serial killer novels and probably the reason that I ever pick up any other serial killer novel to begin with. And those books are also the reason that I almost always abandon any serial killer novel almost as soon as I start it – often in disgust and horror.

So over the next month or so (we’ll see how long it actually takes!) I’m going to explore what makes this particular story so great. And I’ll start today with some background.

It was Thomas Harris who mythologized the serial killer to classic monster status, although Stevenson’s Jekyll/Hyde, Stoker’s Dracula (supposedly based on the real-life Vlad the Impaler), and various depictions of Jack the Ripper were strong precursors. We are fascinated by the idea of pure evil in a human being. And because of Harris, the serial killer has become an iconic modern monster, like a vampire or werewolf or zombie (maybe replacing the pretty much defunct mummy!).

Because with Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, Harris did a completely brilliant thing. In the 1970’s Special Agents Robert Ressler and John Douglas of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (now called the Behavioral Analysis Unit) began a series of interviews with incarcerated serial killers to see what made these men tick and hopefully develop strategies for catching them. The agents, along with Professor Ann W. Burgess, compiled their findings into a textbook and started to train agents as profilers. This new department got a lot of press and media attention and a large number of authors jumped all over that research. But judging by the books that resulted, very, very few of those authors seem to have actually read those interviews.

Thomas Harris, though, took the same research that was available to everyone, and used a combination of absolutely precise fact and police procedure and a haunting mythological symbolism to create those first two books, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs (and then Hannibal sort of went off the rails, if you ask me…). The result was two of the best horror/police procedural blend novels ever written. The killers Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill) and Francis Dolarhyde were both more and less than human. And Lecter, of course, is a mythic archetype of the evil genius.

And then everyone jumped on the bandwagon and there are now hundreds of Lecters-lite, if you will.

I love Harris’s first two books for their mythic resonance. But I have a real problem with the way most authors portray serial killers because it’s so incredibly dishonest. They romanticize and poeticize serial killers – portraying them as evil geniuses that play elaborate cat and mouse games with detectives and law enforcement agencies. Yeah, right. These men are not geniuses. They don’t leave poems at crime scenes or arrange their victim’s bodies in tableaux corresponding to scenes of great art or literature. They are vicious rapists who brutalize their victims because the agony of those victims gets the killer off, and a large number of them continue to have sex with the corpses of their victims because they are that addicted to absolute control and possession.

That’s evil. But the serial killer subgenre as a whole has perpetrated a very unrealistic view of what these monsters really are. Most authors who write about serial killers don’t show the sexual correlation. They skirt around the issue of rape.

The very worst ones write torture porn - sexualizing the violence, fetishizing women’s bodies, sexualizing the torture of women (conveniently ignoring the fact that many of these killers rape and torture and kill men and children as well) and basically avoid portraying the pure horror of what these men actually do.

I’m sure some authors (not the last group) have an honest desire to create an exploration of mythic evil to rival Harris’s books. I get that. But the fact is, most authors (and screenwriters and filmmakers) who write about serial killers are dishonestly romanticizing them and leaving out the unmitigated, repellent malevolence of these men.

Thomas Harris managed to do everything those other authors/books do not: he portrayed mythic evil without sexualizing violence, and mythologized his killers without leaving out their malevolence. Let’s dig in to how he managed it.


As I talked about here, I will not be posting full story breakdowns on the blog anymore – I’m asking that you join my free Story Structure Extras list to get the story breakdowns.

If you haven’t joined the list, you can do it here, and get a full breakdown of The Wizard of Oz.  Then I'll mail the Silence breakdown in segments as I work through it.

    - Alex



Sunday, April 12, 2015

Huntress Moon and Blood Moon $1.99 - today only!

HUNTRESS MOON and BLOOD MOON are Kindle Daily Deals, $1.99 today only on Amazon US!

Both books are still just  £1 each on Amazon UK for the entire month of April, leading up to the release of Book 3, COLD MOON. Fantastic deals - please share!

Buy on Amazon US:  $1.99                                                                 Buy on Amazon US: $1.99

Buy on Amazon UK:  £1.00                                                               Buy on Amazon UK:  £1.00





















                                                         



Pre-order on Amazon UK



Pre-order on Amazon US



The Huntress/FBI Thrillers


Special Agent Matthew Roarke thought he knew what evil was. He was wrong.

FBI Special Agent Roarke is closing in on a major criminal organization in San Francisco when he witnesses an undercover member of his team killed right in front of him on a busy street, an accident Roarke can’t believe is coincidental. His suspicions put him on the trail of a mysterious young woman who was present at each scene of a years-long string of “accidents” and murders, and who may well be that most rare of killers… a female serial.

His hunt for her will take him across three states, and force him to question everything he knows about evil and justice.

                                                             -------

Book 1 of Thriller Award-winning author Alexandra Sokoloff’s Huntress/FBI Thrillers, Huntress Moon, became a #1 Amazon mystery/thriller bestseller and was nominated for a Thriller Award for Best E Book Original Novel. The series has now been picked up by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. The highly anticipated Book 3, Cold Moon, will release on May 5.

Told in continuous, serial format like True Detective and The Killing, and utilizing the intricate psychological/forensic procedure of Criminal Minds, the Huntress series sets a cast of complex FBI investigators in pursuit of an unforgettable female suspect who has been called “a female Dexter.” The story combines nail-biting suspense and a twisting mystery plot with deadly erotic tension, and has garnered hundreds of rave reviews from readers who find themselves sympathizing with its haunted male lead and unexpectedly empathizing with its highly unusual killer.

For thousands of years women have been the victims. Isn’t it time someone turned the tables?

Friday, April 10, 2015

House of Cards, S.3: Just tell me what they WANT

Like so many of you, I’m sure, Craig and I binge-watched Season 1 and 2 of House of Cards, ripping through each season as soon as they came out, in no more than two days each. Especially since Season 2 was even better than Season 1, we were waiting with bated breath for Season 3, ready to watch the whole thing in a weekend. Finally, the day arrived. We settled down in front of a fire, with the cat and Pop Chips, and prepared to be riveted.

And…

 It never got off the ground.

We let whole days go by between episodes. We watched other shows (Boardwalk Empire, love it! And may I say, a 1000% better character and performance for Paul Sparks in Boardwalk than in HOC 3), and other movies (Drop is so tense I spent pretty much the whole movie balled up in the corner of the couch).


Don’t get me wrong. I would watch Kevin Spacey sleeping, and I would watch HOC just for the way Robin Wright walks and holds herself and gets out of a car. I’m not about to give up on it.

But it does give me an excellent opportunity to rant about something I’m always telling you all here, and in the workbooks, and in workshops.

Because Season 3 makes a beginner’s mistake that is really quite shocking for such an accomplished show.

We don’t know what Frank Underwood WANTS.

Remember, the INCITING INCIDENT (or CALL TO ADVENTURE) starts a DESIRE in the protagonist, and they make a PLAN and gather ALLIES, either consciously or subconsciously, to go after that desire.

(If you need a refresher on internal and external desire, go here).

For Seasons 1 & 2, Frank and Claire want to be President (that is, they want Frank to be President and they both will rule). Very clear. They’re willing to do anything to get it. And the guilty pleasure of the show is that we know we shouldn’t want that for them, but we do anyway.

Well, in Season 3, they have become President. So now what do they want?

Okay, Frank wants to get re-elected, yeah. But why? He’s not exactly reveling in the power that he has. He’s certainly not driven in the way he was in Seasons 1 and 2. He just doesn’t seem to want it that much.

And yeah, he wants to pass and implement his America Works program. He may be a little bit more enthusiastic about that than wanting to be re-elected, actually. But why does he want it? In order to leave a legacy, his biographer says. But do we feel that? More importantly, do we want it FOR him, or want him NOT to get it? Aren’t you a little perplexed about why Frank wants AmWorks, and not at all sure why you should care?

This is why I am always saying - You have to tell your reader/audience what your main character (s) wants, and just as importantly, you have to make sure that WE WANT IT FOR THEM. 

Or, just as effectively,  you have make sure that we actively DON’T want them to get whatever it is.

Now as always, you may not agree with me. Maybe you were riveted by House of Cards, Season 3. Maybe you can even tell me exactly why we should care whether or not Frank gets AmWorks, or whether or not Claire gets to be Ambassador, or whatever it is SHE wants (to actually be President, I’m assuming…) 

I wish you would!

But it’s absolutely fine if you disagree. Remember, there’s no accounting for taste! The point is, HOC 3 is not working for me, and I have analyzed exactly what it is that’s going wrong for me and made a mental note never to let that happen in my own work. That’s practicing my craft, and that’s what I’m always encouraging you all to do.

So, HOC fans - what do YOU think? I'd love to be told off on this one!

      - Alex

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

If you're in the UK - Amazon.uk has dropped the price of HUNTRESS MOON and BLOOD MOON to just  £1 each for the entire month of April, leading up to the release of Book 3, COLD MOON. Fantastic deal!

(And yes, that's a sneak peek at the COLD MOON cover - not finished, yet!)


Buy on Amazon UK    £1.00                                                               Buy on Amazon UK    £1.00





















Buy on Amazon US:  $3.99                                                                  Buy on Amazon US: $3.99



Pre-order on Amazon UK



Pre-order on Amazon US


Thursday, April 02, 2015

£1 Sale!!! HUNTRESS MOON and BLOOD MOON discounted at Amazon.uk for April

Amazon.uk has dropped the price of HUNTRESS MOON and BLOOD MOON to just  £1 each for the entire month of April, leading up to the release of Book 3, COLD MOON. Fantastic deal!

(And yes, that's a sneak peek at the COLD MOON cover - not finished, yet!)



Buy on Amazon UK    £1.00                                                               Buy on Amazon UK    £1.00





















Buy on Amazon US:  $3.99                                                                  Buy on Amazon US: $3.99



Pre-order on Amazon UK



Pre-order on Amazon US



The Huntress/FBI Thrillers


Special Agent Matthew Roarke thought he knew what evil was. He was wrong.

FBI Special Agent Roarke is closing in on a major criminal organization in San Francisco when he witnesses an undercover member of his team killed right in front of him on a busy street, an accident Roarke can’t believe is coincidental. His suspicions put him on the trail of a mysterious young woman who was present at each scene of a years-long string of “accidents” and murders, and who may well be that most rare of killers… a female serial.

His hunt for her will take him across three states, and force him to question everything he knows about evil and justice.

                                                             -------

Book 1 of Thriller Award-winning author Alexandra Sokoloff’s Huntress/FBI Thrillers, Huntress Moon, became a #1 Amazon mystery/thriller bestseller and was nominated for a Thriller Award for Best E Book Original Novel. The series has now been picked up by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. The highly anticipated Book 3, Cold Moon, will release on May 5.

Told in continuous, serial format like True Detective and The Killing, and utilizing the intricate psychological/forensic procedure of Criminal Minds, the Huntress series sets a cast of complex FBI investigators in pursuit of an unforgettable female suspect who has been called “a female Dexter.” The story combines nail-biting suspense and a twisting mystery plot with deadly erotic tension, and has garnered hundreds of rave reviews from readers who find themselves sympathizing with its haunted male lead and unexpectedly empathizing with its highly unusual killer.

For thousands of years women have been the victims. Isn’t it time someone turned the tables?