8 THINGS I LEARNED FROM READING THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
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.