Writing By Example: The Silence Of The Lambs


If you want to be a writer, take a look at Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs.  Read it.  Read it another ten times, tear it apart, analyse it, and then read it again.  The book remains a masterpiece of genre writing, and it’s one I return to time and again.

If you’d rather focus your study, zoom in on just two chapters: the first two encounters between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter.  These capture everything that Harris is doing with this book, the deep themes, the sub-text.  The writing is sparse.  Descriptions are kept to a minimum, and when they do come, they seem lush by comparison.  Three lines tell you all you ever need to know about Lecter. Most of the writing here is dialogue, and dialogue without tags. But in that speech, you not only hear the distinctive voices of the two characters, you also understand their psychology, their motivations, their lives. From these two chapters, you could write your own story of Starling and Lecter because you understand them fully.

The Silence of the Lambs is Harris’ best book by far.  (I have a slowly-forming theory about The Power of the Third Book – see also, Gillian Flynn and Gone Girl. The first is the adrenaline rush. The second is refinement. The third is where everything learned is put into effect. Writers hate to repeat themselves so they change it all up for the fourth and get it all wrong again.)

The true power of this novel comes when you understand that a vast amount of the story exists away from the page, between the lines, in the motivations of the characters. The reader deciphers it unconsciously, and consciously with a little effort. That shows a writer who is the master of his work.

The campaign between FBI boss Jack Crawford and Lecter, personal, multi-layered, cruelly manipulative, is all implicit. The novel is deeply about psychology and psychoanalysis – that is clear on any surface reading. But that is also stitched into the hidden story. What is Lecter *really* doing with Starling?

Most importantly, Harris illustrates a powerful rule for writing: complex, not complicated. (Complicated is one line that ties itself in knots to seem interesting. Complex is layers set upon each other, every one influencing the rest.) The plot is simple, but the effect is powerful and haunting, even on multiple readings.

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