Story Tricks No. 3: Beauty From The Bad
As a writer who regularly crosses genres, I find this tip holds true in everything from satire to science fiction, but it’s especially true of crime and horror. Every week crime books pile up on my doorstep about mutilated corpses, alcoholic coppers, crazed serial killers and nightmarish environments. Among the darkest as the school of Glasgow crime, and many of the novels are very good indeed.
But there’s often something missed by even good writers who fail to see that 360 pages of unrelenting grimness won’t sit happily with the casual reader. I like the writing of Mo Hayder, but I don’t understand why she doesn’t occasionally throw the reader a bone. No-one’s life is so easy that we can only laugh our way through it (Paris Hilton’s perhaps, although I like to picture her weeping at midnight over the loss of her soul) and we find happiness where we can. We savour those moments when joy appears unannounced, and even in the darkest situations, there should be the odd glimpse of beauty.
A tiny scene showing something that lifts the hero is enough to raise the hopes in the reader and allow them to continue. It really doesn’t have to be that big a moment, but it will spur a character on. In Marcia Clarke’s legal thriller series, the former OJ Simpson prosecutor has a main character put upon from all sides, but Clarke also shows her gaining pleasure from eating and hanging out with friends, and we suddenly realise the character loves her job. She must do, even though it’s grim – otherwise why would she stay in it?
In movies like ‘Heat’, although events are dark there’s a grace to the night streets of LA that stops they darkness from overwhelming viewers, and throughout the film the colour blue is used to calming zen-like effect. We need these moments. In the Argentinian film ‘Carancho’ (reviewed below) there’s a short montage of the exhausted doctor’s other patients – the ones who don’t feature in the main story – and you can see they’re why she stays on in her hellhole hospital.
Even in horror there can be transformative moments of great beauty. Hammer’s films always looked like elegant fairy tales. In Danny Boyle’s version of ‘Frankenstein’ (also reviewed here) there were moments of stunning beauty. And even in the Bryant & May books that’s the reason why the detectives visit Waterloo Bridge at sunset – to remind themselves that it’s a beautiful city, and this is what they’re fighting for.