Story Tricks No. 3: Beauty From The Bad

Reading & Writing, The Arts

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.

5 comments on “Story Tricks No. 3: Beauty From The Bad”

  1. Bob Low says:

    Many crime writers these days have an almost touching need to be taken seriously-best exemplified by Ian Rankine’s periodic complaints about his police procedural pot-boilers never being nominated for literary awards. I think this perhaps goes some way to explaining the unrelenting grimness of some modern crime fiction-the people writing it equate ”grimness” with ”seriousness”. You mention Glasgow crime fiction. I recently read a novel by Denise Mina, which dealt in a very ”one-note” fashion with some extremely harrowing subject matter, and the effect of all this , on me any way, was a gradual inablity to take the book seriously at all. She was just trying too hard, with an almost unintentional comic effect. This was not helped by the fact that, for all its po-faced, slightly pretentious grimness, the novel climaxes with a classic ”Scooby Doo” scene, where the killer has the central character at his mercy but, rather that simply finishing her off, decides to explain the plot to her at sufficient length to ensure her rescue by the police. In all art, contrast is important-beauty and horror complement one another. This seems to be lost on some crime writers, who are trying too hard to be Dostoyevsky, with comic book material.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Yes, indeed, passages of beauty and a bit of stillness are escential in order to achieve contrast. This is true in writing, acting, music, painting, etc. otherwise a piece of work becomes sufficating monochorme. And so boring, neo-Gothic. Highlights, I believe these could also be called, or rests. The Girl-Who books suffered from too much darkness – at least for me – as well as from too much shoddy and bloated writing. (Then again, I don’t enjoy reading much of what comes out of Northern Europe, except for Ian R.) And most American movies now never let up on the action – the Blur actually – except for some buddy-malarkey (“Damn, Bro’, why’d you shoot the one with six heads? I called him.”), so you walk out with Post Film Traumatic Stress Disorder, PFTSD. Or the sisterhood films that never lets up on the tears and soap.
    Have you thought about collecting these occasional columns into a book? You were once talking about starting a pub-based workshop for writers? You just about have you text ready.

  3. Ken M says:

    I have had conversations with serving police officers about whether TV drama felt accurate to them. Their main complaint was tone, in that drama was either unrelentingly grim or light comedy thriller, but never hopped between tones, whereas life does. One mentioned police having snowball fights. Seen on youtube, but never in drama. Odd given that rapid changes in tone are one of the things that people remark on in Shakespeare.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    As a non-writer I can only cheer at these comments. I enjoy Ian Rankin, too, but, perhaps unfortunately, I found Rebus tremendously funny and his new series is much lighter than Rebus. I would love to watch a procedural in which the over wrought officers use a snow ball fight to relieve tension. Even Wodehouse (reviewed above) has some serious moments to relieve the steady flow of hysteria. It works both ways. In B&M the pauses come in those little historical vignettes when Bryant gives the background of some item or we’re walking through some iconic place like the Soane Museum (thank you for giving us that tour a while back with the great photos). Then there are exchanges like the one with Brad Pitt (“Just Joe”) and the pig full of darts. I had to look up “wife beater vest”, though. Doesn’t spoil the mood and I can hardly wait for further interludes with Bryant’s neighbour – he shows great promise.

  5. glasgow1975 says:

    Mo Hayder does write good thrillers but the ugly twisted violence seems to go up a notch every book, with, as you say, no stopping to smell the roses, maybe it’s the lack of a joke or pause along the way, that makes her books that much harder to read each time. . .plus I’m not sure male writers could ‘get away with’ the levels of twisted she reaches sometimes . .

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