The Dream Plot

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I’ve read several thrillers during the Christmas break–well, not really reading, but rather skimming and skipping, as most people do with books like that. Wait, wait. I should not say that. When I was learning English as a non-native speaker, I read two Agatha Christi books carefully, step by step, word for word, and even occasionally looked up a word in my dictionary.

And now I am ready to plot my own thriller and here is the not-so-thrilling detail.

The plot starts like this: I am a successful and beautiful and tall and thin psychiatrist, with a thriving practice. I have a really handsome husband, and two super cute kids. And each of these information is important since who would want to read a psychological thriller with an ugly heroine, living with her ugly family. A plain heroine living with her plain husband will not do either, since it will surely cut the book’s sale figure in half. This means that common people like you and I will never make it to a thriller story.

The husband has to have an overpaid job and he is also very well mannered even if in the end he is going to be revealed as a killer or a psychopath. He can be emotionally distant, or frequently absent, or naively childish. That’s OK. He can exhibit all the traits of a less than ideal husband, but he cannot possibly have one word or one gesture not conforming to the best standards of social etiquette. Manners are everything–even for a killer…no…especially for a killer in a thriller. Also in those best selling books, he often possesses contradictory traits which readers (especially female readers) are willing to swallow up since every female reader wants an ideal husband with an impossible mix of character traits. For example, he’s both analytical and emotional, both tall and acrobatic, both gregarious and independent, both caring and clueless, both fierce and tender.

The children are usually sulky enough to add some spice to the family conversations, but not bad tempered enough to lose their cute-kid charm. Ideally, the children are either babies or teenagers–they should not be of any other age. The reason is that babies are adorable and readers love babies, who are great props for any plot. Teenagers can be immature, bold, sad, angry, erratic which make them perfect suspects. You can write them into aspiring heroes who can save the world, hopeless narcissists who bully others, or even a bloody murderer. You can mold them into anything. For example, you can have conversations like this between two siblings, “I want to cut your head off and stuff it into my lunch box.” Since it is a teenage conversation, it can be a perfectly innocent banter in an intimate relationship. Or it can be a preview into a killer’s mind. You can mold it anyway you want.

Now it comes to the body. A body is found and a murder is committed. And everybody is a suspect. In most thrillers, “I” am a good girl, but in some thrillers, “I” end up to be the murderer. And a little manipulation is needed in the middle to make “I” the murderer (I will call it the first “I”, to distinguish it from the second “I”). Usually it is done by switching the narrator. In the later part of the book, the narrator is switched to the kid, the patient, or any other character, who takes up the responsibility of telling the story and describing what the first “I” did.

An investigation is launched by the police, but usually the police is deliberately described as inept and indifferent. If the police does all the work, there will be no room left for other characters. Here, a subplot would be thrown in. For example, a romantic entanglement that was not revealed previously; or a grandfather, who was considered dead, would resurface. He’s not dead, but rather locked up in jail for a murder committed twenty years ago. It gives reader an eerie feeling that the murderer’s genes run in the family or something like that.

Everybody is a suspect and everybody would do or say something that implicates himself or herself to be a killer. This part would generates a lot of confusion in readers. This is the middle part of the book, during which readers are most likely to give up on the book. So the confusion and the suspense pique readers’ interest and keep them going.

And finally the ending comes. And the killer can be anyone, really. It can be “I”, the psychiatrist and the first narrator, or the husband, or the psychiatrist’s business partner, or one of the teenage children, or a long lost twin sister, or one of the patients of the psychiatrist.

I guess in the era of Agatha Christi, murderers have to be captured in the end to make the readers feel that the world is finally in “good order”. It is a little ironical, isn’t it? The author lived through two world wars, which made the era the least likely candidate for “good order”. I mean any other historical period is in better order than the first half of the 20th century, isn’t it? Well, nowadays, murderers can go free in thrillers and readers are OK with that even though in real life people would freak out when a murderer is on the loose.

14 thoughts on “The Dream Plot

  1. You’ve really analyzed this well. I have never thought about any genre in so much detail. I guess there are always winning formulas that ensure better story writing. I’m hopeless at applying them. Just drifting around like an aimless cloud. Good luck with this one, Haoyan. 🙂

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    1. Haha, I have read several thrillers recently. I didn’t read detective stories or thrillers for more than a decade. Then recently I read some and feel that it is actually quite interesting in a certain way.

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  2. You’ve really nailed the cliches here! I was watching what I call a “sleeveless pullover drama” the other evening. They’re all set in the 1930-50s and recycle the same wardrobe over and over. Anyway the heroine was beautiful, and I just thought “Why?” (She was the one who played Sybil in Downton Abbey.) Even if somebody is supposed to be “plain” they are often good-looking by normal standards. eg They are quirky and rarely fat.

    As for murders ….. (1) Suspects always address police officers by their rank (Chief Inspector etc) when they call at their house to question them. In reality, you wouldn’t know or care. (2) They’re typically engaged in hitting something with a big hammer and don’t stop while being questioned. (3) It is taken as axiomatic that people often want other people dead – rather than the extreme exception that it actually is.

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    1. Detectives and forensic people are always quirky/grumpy/mavericks at odds with authority. The only one I know where the police officer is cheerfully ordinary and suburban is the Brit series “Midsomer Murders” – which has been described by the critics as “brain rot”!

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      1. I’ve never watched midsomer murders dispite its being on PBS here for many years. I usually watch a lot of PBS britcom, but not other stuff. And everybody in midsomer murders are extremely beautiful. It’s absurd to think that only beautiful people engage in the game of killing each other…

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    2. Everybody is beautiful in Downton Abbey. Yes, I always have problems with actresses or actors, who have the reputation to be plain. What does that supposed to mean? I mean every one of them is super beautiful and handsome. Even the lowest of the maid is very beautiful. So true. How do common people know they are facing a chief inspector? LOL. I remember one of my friends once told me that a popular actress in Hollywood is plain but her acting is great. I was really astonished to hear that. Did he really rank the actresses by their appearances? I mean all of them look extremely beautiful to me.

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    1. Yes, I think Freida McFadden has two plots with the handsome, rich, caring, polite husband being the killer. LOL. It only shows that we only know the surface of others. It sounds a little frightening, but it is true. And I really heard stories like that. For example, when the social change came and the social order is twisted and reorganized, people can show a very alarming side, which would never be revealed otherwise.

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        1. If there’s no big changes in the society or no abrupt migration, everything will be fine. However whenever there are changes, people can reveal surprising aspect of themselves…

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