Monday, February 20, 2012

"Writing the Mysterious: Notes on the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Bill Johnson

It's a convention in mystery writing to 'start with a body.' Starting with a body sets up some immediate questions: who is the victim? Who killed him or her? Why? What makes the case compelling to the character seeking to solve the murder, and, by extension, to the story's readers?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo takes a different tack. Here's there's no body, just a mystery around what happened to a missing girl. It is the mystery of the situation that creates the initial hook to draw in readers. In this essay, I'll set out how that quality of mysteriousness is created.

First sentence, It happened every year, was almost a ritual.

The question here, what happened? What made it like a ritual?

Second sentence, And this was his eighty-second birthday.

This tells us something about who is involved in what's happening.

Third sentence, When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off the wrapping paper and then picked up a telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morrel who, when he retired, had moved to Lake Siljan in Dalarna.

That the character here calls a detective about the delivery tells us something unusual and possibly criminal in involved; it also begins to set out a place for the story. It's important to understand the difference in withholding information for dramatic effect (like the meaning of the ritual) and withholding information that gives a reader a sense of time and place. Time and place can be withheld as part of creating mystery, but if not done correctly, it can also create irritation and a sense of an author confused about the craft of telling a story.

Fourth sentence, They were not only the same age, they had been born on the same day—which was something of an irony under the circumstances.

Why this is an irony is another mysterious question.

Last sentence of paragraph, The old policeman was sitting with his coffee, waiting, expecting the call.

So, the delivery of the flower happens every year on the old man's birthday, and it involves information that he immediately relays to a detective. Yes, this is mysterious, but there's a concrete quality to the information. It's a great hook and creates the necessary effect of a first paragraph: the reader is pulled forward to read a second paragraph.

The old man and the detective have a conversation about the flower, but the upshot is that it revolves around a mystery that 'which no-one else in the whole world had the least interest in unraveling.

This raises the question, so why is the mystery so compelling to these two men? What is the mystery?

Also, characters in novel must exist in a state of narrative tension to sustain the drama in a novel. Here, we're introduced to the tension these characters feel about this situation of the annual delivery of a picture of a flower, ahead of more mundane details about what they look like. Without narrative tension, a novel manuscript is simply a collection of details that turn in to an impassable swamp.

After a line break, the novel continues with a description of the flower, that it is native to the Australian bush. This is foreshadowing. It seems like an unimportant note here, but, understood in the correct context, it would solve the mystery of the flower and its delivery to the old man. But he doesn't know that, and we don't know that, but the author does. And he plants this clue here knowing exactly what it means.

The question here for the old man is, could the flower by grown in Sweden? That gives us a place for this story. The last line of this section, It needed pampering, is also suggestive in a way that won't be clear for hundreds of pages.

The novel continues with the old man pondering, again, that there was no way to trace where the flower print came from (since they arrive every year on his birthday from all over the world). Again, we are in the realm of the mysterious here.

Continuing, The strange story of the flowers had never been reported in the press; only a very few people knew of it. Thirty years ago the regular arrival of the flower was the object of much scrutiny—at the National Forensic Laboratory, among fingerprint experts, graphologists, criminal investigators, one or two relatives and friends of the recipient.

Without directly saying what this is about, the scale of the investigation of where the flowers are coming from heightens the dramatic impact of its arrival this day. This was once part of a major investigation.

Now, it's of importance only to the old man, the old detective, and, presumable, the person sending the prints of these rare flowers.

It's revealed the detective has arrested dozens of violent men and murderers, but only the details of this case have remained an obsession that haunts him (and the other old man). This again heightens the mysteriousness of what's happening, without saying exactly what it is.

In the last two paragraphs of the prologue, the old man looks up at the wall covered with framed, rare flowers that he has contemplated for 44 years, one for each year.

The last line of the prologue, Without warning he began to weep. He surprised himself with this sudden burst of emotion after almost forty years.

That's the conclusion of the prologue. We still don't know what this is all about, what is at the heart of this mysterious event. But we've been told enough that we're being drawn forward to want to know more.

There are answers to questions here, but not the deeper answer: what set this mystery in motion?

To begin to get that answer, we have to turn to the first chapter of the novel.

What Stieg Larsson demonstrates here is a consummate ability to know what to reveal and withhold to draw readers in. The focus here is the narrative tension these two men share over this unsolved mystery.

Hooking a reader on a character's narrative tension is what makes a novel compelling, whether it starts 'with a body' or a character haunted by not knowing what happened to a loved one.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was just released as a movie. Anyone considering turning a novel into a screenplay would find reading the book and then watching the movie instructive.

Where so much of the book is internal, about what characters are thinking, the movie tightens the plot to focus on two main characters and recreates the visual action of the novel.

I found the novel to have more depth, but the movie was also a pleasure to watch.


A fourth edition of Bill Johnson's writing workbook, A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, is now available for $2.99 from Amazon Kindle. The book reviews popular novels, movies and plays to teach an understanding of story structure.


Shah Wharton said...

I have his writing book (I've yet o find the time to rad it, although I scanned a few chapters an it looks very good) and enjoyed the essay. I read the trilogy and loved it. Haven't seen the US movie yet, but I did watch the originals. Somehow I think I'm going to much prefer Daniel as the hero however :)

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Erin O'Riordan said...

It was not done intentionally. I think I've undone it now.