By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 11, 2015
One of my favorite books on writing is Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. Zuckerman is an agent, a writer, a teacher of writing. He has represented Ken Follett, Stephen Hawking, many others.
Zuckerman advocates a principle that I’ve used myself many times because it always works.
When one character kills another, and they are strangers to each other, we see such an act as frightening, terrible, maybe even shocking. But when a child murders a parent or vice versa, or a brother slays a brother, such a deed strikes us as much more horrific.
This comes from a chapter titled Tightening Character Relationships. Mr. Zuckerman continues:
Conflict … between characters who have close ties by blood and/or intense relationships … magnifies what’s at stake for the parties on both sides. They may have violent feelings about what’s at issue between them, but a second and usually more potent dimension is added when they care personally about each other.
Zuckerman goes on to cite an (opposite) example from real life. A family from Utah visiting New York City was attacked by a gang of thugs on a subway. The son, defending his mother, was stabbed to death. True crime is usually a hot genre; a number of book proposals were put together, retelling this tragedy.
But no editor thought that these elements would make a saleable book. The story was rejected. It lacked a strong interpersonal connection between perpetrator and victim.
How do I use this insight myself? As I’m working out a story in my head, I’ll ask questions like these:
“The two rivals, Joe and Jim … would the drama be better if they were brothers?”
“What if Janie and Janine had both been lovers of Jackie?”
It sounds formulaic, I know. But it works. It worked for Sophocles. It worked for Shakespeare. It even works in the Bible.
Have you seen The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada? If you haven’t, netflix it at once. The movie stars Tommy Lee Jones (who also directed) Barry Pepper, Melissa Leo, January Jones, and Dwight Yoakam, screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga. It’s terrific.
In the story (bear with me a moment) Barry Pepper, a Border Patrol agent in a flyblown town in west Texas, accidentally kills Melquiades Estrada, played by Julio Cedillo–a Mexican cowboy working for his dear friend, rancher Tommy Lee Jones. Minor characters are Melissa Leo as a sexy truck stop waitress, January Jones as Barry Pepper’s bored-stiff wife, and Dwight Yoakam as the sheriff who couldn’t care less about one dead Mexican.
The short version is that Tommy Lee becomes enraged at the injustice and takes the law into his own hands. He kidnaps Barry, steals the dead body of Melquiades, and takes off with both of them on a cross-border odyssey-rampage whose aim is to inter his friend’s remains with dignity near his home in Mexico. Over the course of several days and hundreds of wilderness miles, an unexpected bond forms between Tommy Lee and Barry. The story ends with these two men who hate each other coming to an odd and very moving understanding.
But there was a problem with this story. The characters, except Tommy Lee and Melquiades, are strangers to each other.
Here’s what the writer Guillermo Arriaga (possibly at Tommy Lee Jones’ urging, I dont know) did to pull the story together.
He wrote a flashback sequence in which Tommy Lee and Melquiades go honky-tonking with two women. One is Melissa Leo, the cafe waitress, with whom Tommy Lee has a thing going; the other is a young lady Melissa has befriended from serving her in the cafe–January Jones, Barry Pepper’s wife. Melquiades winds up sleeping with January Jones.
Was this sequence necessary? Absolutely not. It doesn’t advance the story at all, except atmospherically.
But it’s absolutely vital because it ties the characters together. Now our Border Patrol agent, Barry Pepper, is not killing a stranger. He’s killing a guy who had sex with his wife. (Even though he doesn’t know it.) To further tighten the character web, Melissa Leo is also sleeping with the town sheriff, Dwight Yoakam, who throughout the movie is trying to stop Tommy Lee Jones’ crazy quest to bury his friend Melquiades. That’s Tommy Lee, who just spent the night with the sheriff’s girlfriend.
Bottom line: the movie works and it works in large part because of this scene that links Character A to Character B to Character C, etc.
Let’s go back to Albert Zuckerman and Writing the Blockbuster Novel:
In your own novel you presumably have set up or are thinking of setting up a central conflict between two characters. Can you tie those two together by making them into two brothers, two sisters, father and son, mother and daughter? If your story won’t lend itself to so intimate a familial relationship … could they have been dear friends? Could they have been deadly rivals in some past endeavor? Could they have been unknown to each other but then discover intriguing and plot-influencing connections through a mutual relative, friend, teacher, lover?
Again, I know this seems manipulative, even contrived and artificial. But art is artifice. Did Sophocles hesitate to have Oedipus kill his father and marry his mother? That was the whole point of the drama! What about Shakespeare, plotting Hamlet’s uncle murdering his father and marrying his father’s widow?
“You broke my heart, Fredo.”