Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write Gruesome Moments in Your Fiction

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Hannibal Review

“I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner. Good-bye.” — Hannibal Lecter

Those were the final words of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, one of the greatest thrillers of the 1990s. The highly anticipated follow-up Hannibal, released in 2001, isn’t as creepy and effective as its predecessor but it remains a great ride nonetheless.

Ten years have passed since Hannibal Lecter (Sir Anthony Hopkins) went into hiding and Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore), an FBI agent who once sought Lecter to help her find a serial killer, isn’t as optimistic as she used to be. Mason Verger, the only survivor of Lecter’s victims, wants the cannibal dead at all costs, even posting a reward of three million bucks if he were to be caught. Meanwhile, Lecter is living the high life in Europe and decides he wants to return to public life. Will he be caught? Will Lecter and Starling have a reunion? Will he eat anyone?

Hannibal turned out not to be much a sequel to Silence of the Lambs; it’s really just a continuation of the Hannibal character in a completely different movie. And when I say different, I mean very different. The Silence of the Lambs is basically a crime thriller, a psychological study of demented human beings who have opportunities to roam free in this world. Hannibal, however, is more of a gothic black comedy, streamlined with over-the-top gore and great performances.

What great performances, you ask? Anthony Hopkins is, and always will be, Hannibal Lecter. The man practically lives and breathes the character; he’s brilliant. But let’s not dismiss Gary Oldman playing the faceless Mason Verger. You can’t even recognize Oldman under all the make-up, yet still he delivers a remarkable performance.

But what’s disappointing? The character of Clarice Starling is low-key in this film, as she tends to sit in front of a computer screen for the first half of the movie. I know this movie is called Hannibal and that the focus is primarily on, well, Hannibal, but I would’ve liked her character to be explored a little more. Julianne Moore, however, does the best she can with the role.

If I were to pick a better film, The Silence of the Lambs is the obvious choice, but Hannibal is still a compelling, under-rated flick worth checking out again if you haven’t seen it in awhile.

Fava beans, anyone?

Watching Like a Writer

Part of the reason Hannibal is less successful than The Silence of the Lambs is that director Ridley Scott tends to pile on the gore more for shock value in Hannibal, while director Jonathan Demme includes only shows gore when the story requires him to in The Silence of the Lambs. As memorably gruesome as that concluding brain-eating scene in Hannibal is, there’s not a tenth of the power of the gruesome moment in The Silence of the Lambs when Hannibal removes the guard’s skin off his own face in the ambulance. It’s fine to have gore in your novel. But every time you include a gruesome scene, ask yourself, why, and if.

Exercise!

Look at the goriest moment in your WIP. Why is the moment there, and how does it make your story better? If you took out this gory moment, how would the story be worse? And if you don’t have any gore in your WIP, how would go about writing a gruesome scene if you felt it was necessary to your narrative?

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