Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Cranking up a story (Warning: movie spoilers)

I was watching SUSPECT ZERO tonight for maybe the fifth time and it struck me that it's a great example of how to lift a story from a fairly solid thriller that's nothing exceptional into something that really engages the audience.

I often get mail from aspiring writers who say they're struggling to work out where their stories should go next. My stock answer is to follow the characters, get into their heads, and push the questions to the nth degree. Then the story will follow naturally. Now, that makes perfect sense to me because it's how I write. I know what I mean. But it's a bit like trying to explain colour, so an example like this movie makes it easier.

SPOILER ALERT: if you haven't seen the film and don't want to ruin it for yourself, then stop reading this now, get hold of it on DVD or something, and watch it before you come back to this blog. If you're not fussed, read on. It's more about the character development than the twists of the plot anyway.

I think SUSPECT ZERO (Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley) is a cracking little movie. I'll watch almost anything with Aaron Eckhart in it (although I, FRANKENSTEIN was right on my pain threshold) but there was more to it than that. It could have been nose-bleedingly predictable, but it wasn't. And it was all a matter of asking one extra question that a lot of screenplays wouldn't have bothered with.

It's about an FBI agent tracking a serial killer of serial killers, and the killer appears to have a personal fixation with the investigating agent (Eckhart). Eckhart's character has Serious Personal Issues and is trying to redeem himself after being suspended for breaking the rules when arresting a throughly nasty bastard. Seen all that before? Yeah, they're all familiar elements. There are no new stories under the sun, remember, and all that varies is how well they're executed. Anyway, there's another layer to this: the serial killer (Ben Kingsley) is actually an ex-FBI agent who was trained to do "remote viewing," a fringe-y paranormal technique whereby you focus on a map and then images of what's happening at that location come into your head. But that's still not the factor that makes the film rock. It's the examination of what it does to a man to have that ability developed in him.

Kingsley's character has been trained to "remote-view" serial killers, which means letting his mind receive images of actual events as they happen and then identifying the location on a map, an inverse version of the technique. (If you think that sounds batty, then bear in mind that the CIA and the KGB attempted to use remote viewing to spy on secret locations, presumably when they weren't busy staring at goats.) And that's the key. The poor bugger is actually set on receive all the time. Murders have to come to him, because he can't predict them. He's always getting these nightmarish images intruding in his mind. And it really screws him up.

Any other movie (or book) might have been satisfied that it had a plot with a lot of twists – serial killers being killed by a serial killer with a freaky paranormal skill. (There's one more twist after that, and it's neatly signposted, although I only picked it up on the third viewing.) But SUSPECT ZERO ratchets it up by getting detailed and personal: what must it be like to be able to remote-view awful things and not be able to stop it? The answer ties into Eckhart's character's problems and sets up the ending, which isn't a happy one. It's not a twist, not some revelation injected at the end: it's a perfectly logical progression from the moment you realise what Kingsley is doing, that extra and very obvious question that needs asking, that awkward question. Train a man to do something like that, and you've condemned him to a waking hell. And that won't end well.

Take a look at this movie and then revisit whatever story you're working on to see if you've taken it as far as you can. It's a good example of pushing things to their logical end.