The Second Rung of the Character’s Growth Ladder

10. Reconciliation
9.   Separation
8.   Denial
7.   Disruption
6.   The reversible step into the Danger zone
5.   The first irreversible step into the Risk zone
4.   The opportunity
3.   The plan
2.   Temptation
1.   Motivation

What does first irretrievable step mean for other characters—if they were to have their own ladders?

In terms of the protagonist, there are several interpretations.  Here is one.

In the standard mystery, where the protagonist is a detective, then this rung of the ladder would represent that action taken that exposes the protagonist’s examination of the events to the antagonist.  Here, the canon of mystery writing presents a very schematic approach to the application of the fifth rung to this other character, but this application hardly fits all writing genres.  For them, I consider:

In terms of minor characters (being neither the protagonist nor the antagonist), I will generalize how this rung is employed.

The fifth rung is about the possibility of others discovering the intentions of the character.  Abstractly, it could mean an action taken by the character that has a strong connection that can be traced back to the character.  In a family-drama, it could be the filing of divorce papers by a spouse.  This presumes that the motivation for divorce was hidden (and it may well remain that way).  It follows that having done this, the next rung is divorce.

“A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner

Opening Hook Paragraph:

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Here the author names his protagonist, or main character, who has just died.  Then he throws out a hook to arouse our curiosity about her.  We, too, now want a glimpse inside Miss Emily’s house.  And we get that glimpse—and never forget what we see.

The Actual Killing, the sixth rung of The Murderer’s Ladder

10. The necessity for eliminating the little overlooked clues and loose threads
9.   The false suspect
8.   The cover up
7.   The flight
6.   The actual killing
5.   The first irretrievable step
4.   The opportunity
3.   The plan
2.   Temptation
1.   Motivation

What is the actual killing?

The antagonist is fully acting on the plan to completion.

This may be one of the entry points for the protagonist as witness, secondary victim, or investigator.

Here, the antagonist either moves on in obscurity through successful planning, or meets with unforeseen obstacles through which they must play it by ear, or become ensnared in their obvious fulfillment of their motivation.

If the protagonist is involved, then the antagonist may be forced to improvise.  The antagonist’s improvisations to ill-adjust the plan will undoubtedly include obscured, but personal characteristics that conflict with the details revealed in the crime’s commission.

The actual killing contains the basic elements of who, what, where, when, and why.

The who: The antagonist and the victim.

The what: Murder.

The where: Here.

The when: Now.

The why: The plan’s promise of relief.

All that is needed is for the antagonist to move away from the scene (fly, escape).

The antagonist is under the greatest stress of anticipation of discovery or capture.  Thus, at the elemental emotional level it engages either anger or fear.

“Boy Crazy,” by John De Meyer

False Hooks in opening paragraphs:

Walter Fenton squinted sleepily as the morning sun flooded through his bedroom window. He stretched up to pull the shade down. Then his mouth fell open in astonishment, What he saw out on the lake he could hardly believe. He shook his wife Emily.

My Mentor, Howard Pease goes on to explain what he means by False Hook:

Our protagonist is Walter Fenton. The setting is a house near a lake, and the time is an early morning of bright sunlight. Next comes the hook, questionable on two counts. First, the statement His mouth fell open is so trite, so old-hat, that it should never be used today. Second, the sentence “What he saw out on the lake he could hardly believe” shows the author hiding information in a desperate effort to rouse interest. Instead, it is likely to rouse irritation. Such a hook is like a child’s excited announcement, “I’ve got a secret!” after which he teases you until you beg him to tell. The revelation is always a disappointment, because by then your expectations are too high.

The Case of the Missing Motive

10. The necessity for eliminating the little overlooked clues and loose threads
9.   The false suspect
8.   The cover up
7.   The flight
6.   The actual killing
5.   The first irretrievable step
4.   The opportunity
3.   The plan
2.   Temptation
1.

What is the murderer’s ladder without motive?  Every detective moves forward on the motive of the criminal, just as they count off their suspicions in that the suspect had the motive, means, and opportunity (fled the scene, resisted arrest, etc.).

This could be said to be the psychotic murderer’s ladder.

As the psychotic murderer has no personal stake in the murder, it must come from another source (a syndicate, or well placed or wealthy individual putting out a contract on the victim; possibly from the victim).  It might be argued that the contract price is the motivation for the murderer—but, no.  The contract’s price is simple business decision.  If a contract murderer did it for free, then there would be a motive for the murderer to deviate from business practices.

There is another perspective that comes from Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith.  There two murders are performed by swapping victims between the two murderers so that motives are lost, means are lost, and opportunities are lost when unassailable, simple alibis are provided.

 

10th Step On The Character’s Ladder

I’ve been researching “compunction” for characters in my work while working on “The Striker” an installment of “X-Division Assignments” an espionage action story set in late 60s San Francisco.
 
It also bears upon many published news stories for the past two years.
 
The following comes from my last outline step:
 
10. Character tested for veracity of compunction
 
10.1. and Character reveals a wide ranging emotional display
10.1.1. including positive emotions, such as happiness and surprise
10.1.1.1. with leakage of genuine feelings from incomplete deception (feel embarrassed, feel genuine happiness, and let a smile slip)
10.1.1.1.1. as in false remorse
 
10.1.2. with deceptive or falsified emotions overcompensated in their emotional performance
10.1.2.1. as in false remorse
 
10.1.3. with a large number of speech hesitations that cued deceptive apology
10.1.3.1. as in false remorse
 
10.2. and reveals narrow range of emotional display
10.2.1. for remorse (showing sorrow)
include a detailed account of the offense
10.2.1.1. responsibility (showing connection)
acknowledgment of the hurt or damage done
10.2.1.1.1. reparation (showing care)
restitution, compensation or token gesture in line with the damage that one has caused
10.2.1.1.1.1. resolution (showing closure)
expression of a credible commitment to change

The Tenth Rung of the Character’s Growth Ladder

10. Reconciliation
9.   Separation
8.   Denial
7.   Disruption
6.   The reversible step into the Danger zone
5.   The first irreversible step into the Risk zone
4.   The opportunity

3.   The plan
2.   Temptation
1.   Motivation

What does first irretrievable step mean for other characters—if they were to have their own ladders?

In terms of the protagonist, there are several interpretations.  Here is one.

In the standard mystery, where the protagonist is a detective, then this rung of the ladder would represent that action taken that exposes the protagonist’s examination of the events to the antagonist.  Here, the canon of mystery writing presents a very schematic approach to the application of the fifth rung to this other character, but this application hardly fits all writing genres.  For them, I consider:

In terms of minor characters (being neither the protagonist nor the antagonist), I will generalize how this rung is employed.

The fifth rung is about the possibility of others discovering the intentions of the character.  Abstractly, it could mean an action taken by the character that has a strong connection that can be traced back to the character.  In a family-drama, it could be the filing of divorce papers by a spouse.  This presumes that the motivation for divorce was hidden (and it may well remain that way).  It follows that having done this, the next rung is divorce.

“The Jet-Propelled Couch,” one of five psychoanalytic case-histories recorded by Robert Lindner, M.D., in his book, The Fifty-Minute Hour.

Opening Paragraph:
 
This case-history, the last in the book, has become a small classic in its field. The chair behind the couch is not the stationary object it seems. I have traveled all over the world on it, and back and forth in time. Without moving from my seat, I have met important personages and witnessed great events. But it remained for Kirk Allen to take me out of this world when he transformed the couch in my consulting room into a space ship that roved the galaxies.
 
(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) Our protagonist is Kirk Allen, and his case-history is being told from his doctor’s viewpoint. The “I” person is the observer who looks at and interprets the main character’s words and actions. This gives room for plenty of dialogue, always popular with readers. It is the method used in the interview type of article. Few writers, however—even professionals—give us so engaging a first paragraph as this one by Dr. Lindner.

“The Nephew,” by James Purdy

(Bad) Opening Paragraph:

All the flags were out in front of the houses and stores in Rainbow Center on Memorial Day, as Boyd Mason drove his Buick back from a real-estate trip to Kentucky, and parked on the east corner of Peninsula Drive and Crest Ridge Road, at the side of his sister Alma’s house, where he had lived since his wife’s death twenty years before.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) This one-sentence paragraph contains more than a dozen facts, at least half of them not important enough to be included so soon. When you overload a first sentence or paragraph with so much information, your reader is apt to come up so wobbly and bewildered that you lose him. Therefore, prune your opening paragraph until only a few important facts are given.

Case of the Missing False Suspect

10. The necessity for eliminating the little overlooked clues and loose threads
9.  
8.   The cover up
7.   The flight
6.   The actual killing
5.   The first irretrievable step
4.   The opportunity
3.   The plan
2.   Temptation
1.   Motive

The False Suspect is more a convention of taste and times when it appeared.  A False Suspect is useful, but could also be an unnecessary plot elaboration.

The type of murderer that climbs past this rung in the ladder probably wouldn’t miss it.  However, an insecure murderer might be at a loss.

 

The Ninth Rung of the Character’s Growth Ladder

10. Reconciliation
9.   Separation
8.   Denial
7.   Disruption
6.   The reversible step into the Danger zone
5.   The first irreversible step into the Risk zone
4.   The opportunity
3.   The plan
2.   Temptation
1.   Motivation

What does first irretrievable step mean for other characters—if they were to have their own ladders?

In terms of the protagonist, there are several interpretations.  Here is one.

In the standard mystery, where the protagonist is a detective, then this rung of the ladder would represent that action taken that exposes the protagonist’s examination of the events to the antagonist.  Here, the canon of mystery writing presents a very schematic approach to the application of the fifth rung to this other character, but this application hardly fits all writing genres.  For them, I consider:

In terms of minor characters (being neither the protagonist nor the antagonist), I will generalize how this rung is employed.

The fifth rung is about the possibility of others discovering the intentions of the character.  Abstractly, it could mean an action taken by the character that has a strong connection that can be traced back to the character.  In a family-drama, it could be the filing of divorce papers by a spouse.  This presumes that the motivation for divorce was hidden (and it may well remain that way).  It follows that having done this, the next rung is divorce.

“The Late Love of Dorrie Hayes,” by Mary Jane Rolfs

Opening Paragraph:

Dorrie Hayes had never had so much happiness that she could take any for granted.  She was the kind of girl who had endured many of the small aggravations of life and some of the big ones.  As an adolescent, she had been fat with an unreliable complexion and crooked teeth.  When time and diligence had corrected these misfortunes, she started growing tall at an alarming rate and her hair was completely unmanageable.  There were a few years of relative calm and then it started all over again.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) This first paragraph is author’s statement.  Miss Rolfs tells us a few selected facts about her protagonist.  We are beginning to know a bit about the outer girl and the inner girl, her looks and her worries.  Our sympathy is roused.  Dorrie’s predicament makes us recall the years when we, too, were dissatisfied with our appearance, those years before we finally decided upon acceptance.  Most readers will want to know more about Dorrie and how she solved her problem.

The Seventh Rung of the Character’s Growth Ladder

10. Reconciliation
9.   Separation
8.   Denial
7.   Disruption
6.   The reversible step into the Danger zone
5.   The first irreversible step into the Risk zone
4.   The opportunity
3.   The plan
2.   Temptation
1.   Motivation

What does first irretrievable step mean for other characters—if they were to have their own ladders?

In terms of the protagonist, there are several interpretations.  Here is one.

In the standard mystery, where the protagonist is a detective, then this rung of the ladder would represent that action taken that exposes the protagonist’s examination of the events to the antagonist.  Here, the canon of mystery writing presents a very schematic approach to the application of the fifth rung to this other character, but this application hardly fits all writing genres.  For them, I consider:

In terms of minor characters (being neither the protagonist nor the antagonist), I will generalize how this rung is employed.

The fifth rung is about the possibility of others discovering the intentions of the character.  Abstractly, it could mean an action taken by the character that has a strong connection that can be traced back to the character.  In a family-drama, it could be the filing of divorce papers by a spouse.  This presumes that the motivation for divorce was hidden (and it may well remain that way).  It follows that having done this, the next rung is divorce.

“A String of Beads,” by Somerset Maugham

Plunge Opening:

“What a bit of luck I’m placed next to you,” said Laura as we sat down to dinner.
“For me,” I replied politely.

“That remains to be seen.  I particularly wanted to have the chance of talking to you.  I’ve got a story to tell you.”

At this my heart sank a little.  “I’d sooner you talked about yourself,” I answered.  “Or even about me.”

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) We learn from this that we are probably beginning a first-person, observer’s story about someone we have not yet met.  And we also get the impression that if Laura is to tell the story, her interpretation will be different from the observer’s, the “I” person, Mr. Maugham himself.  Except for setting—a dinner party—we get nothing else.
Maugham’s first goal in writing was clarity, and indeed this plunge opening is instantly understood by a reader.

“The Ambassadors,” by Henry James

Opening paragraph:

Strether called, his second morning in Paris, on the bankers, in the Rue Scribe, to whom his letter of credit was addressed, and he made this visit attended by Waymarsh, in whose company he had crossed from London two days before.

As this comes from chapter five’s opening paragraph and lacks a hook, I included it as an example of a long sentence.  It is exposition, but it puts a lot of water over the dam to then move into the story line.

The First Rung of the Character’s Growth Ladder

10. Reconciliation
9.   Separation
8.   Denial
7.   Disruption
6.   The reversible step into the Danger zone
5.   The first irreversible step into the Risk zone
4.   The opportunity
3.   The plan
2.   Temptation
1.   Motivation

What does the motivation step mean for other characters—if they were to have their own ladders?

If you have arrived here from the Murderer’s Ladder, then motivation could easily be anticipated as being revenge driven.  However, this does not remove that same possible drive from other characters—especially the murderer’s henchmen.

Alternatively, motivation could be inspired out of compassion … from the murderer, the murderer’s henchmen, the murdered, the investigator, others, or all.  That is to say that motivation is individual and could be as similar or as different as those individuals.  None have been put to the test of their motivation, that remains at the next step of Temptation.

As a general observation, however, most motivations can be examined and unwound to simpler motivations that arrived early in the character’s life.

“A Jury of Her Peers,” by Susan Glaspell

Opening Paragraph:

When Martha Hale opened the storm door and got a cut of the north wind, she ran back for her big woolen scarf. As she hurriedly wound that round her head, her eye made a scandalized sweep of her kitchen. It was no ordinary thing that called her away—it was probably further from ordinary than anything that had ever happened in Dickson County. But what her eye took in was that her kitchen was in no shape for leaving: her bread all ready for mixing, half the flour sifted and half unsifted.

According to my Mentor, Howard Pease, this satisfies 3 requirements:

1. Name your protagonist, your main character.

2. Mention setting, so the reader will immediately know the story’s background: a farm, a city street, a boardinghouse, a hotel, a plane. The time element is often included as an important part of the setting—the time of year, the time of day.

3. Throw out a small hook to catch the reader’s interest.

“He Turned Disaster into Triumph,” by Martin Abramson

Opening Paragraph:

When the phone rang, Jennie Hanners walked across the living room of her home in suburban Long Island, N.Y., lifted the receiver and listened in stunned silence as a gruff voice told her that her husband, a respected high-school teacher, had been arrested and charged with the crime of fraudulently procuring narcotic drugs.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) This is the first sentence of the opening paragraph. Notice again how an author, even when writing non-fiction, focuses upon a moment in time, with a character in action and a hook.

Motivation, the first rung of The Murderer’s Ladder

10. The necessity for eliminating the little overlooked clues and loose threads
9.   The false suspect
8.   The cover up
7.   The flight
6.   The actual killing
5.   The first irretrievable step
4.   The opportunity
3.   The plan
2.   Temptation
1.   Motivation

What is motivation?

Emotional energy to apply toward fulfilling needs.

Motivation contains the elements of who, what, where, when, and why.

Who: The antagonist—or any character.

What: Unfulfilled need.

Where: Here.

When: Now.

Why: Pain is always near.

What is needed next is for the antagonist’s motivation to be engaged through the observation of social interaction that fulfills needs and supplies a model of movement.

For my purposes in writing espionage fiction, the CIA has already done my work for me in a clever report called The Psychology of Treason.

Defector’s Motivation

  • Motivation comes from outside and personal character traits are magnified by the crisis of despair.

  • Defection is seldom ideology based, and then only in the form of nationalism or religion.

  • Benefit comes from opportunity to counterattack, to get even, to get vengeance and justification.

  • Principal motivation can be found in problem areas: marital, mistress, wrong sexual preference, drinking, gambling, money, career.

  • Subordinate motivation described as “having been passed over,” disregarded, humiliated, about to be arrested for a common crime (embezzling), being jilted. Each crisis is measured in terms of appropriate age and experience.

The material above is equally applicable to other antagonist psychologies (returning to murder, or family drama).

The antagonist is under a modest to intense stress of anxiety.  Thus, at the elemental level it engages either fear, anger, or disgust.  However, as a matter of the antagonist (or any character for that matter) coming to becoming filled with motivation, the experience is energizing.

The False Suspect, the ninth rung on The Murderer’s Ladder

10. The necessity for eliminating the little overlooked clues and loose threads
9.   The false suspect
8.   The cover up
7.   The flight
6.   The actual killing
5.   The first irretrievable step
4.   The opportunity
3.   The plan
2.   Temptation
1.   Motivation

What is the False Suspect?

This is a character who fills many essential traits as antagonist, but not all.

In the closing rounds, there are several possible candidates, characters who could be the unknown antagonist.  Investigation, events, or competition reduces that pool.

The false suspect contains the basic elements of who, what, where, when, and why.

The who: Characters showing similarity to the antagonist.

The what: Examining each as suspect.

The where: Here.

The when: Closing the investigation.

The why: Narrow in on the antagonist.

More that may be needed is for the antagonist to argue away the loose threads that connect to the killing.

The antagonist is under a high stress of anticipation of failure.  Thus, at the elemental level it engages either anger or fear.

“The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson

Descriptive Paragraph:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.  The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Here again we have the same three elements closely tied together: the setting, a village square; the time, ten o’clock in the morning; and the subject, a lottery.

Not until you reach the last two words—noon dinner—do you realize that the story is set back in time to the indefinite past.  What kind of lottery you as a reader are about to witness is gradually built up in a matter-of-fact way by implication—hints and suggestions rather than explicit statements—until at last understanding sweeps over you with a rising sense of horror.

(from a collection of opening paragraphs at www.secondroot.com)

“Lust for Life,” by Irving Stone

Plunge Opening Paragraph:

“Monsieur Van Gogh! It’s time to wake up!”

Vincent had been waiting for Ursula’s voice even while he slept, “I was awake, Mademoiselle Ursula,” he called back.

“No, you weren’t,” the girl laughed, “but you are now.” He heard her go down the stairs to the kitchen.

The hallmarks of the opening are present in the naming of the main character, establishment of the setting, and a hook of playful interplay and expectation.

Case of the Missing Opportunity

10. The necessity for eliminating the little overlooked clues and loose threads
9.   The false suspect
8.   The cover up
7.   The flight
6.   The actual killing
5.   The first irretrievable step
4.  
3.   The plan
2.   Temptation
1.   Motive

What is the murderer’s ladder without opportunity?  Every detective moves forward on motive, means, and opportunity being the three supports to a murder.

The first irretrievable step being a leap, without timing or blending is another mark of the amateur murderer.  Or this could be the plunge of a romantic murderer.

 

“Power of Attorney” by Louis Auchincloss

Opening Paragraph:

No one of his law partners or clients, or even friends who considered themselves closest to him, knew the secret of Morris Madison. They saw a tall, thin, tax expert, at the height of his career in his early fifties … They suspected all kinds of lacks in his life, besides the obvious ones of a wife and children, and in the free fashion of a psychiatrically minded era they attributed his reserve and good manners to every kind of frustration and insecurity. But none of them suspected that he had a passion.

(My mentor Howard Pease continutes) Notice that the first sentence—again the author telling—catches our interest. Next comes a brief description of the protagonist, plus his place in life, and his age. Then we learn what his friends think of him. The final sentence, like the first, is a hook to hold our interest and lure us into reading the next paragraph. In this second paragraph, when the action begins, author’s statement shifts to the viewpoint located in the consciousness of the protagonist; and this Jamesian viewpoint continues throughout the story.

“Catbird Seat,” by James Thurber

Opening paragraphs:

Mr. Martin bought the pack of Camels on Monday night in the most crowded cigar store on Broadway. It was theatre time and seven or eight men were buying cigarettes. The clerk didn’t even glance at Mr. Martin, who put the pack in his overcoat pocket

and went out. If any of the staff at F. and S. had seen him buy cigarettes, they would have been astonished, for it was generally known that Mr. Martin did not smoke, and never had. No one saw
him.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) In analyzing this paragraph we note that the author is baldly stating what he wishes us to know.

First, by naming the protagonist Mr. Martin (and calling
him Mr. Martin throughout the story) we are nudged a short
distance away from him.

Second, the time and place are given at once, with the
noun Broadway a more subtle way of naming the city. Times
Square would have given us the same idea.

Third, there is certainly a hook that attracts our attention.

Why did Mr. Martin buy those cigarettes, mentioned by the
author four times in this short paragraph? And the last
sentence, No one saw him, further arouses our interest and
rightly leads us to expect to expect that these cigarettes will play an important part in the story.

“A Cold Potato,” by Peter De Vries

Dialog:

Sitting in a lawn chair tinkering with a broken bed lamp, Tom Bristol listened with half an ear to an account his wife, Alice, was giving of some neighbors with whom they’d recently become acquainted.  “Guess what the Twinings do,” she said.  She was sitting across a parasol table from him.  “When Bob is in the house, say, and Julia’s back in that studio barn where she does her clay modeling, they write each other notes.  And guess how they get them to one another.”  She paused, waiting for his response, but he was engrossed in his puttering.  He chewed his tongue and pulled faces as he worked.  “Do you know what they do?” Alice asked.  Tom grunted enquiringly, poking an electric cord through the back of the lamp base.  “They give them to Clementine—that cocker they have, you know—and Clementine delivers them.  And waits for answers!”  Alice laughed aloud.  “Isn’t that darling?”

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Now, there is nothing wrong with this paragraphing—or, rather, lack of paragraphing—if you are quick at getting the idea that it is Alice who is doing all the talking.  However, let’s see what happens when we use the Henry James method.

Sitting in a lawn chair tinkering with a broken bed lamp, Tom Bristol listened with half an ear to an account his wife, Alice, was giving of some neighbors with whom they’d recently become acquainted.

“Guess what the Twinings do,” she said.  She was sitting across a parasol table from him.  “When Bob is in the house, say, and Julia’s back in that studio barn where she does her clay modeling, they write each other notes.  And guess how they get them to one another.”  She paused, waiting for his response.

But he was engrossed in his puttering.  He chewed his tongue and pulled faces as he worked.

“Do you know what they do?” Alice asked.

Tom grunted enquiringly, poking an electric cord through the back of the lamp base.

“They give them to Clementine—that cocker they have, you know—and Clementine delivers them.  And waits for answers!” Alice laughed aloud.  “Isn’t that darling?”

In using this method of paragraphing dialogue and using it consistently, the reader soon learns to know when one character stops talking and/or acting, and when another character begins.  From the reader’s viewpoint, this is a distinct gain.

“The Feminine Mystique,” by Betty Frieden

Opening Paragraph:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?”

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) Notice how the author mentions an unspoken problem, then gets down to specifics. The protagonist is the young married woman who lives with her husband and children on an income evidently not too small. The setting is any suburb. The hook is the question she is afraid to ask even of herself. Surely thousands of feminine readers will not only be caught on the author’s hook, they will also identify themselves at once with the protagonist, whose fixed activities are their own.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s “Murderer’s Ladder”

This discussion comes from the work Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer, by Francis L. Fugate and Roberta B. Fugate, which describes the writing strategy of Erle Stanley Gardner through his novel writing phase of his long writing career.

The premise is that in writing the story from the protagonist’s point of view, the antagonist’s driving force is largely underdeveloped or developed just enough to only serve the author’s needs to propel the plot.  The unstated problem is that this can lead to complexity and elaboration that does not serve the plot or the reading.

Where does complexity and elaboration come into this, and why is it a problem?  These characteristics, which in any novel may be a qualities to hope for, often arrive unplanned in revisions and re-writes where clues and time-lines are backfilled in clumsily.  The appearance of a forced ending is also evidence of this clumsiness.

How did Gardner solve this for himself?  He codified antagonist character development programmatically in The Murderer’s Ladder.  Writers should recognize this as a back-story for the villain.  There are ten rungs on his ladder, the bottom-most is motivation.  At some point in the development of the antagonist’s side of the story, they will climb this ladder rung by rung until they reach the commission of an act that cannot be undone, and would reveal the crime in progress.  It is the point of no return.  The villain is committed even if the crime has not been fully performed.  Rather than describing the rungs fully (which I will do in succeeding posts), the following is the architecture where the entry point is at the bottom, with rung 1:

10. The necessity for eliminating the little overlooked clues and loose threads
9.   The false suspect
8.   The cover up
7.   The flight
6.   The actual killing
5.   The first irretrievable step
4.   The opportunity
3.   The plan
2.   Temptation
1.   Motivation

For the writer who is seeing this for the first time: although you are preparing a rough story out of these ten rungs, your own novel may enter anywhere—probably at step six, or soon before or after.

Although what I have offered is generally the substance of the topic, The Murderer’s Ladder, that is posted across the web, for me it is insufficient.  That said, I will embark upon posting an article for each rung to examine the intent of these ten key words and key phrases.

“The Chase and Capture of Adolf Eichmann,” by Bela von Block

Opening Paragraphs:

The tall, gaunt man with protruding ears and a receding hairline got off the bus and started to walk along the murky Buenos Aires street. Outwardly he was relaxed, just another working man after a hard day. Inwardly he was tense, watchful—as he had been, day and night, for 15 years.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) With the use of the three fundamentals the author catches our attention by beginning this article at a moment in time just before the climax. First, a character is presented in action in a definite setting; then comes the hook. Though this reads like fiction, it is fact. Notice that the protagonist’s name is not given. There are two reasons for this. His name is given in the title. He is also now living under an assumed name, perhaps one of many that he has used since Hitler’s Germany crashed under the onslaught of the Allied Forces. He is a man hiding from retribution.

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” by Ernest Hemingway

Opening Hook Paragraph:

It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) This introductory paragraph, like Faulkner’s, consists of one sentence only.  While Faulkner’s is made up of fifty-seven words, Hemingway’s is twenty-four.  Yet note the carefully selected information in Hemingway’s sentence.  He does not overload it with facts.  Indeed, he suggests more than he states.  He deliberately chooses to limit himself by using the objective viewpoint. (More about this in the next chapter.) The curtain has gone up on his drama.  Like a theater audience we see the characters, watch their actions and hear what they say.  The author may suggest and give hints, but there is no delving into the mind of anyone, no effort made here to have us identify ourselves with anyone.

This one-sentence paragraph gives us the time of day, and the characters are mentioned, though they remain unnamed and unnumbered.  The word tent tells us that this is an outdoor story, and the double green fly and dining tent suggest wealth.  Knowing Hemingway and his fondness for big game hunts, we suspect that these people are on a safari.  Then comes the hook: they are pretending that nothing has happened.

The Flight, the seventh rung of The Murderer’s Ladder

10. The necessity for eliminating the little overlooked clues and loose threads
9.   The false suspect
8.   The cover up
7.   The flight
6.   The actual killing
5.   The first irretrievable step
4.   The opportunity
3.   The plan
2.   Temptation
1.   Motivation

What is the flight?

For the antagonist, flight (not necessarily escape) can vary from on-the-run if they become a suspect—to psychological distancing if the antagonist remains, but feigns innocence.

If all goes well, this is part of the antagonist’s plan that follows the commission of the crime.

If the protagonist is involved, then the antagonist may be forced to improvise.  The antagonist’s improvisations to cover up the crime and its association to them will undoubtedly include personal characteristics that conflict with the details offered in the cover up.

The flight contains the basic elements of who, what, where, when, and why.

The who: The antagonist and other characters.

The what: Distancing.

The where: Here or away.

The when: Following the killing.

The why: The antagonist’s apparent remoteness as alibi.

More that may be needed is for the antagonist to control the evidence.

The antagonist is under a high stress of near failure.  Thus, at the elemental level it engages fear.