Monday, May 17, 2010

A cliche of suspense

Cornered by a psychopath who wants to rape and kill her, the heroine fights back fiercely, usually with a weapon. Her efforts are rewarded and the psycho ends up face-down on the floor.

The heroine backs away, unsure whether he's dead or not. At which point he stops playing possum and, having bought himself a breathing space, attacks again.

The most recent example of this I've encountered was in the short story "The Gingerbread Girl" from Stephen King's Just After Sunset. And it's getting annoying. Rather than prolonging the suspense, it just makes me wonder why the heroine doesn't assume he's playing dead and take steps to ensure that he'll be out of commission at least until the cops arrive.

Maybe allowing him to get up and retrieve his butcher knife is playing fair, but it certainly isn't playing smart.

If the heroine is very ethical and just can't bring herself to kill the man who was trying to rape and murder her, she could at least try to render him unconscious or unable to chase her. In the King story, the heroine was in the psycho's kitchen. After he went down, playing dead, she pulled open a drawer to see if there were any knives inside but there weren't.

Well, come on. It's a kitchen. Pull out the drawers themselves. Drop the toaster on him. Don't get me started on what I'd do with the contents of the fridge. She had a momentary advantage, wasted it and ended up worse off.

Until the heroine sees a flatline ECG she shouldn't turn her back. I wonder if it's always a heroine, by the way. Does this ever happen to the hero? I don't read a lot of suspense, so is there anyone out there who knows?


writtenwyrdd said...

I hate fatal stupidity, a la the idiotic (usually blonde for some reason) heroine going into the dark basement alone only to be killed by horriffic bad guy/monster. Any version of that just ticks me off.

The thing about people not checking to see if the bad guy is out for the count is that it really can happen when a person isn't used to violence. However, I have to say that most people want to ensure they are safe and will probably bash the bad guy on the noggin before tying him up.

Anyhow, despite the real world likelihood of someone not checking the bad guy out before turning their back--it doesn't ever really fly in fiction.

Marianne Arkins said...

I absolutely agree... that drives me crazy when I see it! At the very least a good thump on the noggin and some duct tape around the arms and legs...

Nice post!

mlouisalocke said...

I think that one of the reasons I enjoyed the Girl with the Tattooed Dragon (I don't usually like this level of brutality) is that it is the male protagonist who stupidly goes into the empty house of the killer-and the young woman who saves him. As usual, cliche's can work if there is a sufficient twist.

Nicole said...

I KNOW. And it happens all the time in movies to. Usually ends up with me and my father yelling at the movie out of sheer frustration.

"He's down! Kick him! Stab him! Grab the gun and shoot him! WHAT ARE YOU DOING? TAKE HIM OUT!"

But noooo...

Anonymous said...

See? That's what you get for reading Stephen King.

Aim a little higher next time.


Randall said...

This, of course, runs up against the Scream dilemma: it's all very well to recognize the cliches of horror stories, but unless you realize you're in a horror story they don't do you any good.

JH said...

Things like this seem like it could work if the author emphasizes the moral and emotional shock a person who hasn't been desensitized to violence is likely to feel if they think they have killed or seriously wounded someone (even a person they have every reason to hate and fear), the debilitating effects on judgment of the adrenaline rush (which is, admittedly, likely to cause the heroine to run from or keep hitting the attacker), etc.

Rather than "Gawrsh, is he d-d-dead?" *finds a stick to poke with*

What's interesting is that when considering your gender counter-example I can form a mental picture of, at least, movies using this stock situation, but only in the context of comedy.

JH said...

What's interesting is that when considering your gender counter-example I can form a mental picture of, at least, movies using this stock situation, but only in the context of comedy.

To clarify, I have an impression of the situation you describe, with the genders reversed, in fiction: a man debilitates an attacker and sort of hovers around, unsure if it's alive or dead, and then it attacks again. The "mental context" for this image is comedy. Haha, the monster surprised you because you didn't finish it off, you bumbler!

Rarely is a female character considered a bumbler for not being brutally effective in using violence.

Diandra said...

Ooooh yeah, I like that. I think it belongs in the category of "idiot in the attic" - where you sit and think, "How stupid can they be???"

(Like, there's no electricity and the next neighbor is living 500m away or has gone on vacation, and there's a murderer on the run and the heroine hears strange noises coming from the attic, therefore OF COURSE she grabs a candle and goes upstairs to check, without any kind of weapon...)

Hazardgal said...

This scenario is always annoying unless of course his zombie self pops up to seek revenge. That might interest me.

Marian said...

Writtenwyrdd - That's true. People who aren't used to violence may not react with as much caution/aggression as they should.

If a story explained that, made it seem realistic and showed the protagonist learning from his or her mistakes, I could buy that.

Marianne - make that thump good enough, and the duct tape will be used to position his arms and legs in his new wheelchair.

mlouisalocke - I keep intending to read that series!

Nicole - I read about a guy who was attacked by a criminal and who used a fire extinguisher against him. The criminal fell down, covered with foam, and the guy just kept spraying him until the extinguisher was empty.

At that point the criminal got to his feet again and beat the guy up.

Greg - It happened in a Dean Koontz novel as well. I think that was Whispers.

Then again, Koontz has been called the poor man's King...

Marian said...

JH - The other thing I disliked about the Stephen King story was that the heroine thought the villain was playing dead, and therefore told him to stay away from her or she would kill him.

This is after she knew he was insane as well as homicidal, after she had first-hand evidence that he had tortured and murdered at least one woman.

And she thought that telling him "Stay away from me" would have any effect?

As for "I'll kill you", that only works on very small children or people who have good reason to believe that there's teeth behind the threat.

That's also a good point about men being expected to use sufficient aggression. Whereas women aren't, so when they allow the perp to get up again, it's an accepted trope of the genre.

Diandra - It's weird how none of those heroines have guard dogs or weapons. Seriously, you only investigate the attic with your Doberman and your handgun.

And the Doberman precedes you.

Hazardgal - I could get behind the zombie idea. :)

Octavia said...

I'm afraid this fatal stupidity seems to be common in horror/thrillers (both books and movies). I almost hope for it these days in order for the bad guy to cull the weak and stupid. I imagine that this isn't the reaction a writer or editor hopes for... they seem to be under the impression it builds suspence, whereas it's just become a rather dull cliche.

One thing's for sure: if I ever end up in the place of one of these poor gormless twits, I'm not stopping until the head is off.

JH said...

Paranormal Activity was a very creepy and effective horror movie except that I slowly began to start rooting for the demon just because viscerally hated the male lead's insufferable stupidity and arrogance. IMO it had a happy ending.

Marian said...

"I slowly began to start rooting for the demon just because viscerally hated the male lead's insufferable stupidity and arrogance."

That always happens to me if a writer makes the protagonists perfect to the point of being cloying.